The wilderness vegan: Hold the cheese ‘n’ skeeters, please!

Kathleen Stachowski    Other Nations

Let’s say a couple–fairly new at describing themselves as vegan–is backpacking with friends in the Beartooth Mountains along the Montana/Wyoming border. Let’s say the mosquitoes are so thick–zillions of them, dense clouds of them–that they risk inhaling them (check), swallowing them (check), and swat them by the tens in their tent (check, check, check!). They find them floating in their oatmeal and coffee, and plastered into their couscous (check, and check). In spite of the blood-letting, they have a glorious hike above 10,000 feet elevation, are appreciatively reminded of their place in the food chain (this is grizzly country), celebrate one friend’s end-of-chemo first-year anniversary, and return happy and rejuvenated with over 100 bites each.

Time slipped away and before we knew it, three or four years had lapsed since our previous backpack trip. During that same interval, we shifted from vegetarian to vegan. Turns out that backpacking as a vegan isn’t significantly different from backpacking as a vegetarian. Macaroni and cheese was the most notable absence, and powdered soy milk replaced powdered cow’s milk. In hindsight, I realize that our bulk-purchased trail mix had some milk chocolate in it. Oops! OK, so we weren’t the perfect vegan backpackers, but we aren’t perfect anyhow, even at home. We are practicing veganism, and willing to cut ourselves some slack. Our hiking boots, after all, were purchased many pre-vegan years ago and are leather. We might never be “perfect,” but the way I see it, that’s not really the do-or-die point.

The power of veganism is that it’s practiced. Being vegan is often difficult, not only because of the outer resistance we face, but even more because of the inner resistance we experience: our culture has planted its seeds of exclusivism and violence in us from the time of our birth, and a big part of our practice is to cultivate vegan attitudes of kindness and respect for everyone, even our so-called opponents. With this practice, we can plant seeds for a new world of peace and justice in our shared consciousness on this planet and realize and live the truth of our essential interconnectedness. Our path is our daily practice, both inwardly and outwardly, and as the old saying goes, “practice makes perfect.” ~Dr. Will Tuttle, Circle of Compassion

I think back to the early ’80s when I enlisted a friend to hike the Appalachian Trail. That’s right, never backpacked a single step but decided to walk the 2100 mile AT. We scrapped it due to over-use injuries (mine) after four months and 1400 miles. In those pre-vegetarian days (1985 was my turning point of conscience; I had never even heard the word vegan back then), I was unconcerned about animal ingredients and never thought about animal suffering. Factory farming? Not a clue. We ate canned Vienna sausages on that trip. What a difference 28 years can make!

Nearly three decades later, my husband and I are in our REI Half Dome swatting skeeters with intent to kill and remove. I wonder aloud about this, about ethical vegans engaging in wholesale slaughter of another life form. We momentarily stop, look piercingly into each other’s welt-covered face, and return to swatting inside as the droning hordes outside cover the thin mesh and nylon, seeking blood. Our blood.

Mosquitoes aren’t mice, after all. When our house was built nine years ago, mice were built into it along with a then-undiscovered port of entry. We bought a live trap and could have caught and released mice as many times as we cared to set it in a night. We’d turn out the light, start drifting off, and “CLAP!” the trap doors clanged shut. “It’s your turn to empty it.” “No, I’m sure it’s your turn.” One of us would stumble out into the black Montana night, pondering the mountain lion that might prey on us while we compassionately released a field mouse. We bought another trap and ran two simultaneously. When all was said and done and the entry point found and sealed, we’d trapped and released just under 200 mice. We’d long since given up trying to explain to others why we were sleep-deprived zombies. “You’re catching them–and letting them go??? WHY? Surely you know they follow you right back into the house!?!” You can have that fruitless conversation only so many times.

Google just about anything and you’ll find that a) someone has already asked it, and b) someone has answered it, however authoritatively. Do vegans kill mosquitoes? Turns out some do, some don’t. Turns out the line is pretty much where you draw it. Respect for ALL life? Let ’em live. Concern for SENTIENT life? Your call. Compassion Over Killing has this to say at its Frequently Asked Questions page:

Q. Where do you draw the line? Insects? Plants? Bacteria?

A. If the only morally relevant characteristic is the capacity to suffer, then the vast majority of animals abused in the United States today would qualify for moral status. All the animals used for food, fur, animal research, and entertainment possess a central nervous system and are capable of experiencing pain. There are some animals (such as insects) who we are less certain experience pain. It is up to each individual to decide where she or he feels the line should be drawn exactly. Plants and bacteria almost certainly do not experience pain, as they lack any nervous system at all. Nevertheless, even if one wanted to kill the fewest number of plants possible, one would be vegan. We eat substantially fewer plants by consuming them directly, rather than funneling them through farmed animals, who are extremely inefficient in converting plants to protein.

