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In the farmer’s market on Saturday morning, we stood in line to buy bread. We did not stand in line to buy a peach raspberry pie and bread, but that’s another story (with a happy ending. The pie was worth it.) Next to the baker’s display was a booth set up by a local businesswoman who specializes in unique homemade dog treats. As my mother is owned by a dear border collie and I’m always on the lookout for something they might like, I idly checked out the booth while my partner waited in line (to buy bread, not pie.)
I found rows of attractively-packaged, carefully labeled, very expensive bags of dog goodies, most of which were vegetable-based and proudly labeled as containing “no animal biproducts.”
Sometimes I feel pretty despairing about the world. I’m sure this businesswoman is a well-meaning and hard-working person trying to earn a living in central Maine who cares about dogs. However, it would be good to avoid spelling errors on her labels and dogs are not vegetarians or vegans.
There is, in fact, debate among veterinarians and scientists about whether dogs are omnivores or carnivores, but recent research based on physiology suggests dogs are indeed carnivores. Many wild canines are apex predators. Many perform the vital function of carrion eaters and scavengers. Dogs are not vegetarians.
There are a lot of dark monsters walking the streets right now. Rampant narcissists, greedy capitalists and fanatical ideologists are slowly consuming the world. There’s another ogre abroad, though, one bathed in blue light and wearing angel wings, and that is our willful ignorance and denial of the physical and biological realities we live and die with, our inability to work elegantly with complexity and shades of grey and the cult we’ve made out of love and peace.
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One of my favorite writers on Medium, Kay Bolden, recently wrote a piece entitled Love is a Warrior, Not a Saint. She is absolutely correct. Love is not a saint. Love sees things clearly. Restricting our dogs to a vegetarian diet is not love. It’s animal abuse. If we love our dogs, we appreciate them for the magnificent companions and colleagues they are, and dogs are not vegetarians. If we love our dogs, we give them a nice raw, bloody, meaty bone now and then and we do not force them to struggle on a grain or vegetable-based diet and handfuls of supplements in order to address their nutritional needs. Wild canines form packs and hunt. They kill birds, rodents, rabbits and even larger animals, tear them apart with their teeth and eat them raw. That’s what a dog’s ancestry is. Refusing to accept that is not love.
Dogs have evolved with humans for thousands of years and have adapted to scavenge and forage amongst people. Most dog owners know that their pets will, if able, routinely eat all kinds of rubbish and frequently suffer digestive consequences. If humans are wiped out overnight in some kind of a plague, our dogs will consume our dead bodies, form packs, and begin hunting.
I despise what human beings have done to animals. Animal testing, the terrible practices of factory farming, our idiotic greed for things like rhino and elephant horns and furs, and our irresponsibility, cruelty, stupidity and malice have done no end of harm to the entire animal kingdom. We seem bent on destroying every habitat on the planet (often so that people can feel self-righteous about how peaceful and loving they are as vegans and vegetarians, never mind that Big Ag wipes out hundreds of thousands of organisms and poisons the soil in every field it monocrops, not part of the natural process of life and death) as quickly as possible, leaving nothing but sterile wastes behind us. We do this. People. Homo Sapiens.
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Bleating about love and peace and refusing to recognize carnivores, herbivores, the extraordinary complex system of Planet Earth and the necessity and function of all parts of it is just as bad as clearcutting the rainforest. Mother Nature is about prey and predator. When it’s healthy, the natural system is a complicated, dynamic dance of life and death involving countless organisms. Carnivores hunting and eating meat is not an act of violence or hate. Predators hunting prey is the natural order of things. Life on earth depends on it.
Somewhere along the way we seem to have lost our innate wisdom and connection to life. The modern age is all about arrested development. We’re like small children in sunny nurseries having a tea party with our stuffed animals and dolls. We’ve distorted love and peace into something prim and sweet, entirely artificial and entirely one-dimensional. Peace and violence are mutually exclusive. Love is entirely peaceful. Death is entirely hateful and violent. Love and peace are pretty. Love and peace are nice. They’re tolerant. They contain no animal “biproducts.”
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What dangerous, infantile lies. Love is the face of the Divine, and the face of the Divine looks upon fire and flood, thunder and lightning, sand and ice and sea. The face of the Divine looks upon the musky violence of reproduction, the grinding bones and tearing tissue of birth, the vast cycles of predators and prey that encompass each layer of life from the smallest microbes to the largest animals. The face of the Divine orchestrates the checks and balances that ensure population control, which is often driven by disease, famine and drought. The Divine dances a passionate, sensual, joyful dance, knee-deep in blood, semen, bone, flesh, fat, hair, scales, feathers, rot, vomit and excrement.
