When it comes to humans being mauled, Montanans have a strict policy: The bear is always right. When Missoulian Ani Haas went on NBC's "Today" show after she'd been attacked by a black bear last summer during a trail run, she displayed relentless grace and manners. She never spoke ill of her attacker; she just said "thank you" a lot and talked about how lucky she was that she hadn't been seriously injured. Try as she might, no big-city reporter is going to get a Montanan to talk smack about a mama bear. Everyone agrees: The woods belong to the animals, and if we get swiped, well, it's a small price to pay for living in paradise. Remember this past winter when that bear nested in Judy Wing's cabin on Georgetown Lake? He tore up her designer pillows! According to Wing, "Everybody said, 'You have to leave the bear alone. You don't want to hurt the bear. Well, isn't that cute?'" In the end, the bear got to stay in Wing's crawlspace. When I break into somebody's house and try to live there, it's a misdemeanor, at least.
This reverence extends to families of deer lilting through your neighborhood at night, regal bald eagles, soaring osprey, elk standing in snow so deep and far away on the mountainside that they look like cows—I could go on and on.
Montanans love eating animals as much as they love defending the animals' right to be themselves—and it's not a contradiction. Hunters I've talked to get a glossy, faraway look in their eyes while describing the kill. My friend Carl Corder once told me, "There's something spiritual about catching trout. Something predestined. The moment the fish rises and the tug on the rod letting you know another life exists ... that's Gaia." In his essay "The Heart Beneath the Heart," Rick Bass writes about spending most of his winters in the woods hunting deer, saying the hunter attains "an awareness, an addictive alertness, a super-heightened sensitivity that approaches and then becomes a kind of spirituality."
I think the electric feeling they're describing must have something to do with participating in an ecosystem that many of us are cut off from most of the time. The animals had a chance to live and breathe on their own terms—until Rick or Carl took them out with human, predatory cunning. It feels very much as nature intended. When Montanans talk about their God-given dominion over beasts, when they buy the hilarious "People Eating Tasty Animals" shirts at the Missoula airport for their relatives, I can only assume that this is the sort of story they're invoking.
But what about the ground beef that comes in a Cheesy Gordita Crunch at the Taco Bell drive-through on East Broadway at 2 a.m.? I'm afraid that's a horse of a different color. (I know, I'm so funny. Please, stay with me.) That cow was not standing on any snow-covered mountain. Likely, it was raised on a feedlot, along with millions of other cows. They're not eating grass, as they'd prefer, because corn is highly subsidized and cheaper to grow. It makes the cows sick and it makes the humans who eat the cows sick, but it makes companies like Monsanto ungodly wealthy.
Ask a farmer if he likes growing nothing but corn that's been so manipulated you can't even eat it off the stalk without first processing it down to nothing. Ask the Mexican laborers who come over to perform repetitive, monotonous tasks like searing off the top halves of chicks' beaks all day every day. For that matter, ask a baby chick if she likes having her beak seared off. Nobody likes this stuff; it's just the way it is.
There's just so much invested in you finding that Cheesy Gordita Crunch delicious. Agriculture, food production and food distribution systems are designed to keep the money filtering up to the richest people. There are men in lab coats combining chemicals in beakers that activate your brain in just such a way that you will be forced to say to people like me in casual conversation, "I could never give up cheese." (The food is addicting, is what I'm saying.) There are financial incentives for powerful institutions to keep us sick, but not dying. When we spend billions of dollars to grow and process meat, the environment loses but somebody wins. If you spend all your time with writers, artists and environmental science majors, you might start to think that money is scarce all over, but drop in on a pharmaceutical conference sometime: They've got more money than they know what to do with; they're giving away iPads like they're napkins.
Science is starting to make the connection that our most common diseases—heart disease and diabetes, sure, but also cancer, multiple sclerosis, ADD, Alzheimer's, osteoporosis and arthritis—might not just be an inevitable byproduct of genetic determinism, that, in fact, these diseases have more than a little to do with our diets. My mind always comes back to this chilling image from the AMC show "Breaking Bad." The camera zooms in on a $500 check the hero has just handed over for his chemotherapy—money he earned by making and selling meth. It reminds me of how the world really works, how everything is connected and how we're doomed.