Where’s my line? I remind myself that even the Dalai Lama–the enlightened compassionate one–is not a vegan and not always a vegetarian:  “His Holiness’s kitchen in Dharamsala is vegetarian. However, during visits outside of Dharamsala, His Holiness is not necessarily vegetarian” (official website). I realize that mosquitoes hatch by the gazillions, and their eggs can remain viable for years–even without water. I have to admit, though, that in this case, it’s really not about the individual skeeters, but about me.

Native American legends (Tlinget, for example; Tuscarora and Iroquois) explain how mosquitoes came to be. One typical scenario offers up a giant or monster who preys on the people until killed–cut into pieces, splattered, or burned. Those pieces, blood drops, and ashes become mosquitoes who continue to torment humans.

Will skeeter-swatting for self-preservation in the Beartooths have some similar karmic outcome? Is it substantially different from participating in, say, a coyote killing contest or blasting prairie dogs into a “red mist“? I believe it is, both in complexity/sentience of the target and intent of the agent. But that doesn’t mean I enjoy it…or even have to like it.

6 Responses

  1. I both smiled and commiserated with you throughout this post, Kathleen. Let’s just say you wouldn’t have found me asking WHY you released those dear mice. (Or were they deer mice? ha!) And you won’t find me blaming you for trying to preserve your skin and your sanity and your sleep against those welt-raising swarms.

    Question: Do you have a bookstore near your house? If so, could the clerk order KINSHIP WITH ALL LIFE by J. ALLEN BOONE for you? (It’s probably on Amazon, but I try not to recommend this purveyor of dog-fighting books and foie gras.) Alternatively, do you have a library that, even if it doesn’t own KINSHIP, could order it from another library system (in-state or out-of-state) via Inter Library Loan?

    While the author doesn’t feature mosquitoes, he devotes seven chapters to the story of Freddie the Fly, as engaging, intelligent, inspirational and intuitive a friend to Boone as any dog you’ll run across. (Allen and Freddie communicate silently.)

    There’s also a tale about ants, which you could apply to your mosquitoes friends the next time you see, feel or hear them (needn’t wait for another backpacking trip to experiment).

    The book’s primary character, though, is German Shepherd silent film star Strongheart, with whom Boone develops an incredibly deep, spiritual relationship.

    Implementing the ideas in this precious book has elevated my relationships with all species of insects, from fire ants to flies, from roaches to rats, from skeeters to spiders. We all live in peace and harmony, either not venturing into each other’s territory or not sweating the occasional shared space. They wouldn’t think of hurting or disturbing me, because they know I’m not going to bash them to smithereens. A literal love fest! 🙂

  2. Ha! Coincidentally, I just did my first backpacking trip as a vegan just this past month (I’ve been a “self-identified” vegan for just over a year now, although I’ve been vegetarian for about six years). We were in the Adirondacks, it was wet and there were plenty of skeeters…!

    Fortunately, skeeters don’t tend to bite me much. Plus, when it gets bad, I use DEET…ok so that’s messed up in itself but, as you say, no one’s perfect. But the previous poster’s story reminded me of something. One night a couple skeeters got into my tent. Now the Adirondacks are dark at night, and this was new moon time. I didn’t relish the thought of a search and destroy mission flashing my little headlamp around the tent all night. So I lay back and said. “You can stay here if you want. But you take just ONE BITE and you’re dead.”

    Laugh if you want, it worked. I didn’t get bitten at all. Could have been the chilly air, could have been any number of things. But I like to think I sent out my intention loud and clear, so that even skeeters got it.

