Recently I had an e-mail exchange with a food blogger who said she was feeling a bit stuck. She sent her story to me for review. After having read it I wrote her back with my input. I began: “The more we diverge from our ancestral experience of food the more abstract and dispassionate our current experience becomes.”
For days that statement stuck in my head and I wondered exactly what I had meant. I began to examine my beliefs around food. Those beliefs have evolved far from where they had been for almost my entire life. For most of my life I ate like a typical American: in the car, standing on a street corner, in the movie theater, at my desk. I ate from gas stations, pass-through windows, street carts, cellophane bags, and microwave containers. I did as the prevailing culture did. I followed the fashionable diet trends: low fat – low carb – low red meat – all protein – you name it.
But it wasn’t food I was eating, it was simply nutrition, in the guise of an enemy, a friend, a necessity and only enjoyed if it were sinful or unhealthy. And even that momentary enjoyment seemed always meager. There was no ritual and no meaning, it was just food.
It was a trip outside of the country that unexpectedly woke me up, raised my consciousness and provoked me on a journey to understand food and our relationship to it, in a way I never could have here in America.
The Czech Republic is often regarded as backward or third world because of its recent history as a communist-block country. To Western minds it lacks the “sophistication” of the developed and industrialized countries of the West. But it is important to note that the Czech Republic is a modern, industrial nation. It’s a nation with a rich culture and history despite its having been dominated for centuries by one imperialistic power or another.
In spite of its cruel history, the Czech people exist in multiple worlds. The country functions in the constant acceleration of the world, yet somehow manages to cherish and nurture its rich traditions.
Like most of Europe, the Czech Republic has little or no “wild” areas because of having been populated for so long, and densely populated in recent history. The landscape has been fashioned over time with sporadic, immaculately manicured “forests”. Each forest provides natural borders between villages, towns and cities.
On this particular visit, my friend, in her labored English, told me about her father’s role in the local forest. From her description of his duties and responsibilities, I automatically imagined him to be a Forest Ranger. As she continued to explain, I then understood he was not a Forest Ranger, but rather, a “steward of the land.” He and other villagers cared for the forest. They cull the sick and injured animals. They keep stock of the predator/prey balance and act accordingly. They put out food when natural conditions did not provide enough. They raise pheasants and other fowl on communal land and release them into the forest when they are certain of the bird’s survival.
The (mostly) men and women care for the land and the bounty it provides. That care is exercised with all the inherited knowledge of perfect permaculture. There are no elected officials. There is no governmental supervision.
In addition to the men’s management of the forests, Czech women tend to the ever-present gardens on each residential lot large enough for one. The gardens reinforce a sense of community and foster family gatherings during planting and harvest. Also, they are an insurance against the harsh winters – and probably an assurance of survival given all the hardships their country has endured in the past.
I didn’t get the association of the forest to the gardens until I was asked to sit down and watch a home video. It was explained to me that I was about to watch “the hunt.” Internally I resisted, as I had always been averse to hunting. I believed it to be cruel, unnecessary and an expression of man’s arrogance and entitlement over all other beings. I was the type of person who deliberately tried not to think of where meat came from. Even though I was reluctant, the endearing graciousness of my hosts motivated me to watch what I imagined would be a tortuous horror movie.
I expected camouflage and self-righteousness bravado as some guy picked off an innocent “Bambi” grazing peacefully in the forest. Although still gruesome in my eyes, what I saw was quite different that what I had imagined.
The men of the village – and I do mean almost every male – gathered and discussed the rules of the hunt. Even though I could not understand the language, there was a natural hierarchy within the group as certain hunters were afforded reverent attention. It was these men that gave the others their positions and instructions. Then, in a regimented line they began their slow march through the forest. As the uniformly spaced line of hunters advanced, they began to flush out, what seemed to me, every creature in the forest. As the animals became visible each hunter would selectively shoot what was in his lane.
As this scene continued, I became increasingly uncomfortable. Just at the moment when watching became a crescendo in my head, the scene changed. With the hunt complete, the men gathered at the Village House, which serves as a commons facility used for weddings, funerals, town meetings and anything else of import to the local residents.
On the grounds there was a carefully prepared mound. It was the only place the grass had been mown. It was green, impeccable and had obviously been prepared with much care. The men began to lay the dead animals out. Not in piles but in a carefully preconceived order and as they did so the women began to intertwine the animals with vines, leaves and flowers. Layer after layer – row upon row, the animals and flowers began to transform from something I would have thought of as morbid, into a symbol of beauty and homage.
Inside this giant mandala, were concentric circles and symmetrical patterns built of rabbits, grouse, quail, pheasants, deer, turkeys, etc., all adorned with vibrant color and indescribable beauty.
Everyone gathered around in family groups, in groups arranged by rank in the hunt and gathered in arrangements I could not comprehend. The young, the old, those of every social standing gathered to honor the gift that the animals had given to them. They stood in silence and in awe, surrounding the otherworldly mound they had prepared with love. Then my host’s father, in the position of honor, began to play a herald on some type of ancient trumpet. They held hands and sang. I cried. I understood.
I subsequently learned that the animals were taken off and prepared. The meat was distributed equally to the people of the town, no matter their participation, place in society or any other considerations. They were all neighbors. They were all worthy members of a place rooted in caring for one another.
Again I cried, again I understood. I understood that the forest was another kind of garden. I understood that there was a way of being connected to life that had nothing to do with the suffering of animals, the dominance of humans, the profit of corporations or the “sin” of killing for food. I understood that our place, as thinking animals, is to provide everything we can for everything that is – our environment, all its inhabitants and one another.
Looking at the difference in cultures between the sophisticated, modern West and the sophisticated, modern Central Europe, I wonder how it is we have come to be so divorced from the food we eat. Why are we disconnected from the ritual, the communal and the spiritual nature of our food?
I come back to the words I shared with the food blogger: “The more we diverge from our ancestral experience of food, the more abstract and dispassionate our current experience becomes.” As this disassociation grows, so does our separation from all of nature – the nature to which we are inexorably linked and totally dependent upon for our survival.