Where I'm calling from
Adopting a plant-based diet has been a long time coming for me. I'd been a pescatariana vegetarian who eats fish—for about 10 years, for a lot of reasons: I love animals, I like being different and I believe it's healthier. When people asked me why it was okay to eat fish but not other animals, I'd be cute and say, "Fish are stupid," or, "Look, I'm doing my part." Eating fish makes you a lot more flexible, and nobody wants to be a fussy eater or a burden.
Abstaining from all meat is actually fairly easy, it turns out—but both meat and dairy products? Watch in horror as your food choices shrink before your eyes. So I always filed going all the way as a nice idea that could never work, like socialism or unconditional love.
But then I got sober, which tends to open up a lot of free time. I got more into yoga and meditation, and the question kept sprouting. A few months ago, I had a dream that I lived on a farm with laying hens and thought, "How nice to eat fresh farmed eggs. This is nice." The eggs hatched inside a crate, but they weren't baby chicks; they were rats. The rats started multiplying and crawling around on top of one another until they filled up the crate and suffocated.
Too much fish, cheese and eggs had me feeling sluggish and blue. One night, while meditating, I felt a contradiction between the mucus lining my intestinal walls from so much dairy and my own divine purpose. I was filled with the idea that there's no distinction between what's bad for the earth and the other animals and what's bad for our bodies, because we're all one beating heart. In that moment, I felt that glazed ham and Pop Tarts weren't just unhealthy but, honestly, evil. Now that some time has passed, I don't know if it's as simple as all that, but that moment in lotus got the ball rolling.
At Christmastime, I ate cakes and cookies and I even had some pork at my Great Aunt Bette's house—dude, she's 92 and she put the plate right in front of me; what would you have done? but I couldn't shake the idea that our food choices are wicked and our earthly realm is full of sin. Then I saw a video clip of Ellen DeGeneres talking about her conversion to veganism. She said that she could no longer reconcile her love of animals with the practice of eating them. She said she watched a film called Earthlings (you can see it on YouTube) that takes you through factory farming practices, the fur industry and other forms of animal exploitation via a barrage of unrelenting images—and that was it for Ellen! Now, I'm not saying that I do everything Ellen tells me to do, but I mean. If I went on her show and she asked me to dance, I'd dance.
I feel like God came down and made me sit through three-quarters of Earthlings, and then I cut a deal: I said, "If you let me stop watching this movie, I promise I'll never eat fish or dairy again." After that, I think a fairy went inside my brain and flipped a switch that made it all incredibly easy. Angels, gremlins, a seizure—whatever you want to call it—burned away the parts of my brain that loved tuna melts and worried about what people would think of me. It was like what happened to me six months ago, when I cast a spell asking to be happy and the cosmos came along and took away my drug and alcohol addictions. But whatever. I cast spells and worship the moon. Let's move on.
When you first get into plant-based eating, it's like joining a new church. I spent hours combing through recipes and studying restaurant ingredients. Burger King fries are animal-product free, but did you know that McDonald's fries aren't even vegetarian? They're covered in meat powder. As a full-grown woman, I used to buy happy meals without meat and make little french fry cheese sandwiches. It was a withered attempt to stay forever young, I guess. To find out that McDonald's fries come with meat powder was like learning about the Holocaust.
It's easy to overlook the number of commercial foods that contain animal products—until you try to do without them. It's as though I woke up one morning and decided to give up buttons or left turns. There will be nothing for me to wait in line for at Big Dipper this summer. The point is that eating a plant-based diet can be socially alienating. Not long ago, I went to an early morning press screening for a dreary foreign film. The PR lady tried to soften the blow by giving me and all the other reviewers an old-fashioned box of buttered popcorn. And I'm the asshole that has to say "no, thanks" every time. She frowned. My new lifestyle makes people frown.
Lately, I've been staying in Waterford, a suburban part of Michigan. When I go through the supermarket checkout buying nothing but swiss chard and watermelon, it's embarrassing. I don't want to seem superior. Sometimes people act weird and defensive, and sometimes I just get anxious anticipating that they might, which makes me counter-mad before I leave the house: Why should I have to hide my principles? Why don't you stop eating my friends?
