Attitude Adjustment through Animism

By , January 31, 2013

On a summer day, a friend and I stood on the cobble beach of Mud Bay, pulling crabs from the floor of my canoe and butchering them on the rocks. I worked silently, focusing on not getting hurt by the crustaceans’ powerful pincers or by their sudden shrug that might smash my fingers against the sharp shoulder spikes.

My friend talked to the crabs as he worked, cursing their attempts to fight him, laughing at and taunting them, describing what he planned to do next, and the cooking process to come.

To my surprise, this shocked me—not only because it struck me as disrespectful, but also because it interrupted something I had been doing without even thinking—silently addressing the crabs myself. I mentally apologized to each crab for treating it so cruelly, and thanked it for the food it would provide my family and guests. I behaved like an Animist, treating the crabs respectfully as sentient beings, even as I killed them.

I didn’t try to explain this to my friend—that would not have gone well. I merely suggested, mildly, that the crabs fought us for their lives, and shouldn’t be blamed for it. And, I silently apologized to our arachnid victims for my friend’s disrespect.

On a winter day, Michelle and I stood in the forest above our cabin, surveying a grove of trees. We needed straight, limbless poles of sound, fresh wood for a building project, and had chosen these trees to fell for lumber after the winter’s cold made them dormant. We had laid our plan long before, in early autumn, and our minds had been made up to harvest the trees. Still, I hesitated. I couldn’t bring myself to cut down these living trees, my companions since first coming to the property, my silent protectors and company as I worked around them in the forest. To cut them down seemed a betrayal of a friendship.

“Praying” to crabs? Friendship with trees? Yes. I also thank the fish I catch and the birds and animals I kill for food. In short, I act like an Animist.

Having been raised Christian, I’m culturally conditioned to find this sort of behavior silly or naïve, perhaps even contemptible, as you likely do as you read this. I “know” that plants are inanimate, and that “lower” life forms are nearly so. But I’ve come to think of it differently than I was taught.

And, significantly, I don’t do this for them so much as I do it for me.

I find that by treating with respect the plants and animals that I use to sustain my family, I remember to use them responsibly. An inner monologue of thankfulness orients me toward treating them as if we truly had a relationship—which, I would argue, we do.

After all, I depend on them for our survival and quality of life. By addressing them as sentient beings I find that I’m more careful to kill as quickly and painlessly as possible when necessary, and to do so only when necessary. I also try to clean and prepare them well, to reduce waste as much as I can, to use every part of them possible. Regarding them as fellow creatures to whom I owe respect changes how I regard the raw materials I derive from them.

The Christian answer to this is, of course, to thank God for the benefits we receive from these plants and animals. That’s fine, but then, perhaps it’s not the whole point. This practice tends to objectify the plants and animals as something given to me by an other, rather than reminding me that they are living things, with instincts or inclinations to continue living that are assumably every bit as compelling to them as mine are to me. Giving the respect and thanks to a creator god inserts a remove from the affected creature; respecting the entity itself reminds me of what I owe to it directly for ending its life. Use implies responsibility. Gratitude engenders respect.

Scoff if you like. I don’t expect this explanation to change anyone’s way of thinking. I benefit directly from the practice by being more careful about how I use these resources. I also feel better for it.

You will find a version of the essay above, as well as writing on similar and related topics in Sacred Coffee: A “Homesteader’s” Paradigm by Mark A. Zeiger, available in print, eBook, and audiobook editions. The published version will likely be expanded, clarified, or updated from what you have just read.

