Oh, there are too many reasons to go into them all here. The one I want to explore today, though, isn’t about health or wellness or tradition. It’s about life. It’s about the undeniable truth that all life comes from death. Many turn to veganism in an attempt to “do no harm.” A lovely, poetic, beautiful idea. Those who embrace it through veganism want their life to be from that which is freely given; they don’t want to know, deep down, that their own place in this world came at the cost of another sacred life.
Yet it does. All life does. Let’s begin by looking at the root of all life — the soil.
Wendell Berry, in his essay “Two Economies” writes:
For, although any soil sample can be reduced to its inert quantities, a handful of the real thing has life in it; it is full of living creatures. And if we try to describe the behavior of that life we will see that it is doing something that, if we are not careful, we will call “unearthly”: It is making life out of death. Not so very long ago, had we known about it what we know now, we would probably have called it “miraculous.” In a time when death is looked upon with almost universal enmity, it is hard to believe that the land we live on and the lives we live are the gifts of death. Yet that is so and it is the topsoil that makes it so.
You see, soil is — first and foremost — alive. It is not just dirt or dust. It is teeming with thousands upon thousands of tiny creatures. Indeed, one tablespoon of soil contains millions of tiny organisms hailing from thousands of different species of animal. And that living soil feeds on death. It takes death and from it feeds the fruits and vegetables in your garden, the grasses that feed your cow, the bugs that feed your laying hens. It takes death and makes life. It is the Resurrection written into the tiniest, yet arguably most essential, detail of our daily existence.
Lierre Keith confronted this when, as a vegetarian, she’d started her own garden. She shares the story in her compassionate and poignant book, The Vegetarian Myth:
“Feed the soil, not the plant,” was the first commandment of organic growing. I had to feed the soil because it was alive.
Nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium — NPK — is the Triple Goddess of gardeners, the Troika of elements that rule plant growth. What did soil and plants eat and where would I get those substances? I hadn’t learned the phrase “closed-loop system,” but that was what I was after. Nitrogen was the big one. There are plants that fix nitrogen. Wasn’t that enough for my garden? Couldn’t it be? I begged. But I was begging a million living creatures who had organized themselves into mutual dependence millions of years ago. They had no use for my ethical anguish. No nitrogen-fixing plant could make up for all the nutrients I was taking out. The soil wanted manure. Worse, it wanted the inconceivable: blood and bones.
There were other sources of nitrogen I could have applied. Right now, fossil fuel provides the nitrogen to grow crops the world over. Synthetic fertilizer is what created the green revolution, with its 250 percent increase in crops. Besides the fact that nothing made from fossil fuels is sustainable—we can’t grow fossil fuel and it doesn’t reproduce itself—synthetic fertilizers eventually destroy the soil.
So synthetic nitrogen was out. And that left me facing animal products. Of course, the irony is that either source of nitrogen, synthetic or organic, comes from animals. Oil and gas are what’s left of the dinosaurs. So my choices—our choices, actually—were nitrogen from dead reptiles or from living ruminants.
My garden wanted to eat animals, even if I didn’t.
She then goes on to share how she compromised, using goat manure as her source of nitrogen and justifying it to herself as a way to “not waste” all that manure that was just piled up and not going to be used otherwise. But with phosphorous and potassium, she reached a turning point. These aren’t as easy to come by. Bone meal, blood, and ash are the most sustainable, natural ways to acquire these nutrients for the soil. By then, she’d almost given up hope that her garden, the place where she was supposed to be nurturing life, would be a place of freely-given fruits & vegetables that “did no harm” and cost no life.
Her story continues:
There were finer points, all of them sharp and hungry, that I learned about growing fruit. I didn’t have fruit trees yet, but they were part of the mythic farm that waited in my mist-shrouded future. Calcium is always a limiting factor in the soil. When the calcium is gone, growth stops. And again, the calcium would come from … Would I finish the sentence with an organic box from the feed store, laden with embodied energy and slaughterhouse dust? Or would I learn the grammar of my great-grandparents, and feed the trees with the bones of animals that lived beside me? Would there be any solace in this information? I found one small comfort in The Apple Grower by Michael Phillips. He quotes a book called The Apple Culturist from 1871, recounting the story of an apple tree near the graves of Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, and his wife Mary Sayles. The roots of the tree were found to have grown into the graves and assumed the shape of human skeletons while “the graves [were] emptied of every particle of human dust. Not a trace of anything was left.”
This story eased my mind, because the tree ate the humans. < snip…>
But I couldn’t listen to that apple tree, speaking in slow, slow sign with its skeleton roots, saying: you are the exact shape of my hunger. Our animal bones, our human blood; we belong here too, if we’re willing to accept our place. We are eaten as well as eaters, raw materials for the endless feast. That would have been the solace: a place at the table. We aren’t above, just one among many beings embraced by carbon that one day will let go.
But I had to accept death before I could take my place.
Have you accepted death?
I have. Monastics the world over teach simple truths. Embrace death. Don’t be a martyr; don’t seek it out. But do know that your death is inevitable and you are like the grasses growing in the fields, flowering and fading. Here today. Gone tomorrow.
And yet your death is not the end, it is merely part in a never-ending cycle. Your blood. Your ashes. Your bones. These feed the soil, too.
And so I think on these things when I garden.
Yes there’s the sun, the quiet time, the discoveries, the fruit of my labor. But there’s also this — this reminder that we are all part of a circle of death and life. We can not escape death. It is part of every bite of food we eat, whether we are vegans or not.
Are you eager to have your own metaphysical thoughts about the meaning of life, the universe, and everything?
You could do as I’ve done and start a garden. It’s never too late. I’ve even got listings on my Shopping Guide page for gardening supplies, seeds, and more to help make your transition easier.