You read one article about how fish with hot pepper on their lips get upset and try to rub it off on the glass, then another on how arctic foxes will circle around and around in pens until they succumb to something called "cage madness." Next you watch The Cove, where one of Flipper's handlers reveals that the dolphin was so depressed about acting on television that he willfully stopped breathing in the guy's arms, and before you know it, you're ruining everybody's Valentine's Day by posting articles on Facebook implying that anyone who buys roses supports sex slavery and child labor.
Somebody needs to get laid or take a walk.
Man was designed to eat meat
If you eat meat, you probably believe that. But if there's one thing I've learned about nutrition, it's that we really don't know anything about nutrition. Advocates of a Paleolithic diet believe the key to health is to eat a lot of meat and throw boulders for exercise, like our cave-dwelling ancestors. Hardcore vegans, an ordinarily secular lot, will suddenly get all blind-clockmaker about it and claim that humans were designed to eat fruits and vegetables, like the mighty gorilla. Some people still swear by the Atkins diet, although their leader dropped dead of a heart attack. There's a gang of Australians on the internet who advocate eating 30 bananas a day and not much else. These are fit and beautiful people. But I don't know. Name a diet and I can find a pie graph that proves its efficacy. People can live entirely on hot dogs or Big Macs or they can subsist on nothing but green juice and a few handfuls of almonds. If humans are designed for anything, it's adaptation.
Ultimately, what we eat is a choice.
And then there's the environment. I think most people have a general idea that factory farming isn't the greatest thing since Kraft Singles, but let's get more specific. Cows and pigs and all those other hoofed animals are totally big (cows are so big that cow tipping isn't even a real thing). Big animals eat a lot and they take up a lot of space. The amount of land used to feed farmed animals with crops and grazing is roughly the same size as Africa. Over-farming land with crops like corn and soybeans to fatten the animals leads to massive deforestation and depletes the soil so that the crops left over for humans have only a fraction of the vitamins and nutrients they did just 50 years ago.
Big animals also shit a lot, and by a lot I mean somewhere close to 1 billion tons of manure a year. Cow poo isn't just gross and weird to talk about; it releases methane, ammonia, carbon dioxide and other gasses into the air, making it one of the top contributors to global warming. Hamburgers starve polar bears. Manure runs off into the lakes, rivers and oceans, which contaminates the water supply, killing a lot of fish, and the contaminated water is none too safe for human consumption, either. Factory farming produces hundreds of pounds of nitrous oxide every day, which is a major source of acid rain. Producing all of this meat takes a lot of resources in the form of oil, water and land use that we just don't have to spare anymore. Of all the crops grown in the U.S., we're feeding 70 percent of them to livestock.
Two shakes of a lamb's tail
Every now and then, barbecue still smells good to me. The scent of singed flesh wafting through the air brings with it the culture of delicious sin, and I get nostalgic. I have a few stock images that I pull up for just these moments.
On a farm when I was a kid, I saw a lamb jump up on a woman and wag its tail, just like a dog. "Pay attention to me," the lamb seemed to say. "I have instant and inexplicable affection for you." It was the cutest thing I've ever seen. Once, I saw a groundhog on his hind legs, staring at the sun; what could he possibly have been thinking about? Cravings hit, and I see a pet rabbit balancing a pancake on his head. Like everything else, the smell drifts up into the sky and floats away.
It's not anthropomorphizing to attribute fear, pain, frustration and joy to animals. These are not uniquely human emotions. If you've ever observed an animal over time, like your dog or cat or a particular deer in your neighborhood, you know that it has its own, distinct traits. I think what we sometimes forget or choose to ignore is that they're all like that. People sometimes argue that it's okay to eat animals if they're bred for the purpose, but what does that even mean? The animals we see scurrying around in the Rattlesnake are the lucky ones. When piglets are born on a feedlot, they don't get the memo that their lives don't matter. They arrive on this earth fresh-faced and ready to party like the rest of us.