14 Responses to “Attitude Adjustment through Animism”

  1. Linn Hartman says:

    No scoffing! Great essay – living in an area where they let school out for the first day of deer season they’er pretty safe when they get on my 40 – guns I got but I am not too sympathetic to the semi-automatic boys – my gun of choice is a vintage full stock curly maple flintlock – have a great day

  2. Reenie says:

    Nature should be thanked for the bounty it provides, not disrespected. I always picture the lady from the old 70’s Chiffon commercials when she stands up and says, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature!!” I substitute ‘fool’ for disrespect. 🙂

  3. Roy Mielke says:

    I used to gloat and take lots of pictures of things I harvested – I now view that as disrespectful. I like to give thanks and ask for forgiveness. My hope is that more people will follow this example. Thanks Mark…

  4. Mark Zeiger says:

    Wow, Roy, I’m not sure I could do that–I will take photos of animals I’ve bagged (for example, see all the fish photos sprinkled around this blog). I don’t see any problem with taking pride in a harvest, as long as there’s no gloating going on. I guess if done with the proper spirit, it’d be another way of honoring the animal. My hat’s off to you!

  5. Mark Zeiger says:

    Great image! Thank you!

  6. Mark Zeiger says:

    Really, Linn? Don’t tease me now . . . that would be a treasure!

  7. Jenny says:

    Before we started homesteading and just purchased our meat from the grocery store I really never thought about each life that was taken. Once we brought chickens and goats to our little farm and saw the life and breath leave their little bodies as they were harvested it effected me tremendously. We too thank our livestock for their sacrifice.

  8. Linn Hartman says:

    No Mark, the treasure was a powder horn I sold 2 years ago. I had carried it around from place to place since the 60’s. It mainly had lived in my sock and underwear drawer. One day I saw one engraved like it in a book – got to checking and found out it was about 200 years old and had been made by a famous family of horn makers – ended up selling it to a collector for around 5 thousand – I was told it was worth more but he had the 5 grand and I did not find the more – was not real interested in selling it but got to figuring the kids will start selling my toys in a garage sale before I am cold in the grave and if they got 20 bucks for it from one of the locals they would have thought they had hung the moon – now that was a treasure – the moral of that story is to check your drawers from time to time because you never know what you will find – have a good day

  9. Linn Hartman says:

    Thought you might appreciate this – comes from my Ontario Metis cousins

    The time will soon be here when my grandchild will long for the cry of a loon,the flash of a salmon,the whisper of spruce needles,or the screech of an eagle. But he will not make friends with any of these creatures and when his heart aches with longing he will curse me.

    Have I done all to keep the air fresh? Have I cared enough about the water? Have I left the eagle to soar in freedom? Have I done everything I could to earn my grandchildren fondness?

    ~ Chief Dan George

  10. Jessie S. says:

    No scoffing here. I really enjoyed this post.

  11. Mark Zeiger says:

    And the choir says, “Amen!”

  12. Roy Mielke says:

    Thought a lot about my post about gloating, I hope you did not think I meant you were gloating. To each his own. My wife and are moving to Funter bay AK. soon to care take a cabin for two years. Hope to start a blog to keep track of our daily life. I will give you the link to keep in touch…..

  13. Mark Zeiger says:

    Roy, first of all, I appreciate learning that I’m not the only one who thinks about what’s been said here, and that you share my concern about how statements might be taken. But, no, I didn’t feel you meant that I was gloating. Thanks for clarifying the point, though.

    I have fond memories of Funter Bay! Maybe some day I’ll tell my childhood story from there. It was one of those tiny, insignificant moments that have grown to become a disputed point of family folklore. Funter’s heartbreakingly beautiful, like much of Southeast–I envy you. I look forward to reading your blog!

  14. Roger Murphy says:

    As a Christian I have always been thankful to both God and the animal or plant that gave its life to provide sustenance for me and my family. I believe that all life is to be respected and to be treated as ‘humanely’ as possible. In Genesis Ch 1 where it talks about giving Adam ‘dominion’ over all these animals, fish, plants etc I think He meant to properly care for and manage them. In my situation I raise only a small amount of our veggies and the only meat I kill is fish (I buy everything else) and I try to kill them as quickly as possible and much like you I tell the fish thank you for providing a delicious meal. 🙂 We try our best to buy all the meat we buy from places where they were raised and slaughtered as ‘humanely’ as possible. So I find what you do the absolute correct thing and appreciate it greatly!

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