Whether or not to eat meat, and what meat to eat if one chooses to, is a matter of frequent debate these days. As someone intimately involved in the life and death of beef cattle, these discussions often feel disembodied and abstracted. We reduce the question into a static list of stacked pros and cons—a game of rhetoric isolated from many forces that govern the world. But to me, meat eating (or not) can best be understood in relationship—and this implies movement, dynamism, cycles… a series of expanding causes and effects that are complex and unwieldy.
What’s often left out of the discussion is the opportunity cost of abstaining from meat. Unless one is starving themselves of essential nutrients, one who does not obtain their protein and nutrition from the fruits of an individual’s life and death—say, pastured protein or wild game—must be finding it elsewhere: in what the plow furnishes, in what straight lines and long rows have to offer, in the canopy of almond monocultures towering over bare ground. Home gardeners and those who manage to grow or acquire their sustenance from non-animal sources from ways that nurture soil should be commended, but also must recognize that this is not the metabolic reality for the majority.
It’s no big direct death. The blood of field mice, of coyote pup, and gopher snake and grasshopper sparrow are spilled in ounces in these systems that depend on cultivation, and the crop is a canvas for a pointillist picture of a trophic system gone awry because it goes unseen. Only when we zoom out sufficiently and see not just the lives lost, but the lives that are absent, do we begin to get the picture. And only when we sidle up close enough do we feel the loss.
I’m a grassland person. It’s simply my habitat: where I find my sustenance, my vocation and my happiness. The longer I raise cattle in these environs, the more I see the well-managed bovid as being in service to all of the other inhabitants. The other day, languishing in the three o’clock heat while fixing my last stretch of old boundary fence, I flopped onto the grass for a reluctant nap. My dog curled up next to me, having just trotted back from a moment of sensible disobedience, soaked to her shoulders in water from a nearby coulee. I closed my eyes and awoke ten minutes later to the sound of a mouse chittering near my ear, and the chortle of a raven on a nearby fence post, perhaps hoping I was digestibly dead. Bugs pestered my skin, and a band of buck white tail lingered in the distance.
In these moments of sharing space with the my fellow teemers I feel all at once humbled, humanized, and ennobled. It’s not so bad to be brought down to earth, truly leveled, when our fellow inhabitants are so magnificent in their own right. At these times I most feel the pinch of offense at the thought of lands like these being counted in land use statistics and ag census as just “pasture,” and moreso at the possibility of this land being one day plowed and planted.
So I wonder about these other lands—the ones from which people build their bodies of plant-based proteins when they stave off meat. When a land is kept in the simple state of a two or three crop rotation, a lot of animals just give up and move on. The little ones may remain—the ones whose blood we spill ounce by ounce, and who are disked into the soil in shallow graves. The big ones, the ones who bleed in gushing liters, mostly learn to stay away and in time their populations diminish.
It’s this cost that really gets to me the most. Not the deaths, but the lives not lived. Because in a time when we are losing species in large part because they simply lack a place to live, it seems logical to consider habitat lost to agriculture as a direct threat to our shared survival. Maybe it’s time for land kept in a state of arrested development through annual cropping to grow up a little. So how do we eat to make home?
It’s this apparent comfort with what happens out of sight that I find most contradictory about veganism. We’re assured by evangelizing vegans that there’s plenty of options for us: we can gain our macro- and micronutrients from myriad sources, many of which come from far-off tropical lands and would perhaps be best used to feed the people who grew and picked them, rather than turned into a commodity to be shipped to Westerners. At the same time, I must also acknowledge that in my own industry of raising cattle destined to be eaten as beef, there’s plenty of real and psychic distance that we don’t talk much about.
This year I’m raising yearling cattle. Between my partner and I, we’re caring for over three thousand head, in four herds on two ranches. We’ve had one full day off since our season started in May. We care for these animals intimately, risking our own safety when we go to treat a sick one. We teach them to gather and drive afoot, horseback, and with dogs; to calmly load, lead, and follow, so that we can move them well now and so they’ll have more peaceful lives once they leave us. And we work with them as a means of caring for the land they graze all season.
With the way the world is currently arranged—property rights and the economy as it is—we couldn’t presently find a better way to tend these grasslands without these cattle. I’ll emphasize “as is,” because everything changes in time but only with vision and effort will it change in a direction we want to see.
At the end of this season we’ll load them onto trucks to go places we know a little bit, and some we don’t know much at all. They’ll be handled by people we’ve never met, and they’ll be separated from some of the friends they’ve made in their herd and they’ll scramble to make new ones. And they’ll finish their lives in a feed yard, eating a grain and forage ration that came from other lands, with little lives ended or interrupted with each seasonal pull of the plow, and big lives that have long moved on. After all, it’s not just vegans and vegetarians eating grains and legumes grown in faraway fields.
I know these fields have their place, for now. For now, feedyards do too. But no change for the better can happen without seeing the world as it is, and also seeing how it could be. And so I’m coming around to the idea that my closest kin in the work to reform how we eat and relate to our environs aren’t those who advocate for a specific diet, but those who work on helping us see the unseen lands that sustain our lives.