Nobody has it worse than the chickens. Around 33 billion are slaughtered every year. Of those, most will never be given more space to move in their lifetimes than the area of a standard sheet of paper. They can never spread their wings or turn around. That stuff you've heard about KFC chickens being bred with breasts so fat that their legs are crushed under the weight of their Frankenstein bodies? It's not an exaggeration. Male chicks are considered a byproduct of the industry and get thrown in giant bins to suffocate or whatever. The girls have their beaks seared off—without anesthesia—so they don't peck each other to death in such close quarters.
Factory farmers do their best to slaughter animals efficiently. Generally, they're strung up by their hindquarters and have their throats slashed, and then they'll usually bleed to death quickly—except when they don't. Animals are dipped in boiling water to strip the hair off their skins while they're still alive, or a cow thrashes on a conveyer belt, or a lamb has its skin ripped off while its eyeballs move panicked around the room, wondering, "Where am I? When is this going to be over?"
This kind of thing happens all the time.
If you think there are all sorts of regulations in place that ensure the animals aren't suffering, well, I have to correct you: It's not really like that. The regulations are designed to keep you safe, not the other animals, and they do a dismal job at that. It's a huge, powerful industry that by and large regulates itself. A worker on a slaughter line kills an animal every 12 seconds; around 2,500 a day. The numbers are so staggering that the mind can't do anything with them but pretend they don't exist.
Nobody wants to hear about this stuff. I don't particularly want to write about it. It would be easy enough to make a case for a plant-based diet without ever mentioning how the other animals feel. The ethics of eating animals usually gets left out of most of these conversations because it's seen as too academic, one of those questions with no answer, like whether capital punishment is okay or who created the earth. It's impolite to bring up the whites of a panicked lamb's eyes in casual dinner conversation.
It's not good mood food
Over time, weird things have happened. Food is no longer food. It's nobody's fault, really. Suppliers were trying to make production more efficient, feed more people and make the food tastier, longer lasting and cheaper. So, like cars, they put animals on conveyer belts. Instead of growing a variety of food on a smaller scale, they went with massive amounts of more versatile crops like soy, corn and grains that they could put in everything and feed to the animals. To make this bland, colorless food more palatable, they started creating tastes in labs, turned corn into sugar, invented fats and came up with calorie-free sweeteners that give rats brain tumors. They genetically modified seeds and tailored pesticides so that a few companies controlled all the crops. Then they set up the system so that the same people who make money off the food are responsible for making sure it's safe for us to eat.
I take it back. Maybe it is somebody's fault.
Companies can't own an apple in the same way that they can own a Nutri-Grain bar. There's no profit in an eggplant that just anybody can pull out of the earth. So what did they do? The industry went in at a molecular level and redefined what our brains consider food. These fake foods mutate our cells and we acquire lifelong addictions, but since we're all becoming chronically ill without dying all at once, we overlook the cause.
What's happening right now is way strange. People are catching on that fruits and vegetables are good for you and eating junk is bad. At the same time, the industry keeps plugging away at us: Now they're redefining health. But we don't need Vitamin Water! We need them to put the vitamins back in our soil.
When it comes to food interacting with our bodies on the cellular level in strange and horrifying ways, these are the top offenders: sugar, dairy, gluten, any kind of highly processed food and, finally, industrially farmed animal products.
Gluten is the gluey stuff in wheat flour, and our systems are rebelling from too much of it. Intolerance to gluten causes inflammation in the body and does mean things to the intestines, along with a whole host of other symptoms too lengthy and gross to get into.
Sugar is linked to heart disease, hypertension, anxiety, depression, war, poverty, death and recession. I can't find any medical condition that it doesn't exacerbate. It's hidden in all sorts of food and comes in many costumes, including maltodextrin, sucrose, fructose and high-fructose corn syrup. I feel like I'm telling you that Santa Claus isn't real, but unless it's an intrinsic sugar, found within the cell structures of natural foods such as fruits and vegetables, there's no healthy reason to eat it. Ever. I have this story in my head from childhood, of a white man introducing refined sugar to Native Americans. The Indian says, "This is the best thing I've ever tasted"and it all goes downhill from there.
