Even among history nerds such as myself, the name of Henry David Thoreau rarely comes up over morning coffee. And why should this long-dead poet, naturalist, and borderline anarchist expect to still share the dazzling limelight with the likes of Ted Cruz, Kim Kardashian, and Donald Trump.
Yet, I’d like to think deep within their font of general knowledge, a majority of Americans could plumb several bits of Thoreau trivia, stuff like “perfected his backstroke on Walden Pond,” “did hard time for tax evasion,” and “had one mean neck-beard.”
My own thoughts on this 19th century oddball run marginally more precise, at least enough to recall one particular musing on the economies and realities of farm life:
“I am wont to think that men are not so much the keepers of herds as herds are the keepers of men, the former are so much the freer.”
Speaking on behalf of multiple Harrington generations who voluntarily enslaved themselves to endless cycles of calf-pulling, hay-making, cattle feeding, watering, branding, vaccinating, doctoring, planting, harvesting, sorting, culling, moving, fencing, breeding, and marketing, Henry David absolutely nailed it.
Growing up, I can’t remember a single family vacation where my Dad was present long enough to lose his cowboy boots for sandals. Far from a deadbeat parent, this keeper of herds was simply committed to the demanding art of animal husbandry, a complicated partnership that had evolved over thousands of years, inuring to the benefit of both man and beast.
Indeed, this revolving door of keeper and kept is so taxing that many in agriculture will no longer even consider the business model. More times than not these days, Old McDonald is too busy planning his winter cruise through the Caribbean to bother with an “oink-oink” here or a “moo-moo” there.
But if many modern producers respectively pass on the grueling livestock dance in favor of less stressful lifestyles tending row crops, a disturbing number of urban spectators and critics ignorantly pan this time-honored enterprise with puzzling shouts of immorality and animal cruelty.
Vegan Gene Baur, president and co-founder of Farm Sanctuary, a farm animal rescue organization, can often be seen leading this misguided parade. As a self-appointed savior for the abused livestock recklessly spewed by commercial agriculture, Baur essentially sees the long-forged alliance of domestication as unholy, a raw and exploitive deal wrought by greedy man to rob animals of the unquestioned bounty and bliss of nature.
Promoting his new book entitled “Living the Farm Sanctuary Life: The Ultimate Guide to Eating Mindfully, Living Longer, and Feeling Better,” Baur appeared on “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart earlier this week. After he explained that the Farm Sanctuary’s mission was to allow livestock to live out their “full lives” and “know that they were our friends and not our meals,” Stewart felt compelled to admit that it was “tougher to eat meat once you know the animal’s name.”
Unfortunately, such shallow sentimentality and silly romanticism can be found among throngs of city dwellers who think of livestock as “pets” and farms as “parks.” While it won’t have much impact on farm GNP, I think the ludicrous effort by NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio to ban carriage horses from Central Park is symptomatic of how disconnected the nation has become with the realities of nature, the wisdom of evolution, and the economic necessities implied by each.
Needless to say, farmyard cruelty that results in measurable physical pain must never be tolerated. On the other hand, inferred states of animal angst such as boredom, loneliness, alienation, purposelessness, or despondency should be fully recognized for what they truly are: human perceptions projected upon relatively dumb, well-cared-for animals who are probably as “happy” as they’re going to get.
But there’s a larger point to be made. Those basically kind and gentle champions against cruelty (like Baur) need to be reminded that the very process that domesticated certain animals over the millennia — that demanding relationship between keepers and kept, that complex give-and-take negotiated by forces of evolution — was initially set in motion to curb the inherent cruelty not of man but of nature itself.
Livestock producers, dedicated meat eaters, and committed vegans alike would be well served to study and appreciate the history of domestication. In that regard, I can think of no better book to recommend than Stephen Budiansky’s “The Covenant of the Wild: Why Animals Chose Domestication.”
This compelling narrative tells a life-changing story of cooperation between species, how man and animals struck a mutually beneficial pact against the threatening forces of nature (e.g., drought, starvation, extreme cold, predators). While so many do-gooders simplistically build a moralistic wall between man and a false, paradisiacal model of nature, Budiansky puts alternating keepers and kept all in the same arena:
“If life with man was a better evolutionary bargain for domesticated animals than was life in the wild, then it makes no sense to say that nature (really just another work for evolution) ends where man’s presence begins. And it raises doubts about larger judgments based on the premise that whatever is wild is pristine, whatever is human is tarnished. We are easily shocked by the horror stories of the laboratory and barn in part because we are ignorant of the greater horrors of the wood and water, horror stories written by nature herself.”
Although Henry David Thoreau sought to place nature on a high pedestal, I wonder how much ambiguity he would admit to whenever Massachusetts’ harsh winter wind would howl across the frozen surface of Walden. In understanding that freedom sometimes just means survival, he may have sensed the real bond between keeper and herd.
John Harrington can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org