I watched a deer die this week. It took about ninety seconds, which is a lot longer than I hope for, and the deer fought hard to live. The shock, pain and fear it was experiencing as it struggled against the death spreading from the bullet wound in its chest was not pleasant to watch, but I didn’t turn away.
That was Thursday.
On Wednesday, the Archdruid releases his regular post, and this week he clarified his thoughts on a rising ecological sensibility. I found this paragraph to be particularly resonant:
It’s one thing to proclaim salvation from nature, history, and the human condition to those who want that salvation but no longer believe that the ideology you’re offering can provide it. It’s quite another to [proclaim salvation] to people who no longer want the salvation you’re offering—people for whom nature, history, and the human condition aren’t a trap to escape, as they have been for most people in the western world for the last two millennia, but a reality to embrace in delight and wonder.
This quote draws heavily on a topic Greer has been exploring recently, the Civil Religion of Progress, in which, he argues, Progress has pretty much been swapped point-for-point for God in the Judeo-Christian framework.1
If I can paraphrase—Life is Hard. It is uncertain: you never know when your crops will fail, your company will downsize, or the river will flood. There is interpersonal pain: first as a child, then as a teenager going through high school, then trying to find your way as an adult, then coping with the realities of adult and romantic relationships, then death of friends, family and yourself. There is lots of hard work: school and training, the grind in the fields or the office, the maintenance of hearth and home, cooking and cleaning. You will encounter a lot of stress, anxiety and pain.
So step right up. Who wants salvation?!? We got a lovely god promising eternal life in heaven, reunited with your loved ones and with not a scrap of work to do. We got machines that will eliminate toil and kitchens that will clean themselves and food heated with just the press of a button. We got rocketships to take us off this damn dustball.
And especially, if you are sick or dying or aching with worry for a loved one, we have God’s Plan, or modern medicine, and funeral homes so you don’t need to touch the dead, and hearses so you don’t need to carry the weight of the casket, and backhoes to dump the dirt back in the hole.
So, the goals are the same—salvation from pain and toil—but the ideologies used to achieve those goals are different, theism or progress.
But what if you don’t want to be saved from pain and toil? What if you don’t want to escape the human condition?2
I have come to think the desire for salvation from toil is a very big problem. Instead, I am trying to learn to love the work of providing for myself and my family. I don’t mean going to an office and making money to pay someone to do everything for me, I mean growing the food for our table, grinding the grains and baking the bread, brewing the cider. It is repetitive and difficult and capricious, but it feels very real.
Regarding salvation from pain, I have been influenced by Stephen Jenkinson, another wise, bearded man. From The Star:
Formerly a director of children’s grief and palliative care at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, and assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s School of Family and Community Medicine, Jenkinson now makes a living running workshops on care of the dying, dealing with grief, and what he calls deep living.
“Death isn’t something that happens to you. It’s something you do. You get to choose the manner in which you die: the quality of it, the nature of it.”
The National Film Board produced a film about Jenkinson, Griefwalker, which we watched at one of his talks. I don’t remember the film well, as it was sandwiched between several hours of mind-blowing oratory about death and the meaning of words. You can watch it on the NFB website.
And that brings me back to the deer. As Jenkinson says, “We don’t have to like death, who would? But we do have to befriend it.”3
I think there is meaning in killing what you eat. Our rabbit tastes all the richer stewed with the difficulty of taking their lives. It is not just the flavour of meat and vegetables, it tastes like connection to the ecosphere. It tastes like I am a little closer to knowing my position on the food chain.
So that deer had the worst two minutes of its life in front of me. Then I helped gut it, and a couple of days later we skinned it and butchered it into various cuts for freezing. But that night we ate the tenderloin, which is cut from inside the haunches, alongside the spine. Carmen pan-roasted it in cast iron, then cut it into medallions and served it with a sauce of jus and chantrelle mushrooms, which came from the same forest as the deer, abundant after the recent rain.
My eyes welled up as I took the first bite. I believe our world would be healthier if we saw ourselves as part of nature, not above it—but abstract thoughts like that are made up of many little specifics, and I felt bad for taking that deer’s life.
I felt bad. I hurt—but I don’t need saving from the human condition.