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In the midst of this beautiful, intricate world it’s we alone who have the fantastic hubris to refuse to participate. It’s we who deny the very ground of our being, the substance and structure of flesh and bone and biology. We rant about inclusivity and equality while we steadily eradicate life on earth, self-destruct, and allow ourselves to be divided from one another, never pausing long enough in our fatal greed and grotesque need to win and be right to understand that life and death already are inclusive and equal. We all must eat and drink, successfully procreate if our genetic material is to survive, and die. We’re all part of the magnificent turning wheel of life, whether we like it or admit it or not. We’ve allowed our contemptible ideologies, our fears, our ignorance and our absurd desire for the higher moral ground to weaken us and we’ve become the most dangerous form of life on the planet, not only to ourselves but to every living thing around us. Then we project our madness onto the animals who depend upon us, reward the criminals who market vegetarian dog food and call that love. We call that being peaceful.
No. That’s not my love. My love and compassion are bigger and wider than that. I love the glorious cycle of life and death, even if it means I dip my hands in blood and endure the stench of decaying flesh. I muster the humility to learn about interconnectedness and how to participate elegantly in life and death. I love myself and others for what genetics, evolution and biology make us. I work for peace. I can wield the tool of violence if necessary. I respect and welcome death, recognizing it as a sacred consort to life.
I will give a dog a bone.
My daily crime.
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As an oral storyteller, I’m committed to gathering old tales from all over the world and retelling them because they contain blueprints for life. Each story is a teacher, a small piece of code, a seed, a fragment of wisdom, a snippet of DNA. Stories speak to us about who we are, who we have been and who we might yet be. They speak in the voices of place, people, history and culture.
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Story does not exist without storytellers. Literacy is not necessary, as long as people remain connected enough to pass story on orally. A culture which unravels and frays in its ability to form healthy connections and bonds and at the same time stifles the acquisition and sharing of knowledge is in grave danger of losing stories, and when old stories are lost much of the collective wisdom of our ancestors is lost with them. We become crippled and impoverished. We lose our way in the world and we have to spend time and energy reinventing wheels we learned how to make hundreds of years ago.
As a storyteller, then, I come to you this fine spring week when the snow is ebbing in Maine, leaving behind rich, greasy mud, with the old story of the wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Every old story is in fact many stories. A piece of oral tradition is like a many-limbed tree. As it grows and matures it branches out over and over. Every teller who passes on the tale adds or takes away a piece of it, reshaping it according to the teller’s context in history and place. Still, the skeleton of the story remains recognizable, because the bones contain the wisdom, the old truth, the regenerative pieces that are reanimated over and over by those of us who share them.
The essential truth contained in the idiom “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” has appeared in many times and places. According to my research, the first time was in the Bible, in the Gospel of Matthew, as a warning against false prophets. The sermon goes on to suggest that actions speak louder than words. Thereafter, the phrase was repeated in other Christian religious writing and from there entered into European vernacular. A Latin proverb arose: “Under a sheep’s skin often hides a wolfish mind.”
A 12th century Greek wrote a fable about a wolf who changed his appearance in order to get access to ample food. He put on a sheepskin and mingled with a flock of sheep, fooling the shepherd. The disguised wolf was shut up with the sheep for the night. The shepherd decided he wanted mutton for his supper, so he took his knife and killed the deceitful wolf, mistaking it for a sheep. Here is a branch in the story tree. The Gospel reference warns against deceitful teachers. The Greek fable warns that evil-doing carries a penalty. The bones of the story — the consequences of a wolf disguising itself as a sheep — are the same. The story is now two-dimensional. Such a pretence is dangerous for both wolf and sheep.
Another iteration occurs three centuries later in the writing of a 15th century Italian professor. A wolf dresses himself in a sheepskin and every day kills one of the flock. The shepherd catches on and hangs the wolf, still wearing the sheepskin, from a tree. When the other shepherds ask why he hung a sheep in a tree, the shepherd replies that the skin was of a sheep, but the actions were of a wolf. There it is again: Actions speak louder than words.
Aesop wrote two fables having to do with wolves gaining the trust of a shepherd and killing sheep, but the wolf is undisguised in these cases. Even so, the common theme is clear. A wolf is a wolf, and cannot be trusted with the sheep.
In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, Italian, French and English writers adopted versions similar to the early 15th century Italian tale, in which the wolf pretends he is not a threat to the sheep.
