Tovar Cerulli and mindful carnivorousness

Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 is about the vast and growing difference between the top and bottom echelons of our society. The highly educated elite live in a kind of a bubble, sharing less and less in the way of values and experience with those on the lower half of the income scale.

While I’ve never thought of myself as the “highly educated elite,” I did manage to hang on long enough at my fancy-pants college to get a degree, and most of my friends, for most of my life, have come from the pool Murray’s talking about. Literally, I’m certainly one of “the great unwashed.” Figuratively, probably not.

Luckily, for those of us not sure just how we fit in, Murray designed a quiz to help us figure it out. Had I taken that quiz four years ago, when I was safely ensconced on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I certainly would have rated “hopelessly mired in elite isolation.” But recent experience has given me different answers to some of the questions. Have you or your spouse ever bought a pickup truck? Why yes, yes we have. During the last five years, have you or your spouse gone fishing? Maybe a hundred times. Have you ever held a job that caused something to hurt at the end of the day? I’ve hauled oysters until everything hurt.

And those things have done more for me than earn me a less contemptible score on Charles Murray’s quiz. They have given me common ground with a lot of people whose background, interests, politics, priorities, and ideas are different from mine. And I am the better for it.

I remember having a disagreement, years ago, with a friend of mine in New York. She expressed surprise that my parents, both irredeemably godless, had nevertheless chosen to raise my brothers and me as Jews. We went to Hebrew school, we went to temple on holidays, we got a standard-issue Jewish education. I explained that, first, Jews go out of their way to accommodate the godless, there being an awful lot of them in the tribe. And, second, it was the community, and not the religion, that my parents valued. And if you want community, there aren’t many places to find it. Religion and ethnicity are about the only two issues a community will coalesce around in this country. (The secular humanists have been trying to disprove that for decades, with no luck so far.)

“Fie!” my friend said. Okay, she didn’t really, because no one ever does, but that was the gist of it. She said that she considered her circle of friends to be the community in which she was raising her son.

That didn’t sound like the kind of community I had in mind, but I had to think about why. The answer I came up with, which I’ve stuck with all these years, is that, in order for a group to count as a community, it has to have people you disagree with. It has to have people you have nothing but that one community characteristic in common with. It has to have jerks. If you cherry-pick your members so that everyone gets along, and everyone likes everyone else, and any small political or ideological differences get discussed coolly and respectfully, that’s no community. That’s a circle of friends and, while it makes for great dinner parties, it is of limited utility as a stand-in for the world as a whole, the place children need to learn to navigate.

For most of my adult life, I’ve had an interesting and vibrant circle of friends. We’ve had great dinner parties. But, as Charles Murray pointed out, coming to Cape Cod, buying the pick-up truck, going fishing, and hauling oysters has expanded my circle. My new, expanded circle includes people I disagree with. It includes people I have nothing but that one community characteristic in common with. It even includes jerks.

And it includes hunters.

Hunting, more than anything, has introduced me to people I would never otherwise have crossed paths with, and I love that I can sit down with someone who may be worlds away from me politically or ideologically and talk about whether it makes sense to try the National Seashore in Truro for deer. Or how to cook a sea duck. Or what kind of dog is best for flushing pheasants.

Or whether there’s meaning to be found in being out in the woods with a gun, in search of dinner.

I suspect many of you read Tovar Cerulli, who blogs at A Mindful Carnivore, and has just published a book of the same name (or almost the same name — a book contract entitles you to a definite article). Had I never left New York, I’d never have met Tovar. Although he, too, spent time in Manhattan, he spent most of it counting the days until he could move away. I miss it so much I hesitate to go there because I’m afraid I’ll never come back. Tovar misses it not at all.

Tovar could, I think, be fairly described as crunchy. He’s an ex-vegetarian. He lives in Vermont. He takes feminist literary criticism seriously. He’s thoughtful and upright and thin. And I’m guessing he’d have to answer yes to the defining question of crunchiness: Are you now or have you ever been a wearer of Birkenstocks?

The Mindful Carnivore is about how Tovar went from a boyhood catching and eating fish to a manhood of veganism, and how he came eventually to see hunting as consistent with the values he had developed over the course of that transformation.

Tovar and I are both adult-onset hunters (an excellent term; his coinage). We both take the idea of killing very seriously. Neither of us would hunt unless we were convinced it was moral. But the similarities end there. Tovar’s story is one of a search for meaning. As he considers it, he says “I would be hunting to confront the death of fellow vertebrates, yes. And I would be hunting to learn about myself and the place I inhabited, to be nourished by the land and participate in its rhythms, and to answer a call for which I had no name.”

I, on the other hand, hunt simply to eat.

Tovar quotes Ted Kerasote, who says hunting should be “rooted in reverence,” and I think there are many, many hunters who agree. Almost everyone I’ve read on the subject finds some kind of meaning or satisfaction in being in the woods, or the marsh, or the fields, and it’s clear to me that I’m the outlier. I don’t look for meaning because I don’t think life has any other than that with which we endow it with our words and deeds. I am as godless as my parents, and I don’t have a spiritual bone in my body. I don’t even really understand what the word means.

