Thursday, October 24, 2013

Down in the muck: Wendell Berry on the "inescapable cruelty" of life

From Toledo, IA
"Down in the Muck"
(photo by Andrew Stawarz/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0)
Until yesterday while watching the fantastic Bill Moyers interview with Wendell Berry, I had never read or heard his poem, "For the Hog Killing." I'm grateful that my first exposure to this poem was hearing Berry read it aloud, with his soft northern Kentucky drawl.

Around minute 30 of the interview, Berry talks about the gross mistreatment of and cruelty to animals that our industrial food system requires. He then pauses and acknowledges an "inescapable cruelty" to all human life, even for vegetarians. "We have to live at the expense of other creatures." The rule then, he says, is to use fellow creatures (plants and animals) - and the land upon which we all dwell - with the minimum of violence.

Moyers then asks Berry to read the poem, "For the Hog Killing":
Let them stand still for the bullet, and stare the shooter in the eye,
let them die while the sound of the shot is in the air, let them die as they fall,
let the jugular blood spring hot to the knife, let freshet be full,
let this day begin again the change of hogs into people, not the other way around,
for today we celebrate again our lives' wedding with the world,
for by our hunger, by this provisioning, we renew the bond.
A few years ago I wrote a piece, "The Butcher's Apprentice," after helping butcher hogs in Hopkins Gap, a holler on the edge of the Allegheny Mountains in Rockingham County, Virginia. Here are two paragraphs near the end:
Kevin had to leave early to go into town, and as he was leaving he went over to Frank and said, "When you're getting ready for my pig, let that guy shoot it," pointing over to me. So Kevin's pig was the last to be processed, and it was getting close to the time I had to leave. While talking to Ike (the butcher), one of the regulars hollered over to me to follow him into the shed. Walking inside, he showed me over to a four-wheeler that had two .22 cal. rifles sitting on the seat. I pointed at one and he picked it up, loaded it, and handed it to me.

Stepping into the pen, I spotted the last pig over by the wall, standing perfectly still. Throughout the day I had heard the shots, squealing, and struggle that was going on inside the pens. Some of the pigs did not go down without a fight, but this one seemed to have resigned itself to what was coming. Pigs are not dumb animals and their eyes reflect that; they contain a wiliness that, say, a cow's do not. So this pig stood there perfectly still, looking at me knowingly as I walked up to it with rifle in hand. I brought the stock up to my shoulder, placed my cheek upon it and aimed, staring down the barrel pointed just above the creature's penetrating eyes which seemed right then to be staring through and past me. It remained still until the end.
When I heard Berry reading his poem, this experience came rushing back over me, and his phrase "inescapable cruelty" seems about the perfect description of what human life and being entails, but that we should take great pains to mitigate this cruelty, so far as it depends on us.

Living close to fellow creatures (in this case, animals) whose lives we or our neighbors will some day personally take for our use is, then, less cruel than the system of mass confinement, wholesale slaughter, industrial processing, transportation over great distances, selling as finished products, and mindless consumption (and quite frequently significant waste) that now dominates in our society. Such a system, in Berry's thinking, is a desecration of the gifts of creation - our fellow creatures and the land - that we have been given and commanded to steward well. And it's becoming evident that we human creatures have not held up our end of the deal; we have squandered the gift.

I am a pacifist, but I am the kind - like Berry - who has not only solemnly taken up weapons to claim the lives of fellow creatures for our use and sustenance, but also has no illusions that my clothes, my house, my car, my digital technology - nearly every material good and cultural practice that constitutes my form of life is in some way implicated in varying forms and levels of inescapable cruelty. Such cruelties are the effects of Sin in the created order, and our responsibility to mitigate the cruelty - to live peaceably with our fellow creatures on/with the land - is part of the call to faithfulness to our gracious Creator.

The task then, again, is to:
  1. See more clearly these forms of cruelty, and
  2. Strive mightily to mitigate the violence in which we are implicated
As a pastor, I seek the company of fellow sojourners/friends - brothers and sisters in Christ and like-minded non-Christian folks - on such a journey toward less cruel/more peaceable ways of living and being.

Let us again celebrate "our lives' wedding with the world," in all its beauty and brokenness...

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