` October 15, 2002
Howard L. Harrod
Oberlin Alumni Professor of Social Ethics and Sociology of
Professor of Religious Studies
The Graduate Department of Religion
411 21st Avenue South, Office 221
Nashville, TN 37240-1121
Re: The Animals Came Dancing
Dear Professor Harrod:
Thank you for letting us see animals and plants through the eyes of our Native American brethren! I had heard such stories before, but never presented with such care and authority.
I arrived at our "meeting" on a very different trajectory. I grew up on the edge of wilderness, and, thanks to my parents (both genes and tutelage), acquired a love of nature and, especially, hiking and camping. I went away to the university, studied mostly mathematics and psychology, and became a programmer.
I spent eight years working on stopping freeway expansion, and trying to clean up the air. While doing that, I ran across an article by Reed Noss, a conservation biologist, on how roads fragment wildlife habitat. This notion (that animals can physically cross a road, but are afraid to do so) I found so fascinating that I switched from transportation activism to wildlife activism. All of my writing on these topics is on my web site -- which, I hope you will find, dovetails with your work.
Recently, I have focused most of my efforts on spreading the idea that most wildlife require, and all deserve, habitat off-limits to humans -- a notion that you broach eloquently and ever-so-gently at the end of your book. I like the way you present it: that we must first separate ourselves from wildlife, before we can gain a clear (re)vision of our relationship to them.
But step back for a moment from the subjects of your book -- "native" and newly immigrant Americans -- so that you can see them simultaneously, from a distance. From this perspective, we are not really so different! On an evolutionary time scale, we are separated by a hair's breadth. We have not been apart long enough to become all that different.
Specifically, I find it interesting that both we and Native Americans are using our imaginations, though in different ways, to anesthetize ourselves to the experience of killing animals and plants for food. In the case of Native Americans, they created the rationalization that "the animals don't really die -- their souls are reborn", that "they give their bodies to us so that we can survive".
Come on! If we are really as similar to animals as we believe (and can now prove scientifically), then they must also be like us in not wanting to die! And in not wanting to donate their bodies to other organisms as food! Surely, people so close to nature as they should be able to see the raw fear in the animals' eyes, and translate their cries into an awareness of pain!
The same goes, of course, for us. Except that our way of avoiding that honest recognition of the horror of killing is, as you say, different. We hide it out of sight, and present the finished food products in sanitized packages.
Therefore, I don't think that the path to protected wildlife lies through any form of rationalization -- old or new. We should finally admit that we need to kill to survive, but we cannot justify it through any rational argument! Our "instincts" (i.e., genes) impel us to eat, and therefore to kill, but every organism that we contemplate killing is a relative of ours (we are 98.6% genetically identical to a chimpanzee, but also some 30% identical to a fungus!). And besides, it has its own plans, desires, and goals for its own life, none of which include being eaten by us! (I think that humans are, by far, the greatest rationalizers in the world!)
I agree that we should re-examine our relationship to other species -- but not in the way it is usually done, by talking amongst ourselves. We also need to look wildlife in the eye and listen to what they are telling us, which in most cases is "Go away!" Much of the mythology you presented seemed to be a response to a feeling of love and hunger for nature (in all senses), and a desire to explain that love and hunger. They seemed to be saying to themselves, "How can I explain the fact that I want to eat my relatives, without incurring unbearable feelings of guilt?" Do we really need to explain it and rationalize it, as long as we don't take more than we need? If we really love wildlife, we should be able to look them in the eye, ask them what they want, and listen to the answer.
Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.