All this is by way of saying that Tovar and I approach hunting from very different angles. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. I know Tovar touches a nerve with a lot of hunters, and I’m glad he’s there to articulate ideas that are clearly important to many people – people I talk to, people in my community.

But don’t let all this give you the impression that Tovar’s book is unrelentingly philosophical. It isn’t. Its seriousness is punctuated with humor and periodic questioning whether all that seriousness is warranted. One of my favorite parts is when he first starts deer hunting, and goes deerless for a couple of seasons. At one point, he comes in from another fruitless hunt, irritated. “I was failing as a hunter,” he says. “not only failing to bring home meat, but also failing to find meaning in the pursuit.”

No meat, no meaning. Welcome to my world!

Tovar visits Cape Cod regularly because his Uncle Mark, who I had the good fortune to meet on Tovar’s last visit, lives here. This year, Kevin and I hope to bring both of them out on our boat, maybe in search of bluefish or striped bass. When we’re out there, I look forward to talking to Tovar about some of the bigger issues he finds in fishing and being out in the great outdoors, because otherwise I would probably be thinking about what’s for dinner or whether it would be OK to pee off the stern when we have guests, and Kevin would be thinking about sex.

Maybe I should ask Charles Murray if he wants to join us.

22 people are having a conversation about “Tovar Cerulli and mindful carnivorousness

  1. I scored pretty high on the quiz for a vegetarian with an MFA in art. I’ve always kind of wondered why I thought boyscouts was a good idea (certainly not the uniforms, the god references or the homophobic attitude), why I take my guys fishing and insist on camping in an actual tent.

    This quiz helped remind me why. I’m not going to pretend like I enjoy Nascar, but I think it’s important to not get so caught up in our little bubbles that we don’t understand a large portion of society. Even those we don’t tend to agree with.

    P.S. My points tend to come from living in eclectic neighborhoods and a willingness to engage with folks of all kinds of beliefs. I think there should have been points for “have you ever driven a trailer.”

  2. Thanks much for mentioning my book, Tamar. I’m glad you liked it. I have some atheistic bones left in me, too, despite the animistic meaning I find in the world.

    “Are you now or have you ever been a wearer of Birkenstocks?” I bought one pair, twenty-plus years ago. But within a year or so I was vegan and disliked leather straps. Now, if I’m going to buy footwear made of leather, I’m apt to be found looking at hunting boots…

    • P.S. Birkenstocks never fit me very well, literally or figuratively. As I suggested in a post some months ago, I might reconsider when they come out with a Birkenstalker line.

      I look forward to fishing with you and Kevin. While you’re sitting at the stern, wondering what grand issue we’ll talk about next, I’ll wander to the bow and wonder about relieving my bladder at that end of the boat. 😉

  3. Tamar, I’m sure I’ve told you this story, but it seems relevant to the big-tent community idea and may interest your readers. My husband and I work in an AARP tax preparation program, and every year we do taxes for a very eclectic crowd, one of whom is a very nice man who has spent most of his life in humanitarian work with Christian missions in Latin America and the Caribbean. I’ll call him Bob, since that’s his name. Last year, Bob told me he had been in Haiti after the earthquake and had been outraged at the outright theft by officials of the money and materials that had been sent there for the relief of quake victims. We had a longish conversation during which we both expressed disgust at such doings. Finally he said, “Well, they’ll regret it!” First I envisioned a courtroom with the offenders lined up to receive long sentences. Then I imagined a blood-thirsty crowd pursuing them with torches and machetes. Then Bob said, “There will be a Judgment Day.” OOPS! It had been a very long time since I had had a serious conversation with someone who believed in Judgment Day, with a thoughtful, intelligent person who shared many of my values but came to them from an entirely different place. We all need the occasional Bob in our lives.

  4. Karen — Just last night I watched a video from the TED conference that gave me another reason to agree with you. There’s a woman named Kathryn Schulz who studies being wrong:
    It’s worth taking the 17 minutes to watch it.

    Tovar — Birkenstalkers! I loved it then, I love it now. And I was in no way maligning you for (possibly) having worn them. They’re just a useful emblem. I would have worn them myself except that they made my feet look like gunboats.

    I’m glad you pointed out your atheistic tendencies, because it’s a reminder that you and I are most certainly not polar opposites. I could find someone who was even more different from me, no doubt, but perhaps I enjoy your perspective in part because we have enough common ground to start a conversation.

    Mom — I like that story. And doing the taxes probably serves some of the same function for you as hunting does for me. Anything that gets us out of our bubble is probably a good thing.

  5. Now I’ve got two more books on my reading list. Well, Tovar’s was already there. I’ve been looking forward to its publication because of the ‘mindful’ aspect of his discourses on hunting. I don’t think I have a spiritual bone in my body but I get some kind of pleasure from the act of hunting. Tovar’s thoughtful yet different approach may help me understand other peoples’ relationships to hunting. I certainly didn’t feel very spiritual last night when I came home from the woods deer-less, after dark.