Most of us know the tale of Little Red Riding Hood, whose origins can be traced back to 10th century European folk and fairy tales. In the familiar modern version, a wolf disguises itself as Red Riding Hood’s grandmother and the innocent too-sweet maiden is fooled and subsequently eaten.
My favorite story of wolves and, in this case, goats, comes from my own childhood, the tale of the wolf and the seven kids (young goats). The mother goat must leave the house and warns her seven children about the wily wolf who might try to gobble them up. She says they will recognize her by her sweet voice and white feet, and they mustn’t open the door to anyone else. I was mightily amused by the wolf’s machinations in trying to fool the kids: Swallowing honey to make his rough voice sweet, whitening his black feet with flour. Of course, he does fool the kids and they are eaten, but, much like Little Red Riding Hood, the kids are saved from the wolf’s stomach in the end.
As an adult, this tale doesn’t seem nearly so amusing.
Lastly, modern zoology makes use of the term “aggressive mimicry,” which describes a method of deception by an animal so it appears to either predator or prey as something else.
I’m deeply troubled by what I see going on around me in the world. It appears as though many millions of people are no longer able to discern the difference between wolves and sheep, and this is creating dire consequences for all life on Planet Earth.
How did this happen? Why did this happen? When did this happen? How are we producing college graduates who don’t recognize wolves in sheep’s clothing? What kind of a so-called educational system, public or private, produces such myopia? For two thousand years we’ve understood the dangers of failing to clearly see the difference between sheep and wolves. Such a failure of judgement is bad for the wolves as well as the sheep. Tracing this old tale through time (when most of the world’s population was largely illiterate and uneducated), clearly shows us this is a learned skill. Little Red Riding Hood, the seven kids and several confused shepherds, all innocent, naive and inexperienced, had to learn to recognize a wolf when they saw one, or starve or be eaten. Critical thinking is not an innate skill. Parents, teachers and leaders must actively teach it.
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Here is a wolf. It’s an apex predator; intelligent, flexible and canny. The wolf is evolved to survive and pass on its DNA. It’s not confused about what it eats or the meaning of its life. Its job is to do whatever is necessary to survive and successfully reproduce. As a predator, wolves are an essential part of the complex system we call life. A healthy population of wolves benefits both the land and prey animals.
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Here is a sheep. It’s an herbivore, a prey animal. It’s evolved to produce milk, meat and wool, survive and pass on its DNA. It eats grass. It too is an essential part of the web of predator (including humans), prey and plants. Its presence, properly managed, benefits the land and predators.
One can certainly throw a wolfskin over a sheep and say it’s a wolf, but that doesn’t make it so. Now we have a sheep in the throes of a nervous breakdown, but the animal is still a sheep. It still needs to eat grass. We cannot change a sheep into a wolf.
Likewise, a wolf wearing a sheepskin does not begin to crop grass. Wolves eat meat, no matter what kind of a skin they’re wearing. A simple shepherd might be fooled by a single glance in the dusk if the disguised wolf mills among the sheep, but five minutes of observation will quickly reveal the truth. Sheep do not tear out one another’s throats. A wolf cannot be changed into a sheep.
The wolves of the world, those who prey on others, naturally have a large inventory of successful speeches and manipulations. They study their prey and learn quickly how to take advantage of it. They are everywhere, in politics, religious organizations, schools and cults. They’re athletic coaches and businessmen, people of influence and power. They’re the shadows behind conspiracy theories and cults like QAnon. They disguise themselves with projection and gaslighting, mingle freely with their prey and pick them off, one by one.
In the natural world, an overpopulation of wolves eventually runs out of prey animals. At that point, the wolf population goes down dramatically while prey animal populations recover. Nature seeks a balance of life, and if we create endless flocks of fat, stupid, blindfolded sheep, the grass will run out, wolves will increase, and slaughter will commence as the sheep begin to starve for want of food.
That’s a lot of destroyed land, dead sheep, fat and happy wolves and then, in the next generation, a lot of young wolves starving to death and, (one hopes) a few smarter and wiser sheep and shepherds.
People say we’re a superior species to wolves and sheep. I don’t see much evidence of that recently. We can’t seem to remember what we once knew well. We teach our children how to press buttons and look at a screen and pass a standardized state test, but they can’t tell a wolf from a sheep, and neither can we. The wolves are not confused, but the sheep are milling around aimlessly like … well, like sheep, ripe and ready for slaughter. We’ve allowed ourselves to be brainwashed into believing our true nature is expressed by appearance, words and socioeconomics. Actions don’t count, and neither does DNA. Off we skip to the slaughterhouse, following honey-tongued wolves dusted with flour, who praise us for our compassion, compliance, inclusivity and political correctness while drooling at the prospect of all that food. Meanwhile, our planet degrades so that no one else is properly fed and natural checks and balances are destroyed. Even the noncompliant, troublemaking sheep who manage to escape slaughter will starve. So will the wolves, eventually, after they’ve devoured everyone else.
