Why Am I Vegetarian?

When asked this question, I usually tell the funny story about how my friend Liz Dailey sired me as a veggie in college by showing me one of those shocking “how meat is made” pamphlets; at which I scoffed, and said, “that had no effect on my whatsoever.” I then went to our college cafeteria where, after being greeted by Lunch Lady Bernie, the only person who has ever called me William (my real first name), I took one look at the dead Pennsylvania mammal flesh under the warming lights and haven’t eaten meat since.

If that gets a laugh, I then sometimes segue into the reasons I stayed a vegetarian, which have more to do with how I value consciousness and compassion. I say sometimes, because this second part often makes both me and the listener a little uncomfortable, the way talking about faith often does.

But now I’m afraid I will be terribly tempted to answer that question by reading this gorgeous, humane quote from Henry Beston:

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they are more finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other Nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”

That quote alone would be enough to merit a post in praise; that Beston wrote that while living on Cape Cod–my hometown–in 1926 fills me with a rightness and a joy. I couldn’t wait to leave the Cape when I was a kid; then O’Neill, then Stanley Kunitz and Mary Oliver, now this; their words return the Cape to me as something precious; like if I ever returned to stay (which I don’t intend), I would know how to live there again as if it could be home.

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