When I walked 1,450 miles across Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Montana in 1995 and canoed the Missouri River back to Kansas City, I was left with a series of personal choices that arose from contact with the people and landscapes I had seen in my adventures. Life’s possibilities opened before me, probably due to the trip giving me new eyes with which to see the world.
But the one thing that lingered with me, that bothered me nights when I tried to sleep, was the state of those landscapes and how the things people did to them affected the denizens of the places I’d been. Decades of U.S. agricultural policy and government money changed the ways Americans used the land. Where once a variety of crops reached to the horizon, corn for livestock feed and high-fructose corn syrup was now the major product of many farms. The land out west was scarred and overgrazed. Irrigation with non-renewable ground water increased yields and impoverished the population.
For years after my trip, I thought about the sublime beauty of the vast landscapes that had unfolded before me. Every footfall revealed new perspectives of what I had once thought of as monotonic and uninteresting. I saw in the nooks and crannies bits of wildlife that eked out an existence from the crumbs left to them.
This differed from the more left-to-itself sceneries of Yellowstone and the Upper Missouri Wild and Scenic River. The contrasts pestered me. What was the fundamental difference between what we had exploited for food and wealth and what we exploited for enjoyment of natural spaces? I read more about irrigation on the Plains and water in the West. Gobbling up books and reports on groundwater and soil conservation, I also began to understand the powerful forces behind food production and distribution.
Water was the most problematic for me. I already knew the Ogallala Aquifer was in trouble but it was only with further reading of government and water district reports that I found out how critical its state was. The aquifer, a vast underground store of fresh water, was being depleted faster than nature could refill it. In fact, if left on its own from this day forward, it would take 6,000 years to recharge.
Streams and rivers play in an important role in the nature of the West, particularly beyond the 100th Meridian. The creation of irrigation from human-built reservoirs causes all kinds of problems for fish and fowl. Irrigation itself creates issues with soil salinification and decreasing fertility. The formation of water districts on the state and federal levels accumulates power in the hands of a few and erodes democratic institutions—especially when the highest and best use of land is considered only in corporate and government revenue.
The way we alter the landscape to serve our ends did not provide for the well-being of all but for corporate and shareholder profit once the products of irrigation and monocropping reached the store shelves. At the middle of the 1990s, nearly all the beef in grocery store coolers (80 percent) came through just four companies. Four companies controlled 60 percent of chicken production. The same number of corporations dominated 85 percent of pork production.
I have always been critical of power accumulation and conscious of who and what kinds of corporate entities have the power and wealth to affect the outcomes of the ballot boxes and the legislatures. What was the best way for me to try to limit corporate power, help diversify farm production, limit my impact on the landscape, and do justice to the democracy?
With this in mind and with the impressions of land, small town, and wildlife, on January 1, 1997, I decided to stop eating meat. These corporations had plenty of money. They didn’t need mine. I would be one less mouth that would fuel the market for feedlot livestock raising and desertification of the landscape through overgrazing. I would no longer be part of the machinery of irrigated monocropping for feedstock. I would be doing my part, hopefully, to diversify the rural marketplace by increasing demand for vegetables and root crops (beyond potatoes). Maybe, my effort would work toward a more democratic world and put more power in the hands of small farmers and food companies.
That’s where vegetarianism for me began, with the environment and people. It wasn’t a giant leap for me, as meat was not a big part of my diet to begin with. Since I like to eat, I found I could feed on bigger piles of food without gaining any weight. The variety of what wound up on my plate increased, and I knew that, down deep, I was getting a better ration of vitamins and minerals with the diversity of my diet.
But something else began to happen. I have always felt empathy with animals. Their pain has always been, in some way, my pain. I had looked cows, sheep, and goats in the eye on my trip. I realize that to anthropomorphize can be problematic. After all, farm animals do not share all human emotions and powers of reflection and contemplation. Still, as I advanced in my vegetarian leanings, I began to feel that creating more pain in a painful world ought to belong to powers greater than me. I ought to seek to reduce suffering, not just in the animal world but also in the human world.
I have come to the realization that I cannot willfully kill anything anymore. Even the errant mosquito or fly I remove from my surroundings and let them free to go ply their bothersomeness elsewhere. Intrusive spiders find homes in secret corners of the basement and in the side and backyard of the house. Ants get to live where they must and I just try to keep a clean kitchen so they and their roach cousins don’t find food enough to stay. Mice, what we have of them, must find their own ways in the park.
Vegetarianism led me into greater service to others. My spending and giving habits have changed a great deal since I went on that trip. I seek to limit the harmful reach of my dollars and want to increase the amount of succor and comfort I can lend to my fellow human beings.
I’m not the kind of vegetarian who forces his/her/their wishes and lifestyles on others. This is my way. I do my best to stick with the course in a monetary, conscious/conscience, and moral consistency. I do this because I want the world to be a better place. I know that, as a member of this society, I’m locked into a way of life that has a negative impact on the people and world around me. Vegetarian eating and conscious money making and spending are just my ways of doing damage control.