Encounter with Whitehat: Part 1

A couple of weeks ago I had an experience which I’d anticipated before my arrival, but which I’d been lulled into thinking wouldn’t, after all, occur.
I was surprised when I first arrived here at the level of respect and courtesy shown to me, an outsider, in a town in which everyone knows everyone and most people are kin, whether by blood or by marriage. It’s a blue-collar culture, a hunting culture, a cattle culture. Many men in the community that are middle-aged or older drove cattle in their younger years, and most men work in mining, farming or trades like construction and welding. Gender roles are fairly rigid; women don’t go out to the bars, although many of them hunt alongside their boyfriends and husbands. Country is the music of choice, the troops are supported (in word if not in tangible deed), prodigious meat consumption is the rule at social gatherings, and the politics are, predictably, conservative. Still, many of the people I’ve met have  embraced me warmly, despite my unconventional appearance (my hair, at under an inch long, is probably the shortest of any woman not on chemo in a hundred mile radius) and my atypical dietary choices (I keep quiet about my politics – alienating people is not on my to-do list). There are also many who are guarded and seem suspicious of me; to their credit, they’re never overtly disrespectful.
When I first came to town I was ambivalent about telling people that I don’t eat meat; I thought that revealing this facet of myself might subject me to people’s unfair preconceived notions and prejudices. Now, ridicule, I don’t mind; to me being able to give and take a little shit is an essential part of social life, and often demonstrates ease and affection. So it wasn’t being made fun of that I was worried about. Rather, I was afraid to elicit the type of reaction that eventually came of my willingness to show (at least some of) my true colors. Still, when I revealed the fact to some of my new acquaintances they were completely nonchalant.
I was led to reflect, early in my time here, on the essential similarities between my own values and those of the folks around here. Family is important to me, I believe in helping my neighbors and my community, I like country music and I support our troops (although not the wars). I believe that the government should interfere as little as possible in people’s lives; I think people should be allowed to own firearms for hunting. Of course, I also support legal, minimally restricted abortion, full civil rights for gay people, immigration and cultural diversity, and I get upset when people say racist things in my presence. I don’t generally talk about those things here though, because I believe that most of the people I encounter have their hearts in the right place; whereas we certainly have cultural differences that cause us to hold different beliefs about these issues, I don’t think it’s because of moral deficiency on their part.
I’ve even started thinking that, to a certain extent, folks out here embody the liberal values I cherish – individual autonomy and self-reliance, yes, but also a keen sense of the interconnectedness of individuals, the importance of community and helping those in need – to a greater extent than many people I’ve encountered in more politically “liberal” areas. People here are against government sponsored welfare, and yet they’ll go out of their way to help a neighbor with their time, energy and even money. I think this is a big reason why people in rural areas don’t see the need for government programs to assist the needy: they get by fine without them. The community comes together to support the people who need it. (I would be remiss if I didn’t mention here that Towhee Canyon has a federally funded health clinic that supplies care regardless of a patient’s ability to pay. I got a full teeth cleaning and x-rays there for less than one would spend on a bottle of wine at a restaurant.)
I spent time the other night hanging out with kids like me; fashion-aware, well read, well educated, left-leaning, ironic and self-conscious. Although it was fun, I found myself sorely missing the lack of pretension and the easy selfassuredness of the country folks among whom I live. I sensed an unspoken pressure to be witty and cool, poised and ironic, without an overabundance of dorky earnestness. They ate pizza covered in meat, and yet I would bet that none of them had ever killed or butchered an animal. It seemed to me like the people in Towhee Canyon talk conservative but act in a way that is to me consistent with the essence of liberalism (at least in some respects).
I’ve even started thinking that people’s relationship with animals here is healthier than it is where I come from. Nobody here thinks that steak is grown in the package. Every family has at least a few avid hunters and many people raise their own animals for slaughter. They respect the beauty and majesty of deer and elk while also seeing in them a valuable protein source. For hard-working people in a place where winters are harsh and money is scarce, it makes sense to kill animals for food. Similarly, the relationships people have with their dogs, cats and horses is a functional one. While people here unquestionably love their pets, animals aren’t just companions; they’re partners and coworkers. Even the element of companionship has a different flavor: in country this rugged and remote, having a dog is more necessity than luxury. It’s not all pretty. Because people’s bonds with animals are so practical and unsentimental, and because their roles are oriented to function, dogs get beaten. Cats are left outside to fend for themselves, and often become coyote food. And yet – people’s relationships with animals seem more wholesome here, more natural. There’s none of the overblown anxiety and preciousness that I associate with yuppy pet-ownership; there are no cat nannies and no luxury dog bakeries, no doggie play-dates or animal reiki (although there are doggie day-cares in the vicinity). Dogs get to run free, to socialize with other dogs, to play in the mud, eat bones, and be dogs. Cats get to hunt and to roam and be cats. In contrast with the countless bored and listless or anxious and neurotic urban and suburban animals I’ve known (my cats included), these animals seem to live full and fulfilling, if often shorter, lives. In my personal experience of urban animal-husbandry, fun and freedom is often sacrificed in favor of longevity. And yet, if we truly believe that animals are a means unto themselves, shouldn’t their lives reflect that? A life without any risk is a poor life indeed, as is a life without meaningful occupation. For many dogs and cats, simply being a pet is not enough to give life purpose and meaning. Many dog breeds were created to work; working breeds without a job to do are destructive and miserable. Cats who can’t go outside are often the same.
And so, in this culture that I consider more sane and reasonable in some areas than my own, I was beginning to get comfortable. I was also starting to warm up to the idea of eating meat – assuming, of course, it was hunted by someone I knew. I’ve already eaten potatoes fried in bacon fat to avoid offending a host and, though I suspect I’ll always avoid pork for what passes as religious reasons in my decidedly secular mindset, I’m not categorically opposed to the idea of eating a little meat now and then.
I was at a party by the river, drinking, smoking and socializing. Country was blaring from the speakers of a massive white truck, dogs were running around, drunk people were behaving absurdly, and I was feeling good. As I invariably do in such situations, I gravitated to the food table to graze – there were potato chips, which I dearly love, but seldom allow myself to buy, and chocolate cake, which I can’t stop eating until I’m physically ill, and watermelon, one of summer’s greatest delights. Those gathered around the table encouraged me, telling me there was plenty of food, most notably, pork from a whole pig that had just been roasted. Emboldened by the acceptance I had so far received, I responded that I didn’t eat meat.
That’s when the trouble began.
(To be continued…)

About ea

Reluctant technophile, immoderate lover of words, food, cogitation, the sensory world. We are not done evolving and there is no free will.
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