    As a vegan, and, I confess, someone who’s always been interested in bugs, I go back and forth on the insect/arachnid question. On the one hand, I’m pretty merciless to roaches (I live in a city). On the other hand, I really like ants and wouldn’t intentionally kill them, and spiders do far too much good (they eat roaches) for me to hurt them. But ethically it is a grey area. I try to be as vegan as possible, which means my first response should be to do no harm to anything that has the remote possibility of sentience, which includes bugs. I stay away from things like mussels and clams just because it makes things easier for me to draw the line as wide as possible, less fudging (no pun intended) that way…

    Another interesting thing about my trip (I went with a group of nonvegans) was how respectful of life the nonvegans were…except when it came to meals. They’d go out of their way to avoid stepping on caterpillers or spiders, tiptoe respectfully over beaver dams…yadda yadda. But then they’d chow down on chicken, chicken chicken…I never saw so many ways to cook poor chickens. Yes, I did go into a vegan rant along the lines of….”you think that spider is worthy of life but you condemn chickens to horrible lives and deaths…how illogical is that…” Fortunately I didn’t alienate anyone, so maybe I planted a seed.

    One last thing: have you checked out I got a lot of my food from them. Tasty stuff. And yes, my old boots are part leather, too, and they’ll probably last for years more…

  3. There is a great passage in a book by Matthew Calarco, titled _Zoographies: the Question of the Animal from Heidegger to Derrida, that deals with the problem of ethical purity. He writes,

    “It is often assumed by ethical vegetarians that vegetarianism is a kind of ultimate moral ideal, one that exempts its practitioners from any kind of violence toward animals and that substantially challenges the existing anthropocentric ethicopolitical order…

    While I would certainly not want to disparage the efforts of vegetarians to limit violence toward animals in their personal lives and in public institutions and practices involving the slaughter and consumption of animals, I think it is important also to underscore that vegetarianism is itself fundamentally deconstructible…no matter how rigorous one’s vegetarianism might be, there is simply no way to nourish oneself in advanced, industrial countries that does not involve harm to animal life (and human life, as well) in direct and indirect forms…Simply tracking the processes by which one’s food gets to the table is enough to disabuse any consumer of the notion that a vegetarian diet is ‘cruelty free’….As such, a vegetarian diet within the context of advanced, industrial societies is, at best, a significant challenge to dominant attitudes and practices toward animals, but it remains far from the kind of ethical ideal it is sometimes purported to be…there are other ethical stakes involved in eating that go beyond the effects consumption of meat and animal byproducts has on animals. All diets, even organic and vegetarian diets, have considerable negative effects on the natural environment and the human beings who produce and harvest food. Consequently, if we consider ethical vegetarianism to constitute an ethical stopping point, these other concerns will be overlooked. And it is precisely these other concerns, concerns about other, often overlooked forms of violence, that should also impassion a deconstructive approach to the question of the animal.” [p. 134-5]

  4. Geology, I agree, veganism is not an ethical stopping point. It is, rather, a moral baseline — the *minimum* one can do to “challenge dominant attitudes and practices towards animals”, especially the property paradigm. As such, I don’t know too many vegans who consider themselves “ethically pure”, or relieved of all responsibility to consider what any of their choices mean for animals, and humans as well. I personally don’t see any way to feed 7billion people (and we don’t) without negative effects on the natural world, even assuming everyone were vegan.
    Veganism should be seen as what it is, the baseline practice of an ethical stance that rejects the notion of animals as property. Not a cure all.

  5. Thank you, Lorien, for making essentially the reply I had intended to write a couple of weeks ago, but you said it better. M. Calarco states, “It is often assumed by ethical vegetarians…” etc., but is it really? Often? Like you, most ethical vegans that I know would never claim to have arrived at an ethical end point…but granted, I just don’t know that many. I am well aware that I have to make compromises (some knowingly, perhaps; some unknowingly, perhaps; some unwillingly, perhaps) to live in a society where the status quo is built on exploitation.

  6. Though I might go on with personal anecdotes of the numerous vegetarians/vegans I know with this sentiment of moral purity, I think it’s more important to note that Calarco is addressing the tendencies of certain philosophers in particular — philosophers who are sympathetic to vegetarian/vegan concerns. In this section of the text, he is addressing an argument by David Wood who insists that deconstruction is vegetarianism (linking both deconstruction and vegetarianism with a sort of justice that is responsive to ‘the other’ whether human or otherwise).

    Even more important is that this argument opens vegetarianism/veganism up to continual critique. As you said Lorien, veganism becomes a moral baseline, not an end — and to that, it also becomes one entry point (among many) by which to think about and respond to a myriad of political struggles (i.e. ecological, economic, race, gender, etc. etc).

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