A couple of weeks ago, my partner and I headed out to the river to go fishing for the first time this summer. It’s an activity that I both love and hate. Usually, to help alleviate my desire to turn all of the fish and bait into personal pets, I make my partner bait the hooks and handle any of the catches.
This trip started no differently.
The fish were hungry, and I lost my first minnow almost instantly. Ever patient, my partner put down his pole and rebaited my hook while I kept my head turned away.
I dropped my line back into the water and settled in for the wait. As usual, my thoughts turned to the uncomfortable reality that such a peaceful activity would culminate in the death of the bait and fish alike.
I’ve struggled for years with my feelings about meat. Animals are sacred to me. I see them as intelligent, emotional, and cognizant. I believe they have far more similarities to us humans than most people give them credit for and perhaps just a tad bit more connection to whatever I would call the “spiritual” energy of the world.
One would assume that I would be a strict vegetarian as a result.
Except that I also view plants as sacred, intelligent, emotional, and cognizant. Certainly not in the same way . . . but kind of in the same way. Plants play. They react to “pain” stimuli. They can move, albeit limitedly. Some are even carnivorous.
I had reached the point where I realized that fishing didn’t make me uncomfortable because I thought it was wrong to eat the fish but because it reminded me of the reality of everything I eat. The sad truth is that in order to live, I have to take life of one form or another.
Becoming a vegetarian would be an easy way to distance myself from the discomfort of taking life for food. The death of the plant may not be as visibly disturbing as the death of an animal since I am more attuned to the pain cries of the former, but deep down, I know that I’m still killing a living thing when I eat, whether it’s a carrot or a trout.
My explorations in herbalism introduced me to the concept of leaving a gift when I harvest a plant to thank the earth for her provision, and the practice had helped me find consecration and reciprocity in my eating habits—at least with plants.
Animals were harder to reconcile. I did what I could to buy products from ethically treated animals, but I still struggled with ways to give back to the animal world. Bringing the river water didn’t seem as much of a gift as bringing my tomato plant water, and fertilizer didn’t seem like a good way to give back to the fish.
In perfect irony, it was while I was in the mire of my confusion that my line went taut. I began reeling in and could tell immediately that I had something fairly large on the other side. Adrenaline kicked in; excitement drove out my ambivalence.
Suddenly, the fish jumped out of the water, twisting its body magnificently. I squealed and kept reeling, only noticing a moment later that there was no longer any weight on the line. My squeal turned to a disappointed cry as I brought the line all the way up with the empty hook dangling at the end.
The fish was gone.
My bait was gone.
I wavered between tears and laughter as my partner explained how bass sometimes throw themselves free, but it was the laughter that won out. Only a moment after I lost my biggest catch, I was inexplicably happy that the fish had gotten a free meal.
It suddenly seemed so clear. Whether I liked it or not, fish were not vegetarians. I had to meet them where they were with a gift they could appreciate. Minnows, worms, frogs—these were their foods. By bringing them what they could eat, I gave as I took.
This time, I baited my own hook, acknowledging my discomfort as well as honoring the harsh reality that life is a deadly affair. I felt a flicker of understanding of the purpose behind animal sacrifices, the sacred symbolization of this cycle of life that was so apparent to ancient peoples but so obscured in our current society.
We left that day with enough fish to make a chowder that fed us for several days. In return, we had fed both big and little fish and given a handful of minnows their freedom.
I still mourned the deaths of what we caught, but it was with the humility of realizing how unsuperior I was to the rest of nature. Out in my yard, along the riverbank, down in the middle of the forest—everywhere I go I will find animals and plants taking and giving life. I finally realized that could not remove myself from that cycle, but I could accept my place within it and handle it responsibly.