And then we have "dairy," which is probably the reason I managed to be a chubby vegetarian for so long. I gave up drinking cow's milk a long time ago, because I had the sneaking feeling that it didn't make sense to drink milk designed for an animal with four stomachs. When it was curdled and hidden in delicious melted cheese, I managed to brush this off. But cow's milk, even organic cow's milk, is filled with hormones, and we don't need any extra hormones floating around in our ladies' systems. No, but really. The most dangerous of these is the growth hormone in the form of insulin that is good for developing calves but, you know, cancerous and horrifying for humans.
The "Got Milk?" website has recently launched a spirited campaign against plant-based milk. It tells you that hazelnut milk is gross because you have to shake it. "What's that stuff on the bottom?" the site says. They think you're nine years old; it's awesome. Their claim is that "real" milk is pure and good because it comes from cows and the only ingredient in milk is "milk," but that's just not true. Cow's milk will always contain industry-acceptable amounts of blood and pus, along with herbicides, pesticides, feces, bacteria, viruses, hormones, fat and cholesterol. It takes 10 pounds of milk to make one pound of cheese—which means cheese is just heavily concentrated amounts of that stuff I just mentioned.
Like dairy, industrialized meat is filled with hormones, pesticides and antibiotics and the animals' bellies are full of heavily sprayed, genetically modified corn. When it comes to health, the issue isn't animal flesh per se. It's what they have to do to the animals to keep them alive under such untenable conditions that's making us sick.
The difference between the elk you kill up Gold Creek and eat throughout the winter and the ammonia-drenched beef product they've been selling in supermarkets and putting in kids' school lunches is like the difference between eggs that come from your neighbor's happy chickens and the stuff that shoots out of sad hens in cramped cells. When we eat sad animals, we inherit those feelings. Even if we were designed to eat meat, were we designed to manipulate the animals' genes, artificially inseminate them and reproduce them by the billions? Or are we just being dicks?
I know: "It can't be that bad," you're thinking. "We eat this shit every day, and we're fine, right? If this stuff were really harmful, the FDA would step in. The USDA would recall the beef. Or the EPA... The FBI?"
Somebody call the National Guard: They're trying to slowly poison us with donuts. We're all starring in a long, dull horror film, and nobody is going to come save us.
Don't forget that humans have a rich history of stupidity. In ancient Rome, they ran their drinking water through lead pipes. The people of Easter Island ruined their civilization because they cut down every tree without remembering to plant new ones. American colonists tried a horse for witchcraft and then hanged it in a town square. You know, as an example to the other horses.
Attack of the foodies
There was something grotesque and satisfying about the way we forced Michele Bachmann to choke down that phallic hot dog on a stick at the Iowa caucus to prove that she had what it took to be our president. And then we went ahead and turned on her anyway. This must be some sort of hipster granola backlash, a way of taking back hedonism for our generation, but what is it accomplishing, really?
We eat garbage and we're proud of it. People make elaborate sculptures of lunch meat to look like football stadiums for their Superbowl parties. There are television shows centered around watching grown men unhinge their jaws and try to take on the world's biggest hamburger. Someone writes a banal Facebook status update with the word "bacon" and in five minutes it has 37 likes. I hear this all the time: "I would be a vegetarian if not for bacon." That's so weird.
Bacon has long inconvenienced me by making its way into salads and sandwiches, but it's gotten worse. Now it's in desserts. Meanwhile, Dunkin' Donuts is about to unleash a pork donut. Jack in the Box now has a bacon-flavored milkshake that's not on the menu; it's this special viral campaign where only people in the know can get in on it. (Oddly enough, the bacon shake is meat free. The taste is arrived at chemically.)
Yet anyone who's spent any time with a pig will tell you that pigs are sensitive, intelligent animals who would just as soon not have all this extra attention.
Fruits and vegetables are totally metal
This is what I'd like to see: Everybody all at once stops buying industrialized animal products. Instead, we focus our energy on local agriculture. Over time, we replenish the soil and filter money down from the suits and into the hands of the people who will grow food and raise animals with respect and love. Meat production becomes a small-time operation, which will doubtless drive up the price, but then people will treat it as either a once-in-a-while delicacy or stop eating it all together. Sportsmen can still hunt if they want. We all get healthier and smarter and nicer. We use all the money and time we're saving on not being sick to learn how to love each other again and explore galaxies.
I'm not kidding.