    I live in a community with opinions and experiences so different from my own, that it’s often hard to find an neutral topic for even basic conversations. Differing opinions generate fascinating discussions and lots of food for thought and reflection; Fear of things that are different gets tiresome to navigate in small talk at the feedstore, or in village meetings. I’ll admit that, sometimes, I could do without so many jerks or hardliners in our community. But then I can turn to my circle of friends on blogs like this one.

    Also, Stegmann clogs…a great alternative to Birkinstocks. (Loyal consumer since 1990)

  6. Loyal Birkenstock wearer since (appropriately enough) the 60s. They are on my feet right now. (Stegmann clogs since the 90s, Jen. They’re excellent.) My son Aaron hung out with Ayn Randian Objectivists in his youth and one of the commoner insults they traded was: “Your mother wears Birkenstocks!” But I didn’t change my footwear to spare him the embarrassment.

  7. Notes to my mother.

    One: People who go on Christian missions are pretty good bets to believe in Judgment Day.

    Two: Yo mama wears Birkenstocks? I made that up as a joke. Sucker.

  8. Hey Aaron,
    ONE: You’re right, of course about the beliefs of professional Christians, but that doesn’t mean awareness of the fact is in the forefront of one’s mind during an ordinary conversation.
    TWO: Bad enough to make a sucker of your mother without exposing her credulity to public view decades later.
    So you sucked the life out of both my posts. Congratulations.

  9. Clarks are a lovely alternative to birks. Just sayin. I’m literally on my second pair of these, wearing them every single day, they lasted about 2 yearss.

  10. I have to weigh in on the shoes. My Ecco clogs have been going strong for five or six years now. They wear like iron, and you don’t have to bend over to put them on.

  11. Hoosier Girl says:

    41 points. Woot! In the 80’s Paul Fussell wrote a book called Class which also had a fun quiz at the back (-10 points if you keep your motorcycle in the living room).

    Actually I probably should score a little higher, with some of the questions pro-rated…both my parents were trained as chemists, and actually started working as such when I was in 6th grade, but in elementary school my dad drove trucks (he could make more money than working in a lab) and my mom stayed at home and raised kids and a garden. So I’ve had my share of scrappin’ with the siblings over the Teamster’s blanket. And I knew the gnawing fear and traumatization of having my dad get laid off from his truck driving job (hey, it was the 70s).

    In college, I spent a summer working in an icecream factory making Ben & Jerry’s….yes, it hurt, at first, yes, I got to wear a snazzy uniform and a sweet hairnet (should get an extra point), and yes, I got to take home a LOT of icecream (possibly should have some points taken away).

    AND I got to wear a fabulous high school band uniform while marching in the Tournament of Roses parade (after having decorated a float).

    Some blue collar street cred serves one well in the assorted Marxist debates one gets into at the fancy-pants graduate school. While wearing Birkenstocks. (hey, it was the 90s).

    • Hoosier Girl: I sometimes find it entertaining to be in a graduate school seminar, listening to a particular conversation head off into heady abstraction, and be able to interject a reference to a first-hand experience from logging, hunting, building houses, or cutting apart cars to extract accident victims. Of course, the reference has to be relevant if it is to have the desired (shockingly grounding) effect. 😉

      • HG & Tovar — You’re making me think I need to spend more time doing back-breaking, dirty, emphatically hands-on work. It’s worth it just for the cred.

        But then again …

  12. Great post and review of Tovar’s book (of which I’m currently in the middle of).

    I’ve been pleasantly surprised to have discovered other hunters like you and Tovar who share many things in common with me.

    I always thought of myself as a strange hybrid of a person, immune to marginalization. Atheist, designer, hunter, environmentalist and lover of pickup trucks, architecture, guns, art, and compound bows… Although I cherish the diversity in relationships this franken-genre has afforded me, I’ve never really been able to find others that I can completely relate to, until recently.

    With people like you and Tovar out there, it appears that the AAOHH (Atheist Adult Onset Hunting Hippies) genre isn’t as Frankenstein as I may have thought.

    Side note: you might also like Alain De Botton’s TED talk entitled Atheism 2.0. Its coincidentally related to the idea of building secular, religious-like communities.

  13. I’m posting on this thread belatedly, but I don’t tweet, so can’t be part of the twitter activity. Anyway, I’m Charles Murray’s wife, and will definitely get him up to the Cape some time. I’m a serious gardening dilettante and wannabe farmer. I’m way too old for that, however, so instead of farming, we have an acreage in farm country and watch our neighbors working really hard. It would be great to meet you.

    • Hello, Catherine! For starters, I think watching your neighbors work really hard, preferably with a glass of wine in your hand, is infinitely preferable to working hard yourself. Good choice.

      I am also a gardening dilettante, but I don’t think I even warrant a “serious.” Of all the things we do here, I’ve discovered that I have the least affinity for gardening, and you can tell by my tomatoes. (Luckily, Kevin’s much better.)

      Kevin and I would love for you and Charles to stop by. Preferably during fishing season, so we can see if we can’t land dinner. Failing that, I’ll open the wine and cue the neighbors.

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