Thoreau had a little bean patch near his cabin at Walden Pond. He devotes an entire chapter in Walden to his bean field, and speaks about it often in other chapters as well. Thoreau’s bean-patch was one of his claims to self-sufficiency, but it was much more than that, I think. I haven’t spoken about Thoreau in a while, even though he is the inspiration for the title of this blog. I think I am maybe too much in awe of him. There are so many passages of beauty in Walden that it almost seems futile to try and comment on all of them. I often find myself opening up the book and reading a few paragraphs at random. Just these small selections can give me enough to think about for days. In this way, Walden is like the Bhagavad-Gita, the Dhammapada, the Beatitudes, or other great religious texts in that it contains wisdom honed to a fine point.
Physicists who believe in the big bang theory say that before the explosion that birthed the cosmos, the entire universe could have been packed into a nugget of matter the size of a thimble. I think that is what great spiritual writing can do: condense wisdom down to its simplest, most potent form. But this is just a preamble to what I’m thinking about today. First let me quote a passage from Walden: “The practical objection to animal food in my case was its uncleanness; and, besides, when I had caught and cleaned and cooked and eaten my fish, they seemed not to have fed me essentially. It was insignificant and unnecessary, and cost more than it came to. A little bread or a few potatoes would have done as well, with less trouble and filth…The repugnance to animal food is not the effect of experience, but is an instinct…I believe that every man who has ever been earnest to preserve his higher or poetic faculties in the best condition has been particularly inclined to abstain from animal food, and from much food of any kind…Whatever my own practice may be, I have no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals…”
From what we know of his life, and by his own writings, Thoreau was a skilled trapper, hunter, and fisherman. He wasn’t squeamish. He didn’t hold naive views about survival. He could live off the land if he had to. Yet, as this brief quote shows, an idea began to form in his mind that maybe all this butchery was wrong, not just because it was “unclean”, but wrong morally and spiritually. If you are a meat-eater, and as of right now I count myself as one, take a moment to think about what your habit has wrought. Let’s say you are, like me, approaching your forties and you’ve eaten meat for about 30 years and you eat it, on average, about three times a week. And let’s say that each serving of meat came from a separate animal, be it a fish, bird, or livestock. I did the math. That would amount to the destruction of 4,680 living beings, just for you alone. Maybe we don’t want to think about this. I know as human beings we like to shield ourselves from the pain and suffering of the world. The economic reality we live in allows us this protection. Someone else will always be willing, for wages and at a great distance from us, to do something we don’t want to do ourselves, whether it be kill animals for our food, or go to work in a sweatshop to make our clothes. I realize that the world is in a constant state of creation and destruction. Change, in all its forms, is unavoidable. But the question I often ask myself is: How much suffering am I willing to accept to live comfortably? A lot, some, none?
Like it or not, every decision we make has a moral component to it. Now, we may say that animals are not as developed as us, or are “lower down on the food chain” than us. But all living beings are alike in that they desire happiness and they don’t want suffering. This is really what unites us all. When you see a cow nursing its calf, or a cat licking its kitten, wouldn’t you agree that animals also posses the desire to be happy and to be free from suffering? Think of the parental instincts that we have as human beings. Animals have them too. They want to be close to their children and nurture them, and the children want to be close to their parents. When a calf is taken from its mother, don’t you think that that mother will miss her calf, and the calf will cry for her mother? I can see some of you rolling your eyes right now.
But really…the truth is that we don’t need to eat animals to survive. A little bread or some potatoes may do just as well. All living beings want happiness. All living beings want to be free from suffering. Thoreau’s bean-patch was his expression of this eternal truth.