Writing on the mid nineteenth-century development of Chicago’s meat-packing industry, William Cronon observes that the packers, in their corporate efficiency, made it “easy not to remember that eating was a moral act inextricably bound to killing.” By distancing consumers from the messiness of production, modern industrialized societies obscure the environmental and ethical costs of satisfying even our most basic needs. Forgetfulness, as Cronon argues, is a side-effect of a consumer economy (William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West [New York: W.W. Norton, 1992], p. 256). It this ecological amnesia that writer Tovar Cerulli confronts in his book, The Mindful Carnivore: A Vegetarian’s Hunt for Sustenance. Recounting his transformation from a conscientious vegan into a conscientious hunter, Cerulli makes an argument for closing the gap between our food sources and ourselves so that we might better remember our place in the natural world.
Cerulli’s story of becoming a hunter after years of dedicated veganism forms the book’s narrative core. Although an avid fisherman in his youth, Cerulli gradually adopted vegetarianism as he learned about the realities of factory farms and industrialized food production. In college he became a vegan, convinced that there could be no justification for taking the life of a fellow creature. After college, Cerulli moved to a rural community where he took up gardening. It was there that niggling doubts arose about his vegan moral certitude. Cerulli discovered that large-scale vegetable and grain production destroyed wildlife habitat and killed animals. Even his small-scale gardening drove Cerulli to exterminate insects and dispatch a woodchuck or two. Advised by his doctor to reintroduce animal protein into his diet, Cerulli began to search for an ethical path back to meat-eating, one that would allow him to know how the animals he ate lived and died. Hunting provided a way of knowing.
The bulk of The Mindful Carnivore documents Cerulli’s struggle to learn to hunt and to explain the ethical implications of his actions both to readers and to himself. Indeed, Cerulli is at his best when grappling with his own moral ambiguities and internal contradictions. Throughout, he interweaves history, philosophy, biology, and the politics of food production into his tale of gun-safety classes, familial hunting trips, near misses, and disappointing deer seasons. The climactic moment occurs when, after years of failing to get a clean shot, Cerulli succeeds in killing his first whitetail deer. He butchers it in his kitchen while ruminating on ecology, history, and Zen Buddhism. In the end, he concludes that his decision to hunt originated in the same convictions that led to his veganism: “to be mindful of the consequences of my diet, and to confront one of those consequences—the death of animals—with my eyes open” (p. 249).
Since Cerulli is not presuming to write historical scholarship, it should not be surprising that The Mindful Carnivore offers little new to historians of hunting. Drawing heavily on historian Daniel Herman’s work to provide the historical context, Cerulli summarizes a [End Page 166] familiar story: the rise of the frontiersman hunter in the mid nineteenth century, the appearance of the Progressive Era’s hunter-conservationist, the post-World War II democratization of hunting, and the slow decline of hunting’s popularity in late twentieth century. Cerulli’s meditations, however, do suggest an important insight that some historians have missed. The stark analytical categories applied to hunting—utilitarian, subsistence, trophy, sport, market—are, in fact, not so clearly separable. The hunters Cerulli depicts present considerably more varied and complicated explanations of their motives. (Daniel Justin Herman, Hunting and the American Imagination [Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Press, 2001]).
For sport historians, The Mindful Carnivore raises knotty questions about the very definition of hunting and fishing as sports. Cerulli rejects the idea. He takes José Ortega y Gasset to task for elevating the sportsman over the utilitarian hunter and presents a harsh critique of the philosopher’s classic 1942 treatise, Meditations on Hunting. Cerulli’s “mindful carnivore...