As a long-time vegetarian, I am all too familiar with the many-sided debate over meat eating. By and large, I find the debate rather exhausting. I don't impose my dietary choices on others, and unless specifically asked (or challenged, as is more often the case) won't go off on my stock anti-meat tirade. But the debate continues to be fueled by extremists on both sides of the issue. So when I picked up The Mindful Carnivore: A Vegetarian's Hunt for Sustenance, I was more than a little wary of what tired, overwrought arguments author Tovar Cerulli was going to call upon for his memoir of a vegan-turned-meat-eater. Fortunately, this book retires exhausted tropes and instead presents a truly original and touching account of connecting with nature.
Cerulli begins by reflecting on a childhood spent playing in nature: fishing with his father, learning to shoot a small BB gun, honing his skill with a bow and arrow. The natural consequence of this playtime was the lost lives of a few small birds, many fish, and the occasional pesky rodent in the garden. But these are fond memories of bonding with his father and especially his father's friend Willie, a vivacious fisherman who served as a mentor and friend to Cerulli for years.
Cerulli hadn't much questioned his childhood hobbies until attending college in New York City, where he and his similarly-minded friends advanced from vegetarianism to "militant veganism." As he learned about the industrial food system and animal ethics, it became impossible for Cerulli to find any "conscionable reason" to eat meat. Supported by his peers and new girlfriend, he viewed his vegan lifestyle as the only one that made sense.
But the bulk of this book is not about Cerulli's vegan years, or his various reasons to avoid meat. In fact, it seems Cerulli mostly chalks that period of his life up to the unquestioned sureness of youth. His turning point came a few years later when, living in a house in rural Vermont, he began to notice all sorts of small and large woodland creatures nibbling on his vegetable garden. When fencing and natural remedies didn't work, Cerulli knew there was only one way to protect his season's harvest. He had to hunt.
The rest of the book is devoted to Cerulli's conflicted feelings about each stage of the hunting process. Buying and holding a gun made him uneasy, the deadly weapon feeling strange in his pro-peace hands. Attending hunter safety courses brought to mind the rare but jarring accidents in which hunters accidentally shoot others—or themselves—in the excitement of hunting season. And finally stalking his prey, a slow and meditative process that provided his ultimate connection to nature, was the ultimate rebellion against his past vegan self.
Along the way, Cerulli takes us through a deeply personal and emotional narrative of his decision to hunt and kill his dinner. From fish to raccoons to deer, every hunting experience raises new emotions and challenges. Ultimately, Cerulli reflects on the harm that our living and eating habits inflict on our natural environment, even when we attempt to eat as low-impact as possible. "If my existence was going to take a toll on other beings," he muses at the end, "I would rather exact that toll consciously, respectfully, swiftly—and for the specific purpose of eating." He chooses to hunt so as to be more aware of his impact, rather than pretend he has no impact at all. This position, so rarely entertained in the meat debate, is refreshingly nuanced. Regardless of your stance on meat-eating, this book is worth a close read.
About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work has also been featured in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine.