Despite unseasonably warm weather, the water temperature in the Essex marshes was hovering just above freezing, and slivers of ice floated out with the tide. I had just finished Michael Pollan’s food-sourcing bible “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and had been inspired to go on a local foraging expedition of my own.
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After a few minutes of sifting through the water and weeds, our hands had lost feeling, and we had to rely on the uncertain coordination of eyes and fingers to catch our prey. Not that periwinkles are especially nimble quarry — small, plodding sea snails, they’re just a step up from sedentary — but fishing them out from the glacial pebbles was challenge enough.
For the holidays, my parents had taken a firm step in the locavore direction, buying only beers and snacks that had originated 10 miles or fewer from our house. Their current fixation with localities and ecosystems was not the direct cause of my periwinkling expedition, but it did create a context for our catch and suggest a compensation for our pains beyond the meat itself. That was delicious — briny little corkscrews of escargot plus a small handful of mussels and a single hard-fought clam – but hardly the point. We had scraped the periwinkles off the algae that they were scraping off the rocks, and the whole drama had happened about a mile from the places where each of us, snail and student, had grown up.
Yet by reveling in the brevity of the food chain connecting me to each morsel, I was perhaps celebrating less the origin of my catch and more the purity of my intentions. Catching or growing your own meat is a little eccentric in our culture, and it tends to come with a side of smug superiority. For those who identify with the movement, free-range is better than industrial, local more glorious still, and if you raised the beast in your own backyard, you have reached the carnivorous Holy Grail. The fate of the animal is not the point; rather, it is the consumer’s image, defined by his particular relationship to creature, place, and politics.
This conundrum is not limited to food. Anyone who caught Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” and was able to look past the story’s treacly implausibility may have noticed the film’s comment on animals and human endeavor — that people look especially absurd when we try to drag other creatures along in our work, our wars and yes, our movies. (John Mulaney’s “Saturday Night Live” comment on Secretariat seems apt: “I love to watch any movie that stars an animal because the animal does not know that it is in a movie. As far as that horse knows, there were a bunch of people hanging around him, and now they’re all gone.”) This may be an apt description of all human-animal interactions, though who remains and who disappears can vary from case to case. I wonder, though, where the line lies between real concern and fetishization.
We can’t help but politicize our fellow fauna. I’m not referring to the two symbolic herbivores about to face off in thousands of op-ed cartoons for rest of the year. I mean flesh-and-blood animals, from the whales at the center of an Australian-Japanese extradition debate to the rapidly expanding list of endangered Texan reptiles and amphibians. The former were the intended prey of a whaling fleet boarded by Australian activists, who were subsequently detained in Japan. The latter have become poker chips in a high-stakes contest among environmentalists, government regulators and industrialists.
Neither of these are particularly novel stories — they occur every year, with people and nations and species shuffled around, but the message and the battle lines remain firm. In neither case, of course, are the animals themselves the newsmakers. That happens incredibly rarely, and when it does it’s usually either sensationalist (shark attack!) or actually about humans (horses are not naturally inclined to run on narrow tracks with small people perched on top of them, after all).
Rather, the whalers and the anti-whalers, the conservationists and the oilmen, are all embroiled in debates that ultimately have less to do with animals and more to do with identities, policies and values.
This is how the tragically nonsensical situations of modern ecopolitics arise. In Gloucester, Mass., fishermen and marine biologists spar endlessly over cod populations, each side depicting the other as a gang of clueless, heartless villains. Across the country, environmentalist groups oppose deer hunting, though our elimination of all other large predators has made such culls an ecological necessity. Again, cod and deer are not really the point; or, if they once were, the animals and their welfare have long been eclipsed by the bitterness of human conflict.
Animals were once our prey and predators. They became our gods, our companions and finally our property. Now, for most of us, they are fashions — the cats we will keep, the cattle we won’t eat, the free-range chicken we will, the polar bears we will mourn, the countless others we will ignore (ever heard of the baiji? Po’ouli? Alaotra grebe?) as they drift out of existence.
I was proud of my catch and its provenance. But is that environmentalism, or narcissism?
Sam Lasman is a senior in Berkeley College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.