Another relationship in Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer between Deanna, a forest service worker living in the middle of a preserve, and Eddie, a young man hunting coyotes who becomes her lover, centers on their mutual love of nature but their conflicting perspectives on predators, coyotes in particular. Eddie comes from a family of sheep ranchers out west who see predators as the enemy, while Deanna sees coyotes and other predators as keystone species that hold the ecosystem together.
“And what rule of the world says it’s a sin to kill a predator?”
“Simple math…One mosquito can make a bat happy for, what, fifteen seconds before it starts looking for another one? But one bat might eat two hundred mosquitoes in a night. Figure it out, where’s the gold standard here? Who has a bigger influence on other lives”(179)
Small and medium size ranchers and farmers across the U.S. are hanging on by the skin of their teeth. Predators like coyotes account for a small percentage of livestock deaths, but they are a good scapegoat for people frustrated with their economic situation. It’s much more difficult to deal with institutions like the USDA and policies that create such slim margins for farmers and ranchers. It must be satisfying to find a coyote or wolf in the sight of a rifle and feel like you have some control over your own life and problems.
Unfortunately, the reality is that the loss of predators causes many more problems than it solves. Deanna puts it this way concerning a turkey that Eddie kills for their dinner.
“Oh, gosh, there’s gaggles of [turkeys] walking around this hollow. A turkey lays fourteen eggs without half thinking about it. If something gets one of her babies she might not quite notice. If a fox gets the whole nest, she’ll go bat her eyes at a tom and plunk out fourteen more eggs…But still turkeys are scarce compared to their prey. Grubs and things, there’s millions of them. It’s like a pyramid scheme…The life of a carnivore is the most expensive item in the pyramid, that’s the thing. In the case of a coyote, or a big cat, the mother spends a whole year raising her young…She’s lucky if even one of her kids makes it through. If something gets him, there goes that mama’s whole year of work down the drain…If you shoot him, Eddie, that’s what you’ve taken down. A big chunk of his mother’s whole life chance at replacing herself. And you’ve let loose an extra thousand rodents on the world that he would have eaten. It’s not just one life.” (319-20)
Usually we think negatively about pyramid schemes. They stand for something that benefits a few elite at the top and depends on the oppression of the masses at the bottom. In the case of an ecosystem, however, the pyramid scheme serves to create stability. The billions of microbes feed millions of insects which feed larger animals and on up the chain. When we reach the top of the pyramid, we find that there is a symbiotic relationship between the predators at the top and all the other species making up the pyramid. When the predator is taken out of the equation, the prey species proliferate and the balance is thrown off as the increased population competes for a dwindling amount of prey species underneath them. This is a pyramid scheme in which everyone benefits from the arrangement.
Eddie and Deanna have an interesting exchange about our cultural perception of predators over their turkey dinner. Deanna says,
“It’s a prey species. It has fallen prey to us. I can deal with that. Predation’s a sacrament, Eddie; it culls out the sick and the old, keeps populations from going through their own roofs. Predation is honorable.“
“That’s not how Little Red Riding Hood tells it,” he said.
“Oh, man, don’t get me started on the subject of childhood brainwash. I hate that. Every fairy story, every Disney movie, every plot with animals in it, the bad guy is always the top carnivore. Wolf, grizzly, anaconda, Tyrannosaurus Rex.“
“Don’t forget Jaws,” he said. (317)
It’s important to recognize that predators like coyotes are really in some sense our competition. We make other arguments about it, but the way we perceive and depict them has a lot to do with the fact that they are the closest thing humans have to competitors for our sources of food. In another passage Deanna argues that we should really relate more closely to these top predators because they are more like us than other animals.
So, predation is both a pyramid scheme and a sacrament. I was a vegetarian for nine years. I don’t take the killing of animals lightly at all, but those who want to argue that human beings should never eat animals have to deal with this basic reality of healthy ecosystems and our place in the ecosystem. There are lots of very good arguments for eating less meat, which have to do with methods of production, environmental costs, etc., but it cannot be argued from nature that we should not eat meat at all. In a healthy ecosystem, I think human beings would be more in touch with their environment by killing and eating some meat. I also think both meat-eaters and vegetarians should be involved in the process of killing and butchering meat at some point to understand what it really means to consume our food. Deanna describes it this way,
“Life and death always right there in your line of sight. Most people lived so far from it, they thought you could just choose, carnivore or vegetarian, without knowing that the chemicals on grain and cotton killed far more butterflies and bees and bluebirds and whippoorwills than the mortal cost of a steak or a leather jacket. Just clearing the land to grow soybeans and corn had killed about everything on half the world. Every cup of coffee equaled one dead songbird in the jungle somewhere, she’d read…”Even if you never touch meat, you’re costing something its blood,” she said. “I know that. Living takes life.” (322-23)
The sustainable food movement would benefit from recognizing this fact and refraining from becoming neo-Pharisees that tell you exactly what to eat. The reality is much more complicated and messy. No one has clean hands when it comes to eating. The more people claim to eat a pure diet, the more it seems they miss the point and are blind to the hypocrisy of the purity of their diets, vegan, vegetarian, macrobiotic or fruititarian. The real revelation, in my mind, is the fact that we are but creatures and not somehow other than creatures, yet we are unique among creatures. As Deanna says, “Living takes life” and there is no way around it.