Thirty summers ago this year I was as young as my second daughter is old (eleven years old). Growing up in Idaho, most summers my sister, brother, parents, and I would go camping. For reasons I do not recall, this particular summer only the guys went. The location was also different and instead of heading to Grandjean in the Sawtooth National Forest we went to a spot in the Hagerman Valley. It was in no way a formal campground, just a small, dusty clearing off the state highway near one end of an artificial pond. My father slept in a sleeping bag in the old van he used to transport truck parts for the tractor trailer company he worked for at the time. My brother and I setup the blue and gray dome tent, carefully feeding the long collapsible polls through the sleeves, being careful not to rip the nylon. Once camp was up, my brother and I set out to get the lay of the land.
Walking clockwise a short way around the pond, we found one bank was formed by an elevated earthen embankment. Below the embankment, away from the pond stretched the dry brown grass and sage brush that is typical of the high desert of southern Idaho. To our surprise we spotted a handful of brown rabbits munching outside of their burrows. Though we were perhaps only 20 yards away, they did not seem to notice our presence. I do not remember who first suggested it—I suspect it was me—but we decided to go back to our tent and retrieve the slingshots that we had brought with us.
These were not crude Dennis the Menace or Huck Finn slingshots. No. These slingshots had strong metal arms, surgical tube bands, and a brace that flipped back to rest against your forearm. Without any thought or discussion that I can recall, we decided we’d make an afternoon of trying to hit one of the rabbits. After several hours of getting our range and aim, by chance we hit one of the rabbits. Due entirely to dumb luck, it was a clean kill. Not really expecting to be successful, we weren’t quite sure what to do next. Eventually we climbed down the embankment and retrieved our prey. Actually, it wasn’t our prey, because we had no intention of eating the animal. Killing this little rabbit was quite simply our entertainment. With a heady mix of revulsion and excitement, we headed back to camp carrying the warm, limp brown body to show Dad.
Though he identifies entirely with his adopted state of more than forty years, my father is not from Idaho. He was born on Long Island, just outside of New York City and did not move to Idaho (out west, as they say) until his early adulthood. Undoubtedly he had no more idea what to do with a scrawny dead rabbit than we did. He certainly had no intention of skinning and eating it. We decided we should probably bury it. However, my brother and I had an idea, again I fear it was me, though I cannot say for sure. Before digging a hole in the hard, dry soil, we decided to take a memento of our “achievement.” Though quite squeamish, somehow we mustered the “courage” to use our hatchet to remove the rabbit from its feet. (I think I might even have one of them in an old Vietnam era ammunition container I used to store childhood memorabilia.)
Lacking a shovel, we could only manage a shallow hole in the hard, dry soil. Not-so-smartly we located it next to our tent. With the sun setting, we set about roasting some cheap hotdogs and smores over a small fire and then turned in for the night. Unzipping our tent the next morning we were greeted by the pleasant nip of the cool high-desert air. Almost immediately I noticed our little unmarked grave site was no longer a mound, but a hole. It was unsettling to realize that in the night something—likely a coyote—had unearthed and absconded with our little brown rabbit in the night.
At the time I did not give these events much thought, but over the intervening decades I sometimes think back on this with remorse and more than a bit of sadness. The person I am today bears little resemblance to the boy on the embankment with the slingshot making entertainment of unnecessary death. Today my colleagues likely describe me as an ardent environmentalist and animal ethics advocate—an eco-Jiminy Cricket, according to one account. Much of my teaching and writing as a professor focus on our moral obligations to non-human nature. Indeed, what is more, it has been more than twenty years since I ate an animal. How did such a dramatic conversion come about?
My own experience of meting out unnecessary death to animals reminds me of a famous story told by Aldo Leopold, one of our great American conservationists. Writing a quarter century before the idea of environmentalism even existed, Leopold defended what he called the land ethic, arguing that “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” But Leopold did not start from this position. In his most famous work, A Sand County Almanac (1949), now a classic of American literature, he recounts a sort of conversion experience earlier in his career. He recounts a story eating lunch with colleagues on a high ridge above a river and spotting a wolf and her cubs.
In those days we never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy. . . . When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassible slide-rock. We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.
–Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (1949)
I suspect that the fierce green fire in those eyes haunted Leopold for the rest of his life. I can relate to this feeling. But while I’d like to say that seeing the vacant brown eyes of the dead rabbit caused my conversion, it simply isn’t the case. I killed that rabbit—or was it my brother, I honestly cannot be sure—and though I think I felt some slight remorse at the time, it did not change me. There was no great realization. My conversion was not the result of my wanton violence as it was for Leopold. My ecological epiphany came not from seeing the extinguishing of a fierce green fire, but from my college education, specifically my liberal arts education.
It was at Seattle University that for the first time I started to understand the cultural, historical, religious, philosophical, and literary traditions that have formed western civilization and, by implication, me and my beliefs. In keeping with the four and a half centuries of Jesuit education tradition, the required core curriculum of math, science, history, religion, English, art, and, most especially, philosophy helped me to begin to understand when, where, and who I was. My liberal arts education achieved its etymological goal of being freeing by revealing the possibility and significance of striving for an authentic life in keeping with values consciously chosen.
I cannot undo the harm I did in my childhood. The little brown rabbit will always haunt me. But I can strive to do and be better in my own life, to raise daughters who respect and cherish all life, to challenge my students not only to be men and women for and with others, but to recognize that this extends to both human and non-human others.
I conclude this rambling autobiographical reflection with an evocative passage from the possibly prescient Nobel Laureate Albert Schweitzer—a man, I was surprised to learn a dozen years ago, with whom my maternal grandfather shared some pious correspondence.
Just as in my own will-to-live there is a yearning for more life, and for that mysterious exaltation of the will-to-live which is called pleasure, and terror in face of annihilation and that injury to the will-to-live which is called pain; so the same obtains in all the will-to-live around me, equally whether it can express itself to my comprehension or whether it remains unvoiced.
Ethics thus consists in this, that I experience the necessity of practicing the same reverence for life toward all will-to-live, as toward my own. Therein I have already the needed fundamental principle of morality. It is good to maintain and cherish life; it is evil to destroy and to check life. . . .
He is not afraid of being laughed at as sentimental. It is indeed the fate of every truth to be an object of ridicule when it is first acclaimed. It was once considered foolish to suppose that coloured men were really human beings and ought to be treated as such. What was once foolishness has now become a recognized truth. Today it is considered as exaggeration to proclaim constant respect for every form of life as being the serious demand of a rational ethic. But the time is coming when people will be amazed that the human race was so long before it recognized thoughtless injury to life as incompatible with real ethics. Ethics is in its unqualified form extended responsibility with regard to everything that has life.
–Albert Schweitzer, The Philosophy of Civilization and from The Ethics of Reverence for Life (1936)