Maybe then the complex system of life can begin to heal. I hope so.
In the meantime, I’ll be separating wolves from sheep and telling stories.
My daily crime.
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I recently read a brilliant essay on tolerance that clarified for me why I haven’t always experienced successful outcomes while practicing it! Here’s a quote to think about from that article:
“[Tolerance] is an agreement to live in peace, not an agreement to be peaceful no matter the conduct of others. A peace treaty is not a suicide pact.” –Yonatan Zunger, ‘Tolerance is not a Moral Precept’
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I’ve found that one of the many unpleasant effects of pleasing people, trying hard, being compliant and demonstrating unfailing compassion and kindness is that it’s stunted my emotional growth. It’s made me weak, naïve and dependent. It’s taught me to be powerless.
At this point in my life I’m making different choices, and as I do that I’m losing my fuzzy-headed, goody-two-shoes, sweet maiden aspect and becoming much clearer about who I am and what I believe in.
I’m not the only one, either. My second-hand exposure to social media through my partner, as well as my own reading of blogs, articles and essays, demonstrates loud and clear that many of us are in the process of refocusing our beliefs and values. Just yesterday I read an article about the devastating impact of the presidential election on close relationships and social media communities, as well as the way it’s opened up new connections.
As I listen, watch, read, write and think about it all, I return, again and again, to the conclusion that we’re all dealing with the same underlying ideas and issues. I know there’s a lot of heated and poisonous ideology out there about race and ethnicity, sexuality and gender politics, religion, and even what we eat, but underneath all that distracting noise are the same issues of tolerance and intolerance, power and identity, and fear.
I’ve written previously about reciprocity. When I read Zunger’s blog, I immediately understood why my practice of tolerance has had, in some cases, quite devastating results. Once again, I was extending something I wasn’t receiving in return. Having been well trained (and slightly dim) it didn’t occur to me before that it’s not my responsibility to meet intolerance and disregard for my own boundaries with continuing tolerance. I’ve clung to the dangerous belief that if I just model and demonstrate well, the other party or parties will get it, and want to live in a more peaceful and effective way (my way, of course!)
After all, I don’t want to stoop to their level!
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This is a pretty effective set of shackles. Like many women, I’ve accepted them meekly for most of my life.
I’m bored with that now. It’s never worked well. It’s always left me terribly and painfully vulnerable. Turn the other cheek sounds like a lovely ideal, but in practice it sucks. In my study of combatives, I’ve found another option: Go in peace, but if a predator attacks you, be so explosively aggressive that you become the predator and they become the prey. Take them out of commission as fast and effectively as possible and get away from them. Permanently.
I know, I know. Unattractive. Not nice. Being part of the problem rather than the solution. Violence solves nothing.
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That’s all fine, if it works for you.
It hasn’t worked for me. I’m not sure why it’s unattractive and wrong to defend myself (or others), except, of course, from the predator’s point of view.
I don’t care what the predator thinks. Predators have to take their lumps, just like the rest of us.
It seems these days going in peace means having no opinions, asking no questions, voicing no disagreement, stating no beliefs and citing no personal experience. There’s sure to be someone who will step in and try to shut us down with violence, abuse and threats if we speak up.
I love the idea of tolerance as a peace treaty. It gives me everything I need. It accommodates my intention to seek and support connection. It allows me to continue to be completely disinterested in someone’s religion, sexual preference, gender experience, physical anatomy, race, ethnicity, diet or reproductive choices as a criterion for judgement. Tolerance as a peace treaty leaves ample room for the things I do care about—authenticity, compassion, power-with rather than power-over, the desire to connect. It’s a peace treaty I can honor whole-heartedly.
Right up until someone tells me to shut up and sit down, make myself small, stop asking questions. Right up until someone tells me what to believe, what spiritual framework to use, what to think, what agenda to accept, what to do with my body and what my boundaries should be. Right up until I feel uncomfortable, in fact. Then the peace treaty is broken, and I give myself permission to exit, quietly if allowed and like a fighting tigress if hindered.
Tolerance is not an expression of weakness. It’s not permission to use and abuse. It’s not an agreement to abdicate self-defense. It’s not a suicide pact.
Nobody is entitled to tolerance.
Tolerance is a gift that must be both given and received. Let’s be worthy of it.
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