My friend Dick is a great lover of meat. We fight about this constantly, and I'm talking door-slamming, crying, "Don't ever talk to me again" fighting. Not long ago, we had a relatively civil conversation in which Dick brought up a series of odd points that never would have occurred to me.
"If we stop raising cows for meat, what will happen to cows?" he said. "I mean, there are no wild cows."
I had to think about it for a second. "There will be far fewer cows," I said. "They're a domestic animal, like dogs and cats, so they'll still exist on small farms and ranches for scaled-down operations."
I told him my dream for the future, where we love our goats like children and men go off into the woods to bring home wild turkey for the family on holidays.
"You can't have everybody out hunting their meat," he said. "It'd be gone in an afternoon."
But surely, if people have to go out and kill their own dinner, most everyone wouldn't want to, right?
Dick wears colored nail polish and writes consumer news and video-game reviews for a living. He has a deep voice and broad shoulders, but he's still sort of an indoor guy.
"You wouldn't actually take up hunting just so you could still eat meat, would you?" I asked.
"Yes," he said. He didn't even stop to think about it.
That's when I realized there was a fundamental piece to this puzzle that I just wasn't getting. It's not that people are ignorant of the issues; it's that people really love eating meat. And that love dwells so deeply in our bones that it seems inseparable from being human.
Giving up meat can seem futile, at best symbolic. I've read that each vegetarian saves an average of 404 animals a year, which sounds like a lot, but, like, half of that number are shrimp and minnows. In the grand scheme of things, it's nothing. It feels like a lot of sacrifice for a dismal impact, so what's the point of depriving yourself? If everybody did it, that would be one thing; but not everybody is doing it. Why should I have to give up something that I love if everybody else gets to indulge?
Years of conditioning take over from there: You only live so long—might as well enjoy yourself while you're here! Go ahead, have some bacon. You deserve it, America!
People think that health food is boring, that not eating junk sucks all the fun out of life. But real, sustained fun is an art. I've lived a lot of my life in cycles of chemically induced comfort followed by embarrassment and hangovers. There were no short cuts to happiness; it was just a never-ending seesaw. I went searching for true connections with other humans on bar stools and the results were always the same: I felt closer to people at night, then farther away in the morning.
I don't doubt that you can find bliss in a ham sandwich, but food is a fleeting refuge. It's not enough just to want to be happy and good. It takes practice and wisdom to know what that is, and then, when the cultural currents run against you, it takes strength and courage to practice what you learn.
I've seen that look in people's eyes when I don't drink wine at dinner or eat birthday cake. They feel sorry for me. My friends think I've gone extreme, militant. That's one way of looking at it. Mostly, I just see myself becoming more and more the person that I've always wanted to be. Believe it or not, I'm still a hedonist. It feels really good to live this way.
If you want to change the world by changing the way you eat, it can't be done. But what you do still makes a difference. You can live your life on purpose, and it sets an example to the people around you that it's possible to live a happy life without pizza.
Fruits and vegetables buzz at a high frequency. I have this habit of eating red peppers in public like they're apples, and let me tell you, it drives women wild with desire. When I eat a grapefruit, they circle around me like they're prehistoric men and I'm the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
I'm writing to you from the bowels of Midwest suburbia, where everything is spread out, where there's no sense of community, where the only walking people do is from their front doors to their cars and from the parking lot to the big-box store, where practically no one hunts or fishes or grows their own food or shops at a farmers market or the Good Food Store. Virtue feels far away. If you've lived in Montana your whole life, you might not realize how untypical your community is. You might not realize how good you already have it, or could.
I get angry that industries take over the landscape with hypnotizing images that seduce and manipulate us. They feed us highly addictive food that makes us sick and then they profit from our diseases. Then they circle back around and make us feel like it's our fault. We eat this food of our own free will, right?
Maybe, but it's not really a fair fight. The evildoers have got us thinking that organic produce isn't real food. Don't let them do that! It's the realest. It's awesome to get riled up about stuff and occupy places, but eating politically can be so much more effective and metal. Why not start by occupying your body?
Your heart. Your mind.
Do we really want to be remembered as the generation that came up with chocolate bacon? C'mon. We're better than that. Let's do something cooler.