The Peaceable Table is intended for the mutual support, education, and inspiration of
people of faith in the practice of love for our fellow animals and observance of a Peace-full diet
Editor’s Corner Essay: Jonah, the Big Fish, “and Also Many Animals”
It is one of the ironies of religious history that many people dismiss the rich book of Jonah because they cannot see beyond the unrealistic nature of the fish story. Their kind of reaction is summed up by the “sermon” of the cynical character Sporting Life in the Gershwin brothers’ opera Porgy and Bess:
Oh Jonah, he lived in the whale . . .
He made his home in
That fish’s abdomen
Oh Jonah, he lived in the whale . . . .
I’m preaching this sermon to show
It ain’t necessarily so.
The idea that God sends a violent storm on the sea to awaken the heart of the runaway prophet, a storm that ends abruptly when he is thrown overboard; that God summons a huge fish (often carelessly referred to as a whale) to swallow him; that he survives three days in the fish’s belly; that God speaks to the fish, who then vomits Jonah out on dry land; that the inhabitants of Nineveh--flush with imperial arrogance and stolen wealth--immediately changed their ways at the preaching of Jonah--these things are not the stuff of history as we know it. But to reject the story for that reason is to miss completely the profound points this tale, as a parable, is making. (If you’re not very familiar with the story, you may want to read it now; see Jonah and the three following sections. The whole thing takes only about five minutes.)
Background: The Sea Monster
Ancient Hebrews shared with several of their Middle Eastern neighbors some form of a myth about a vast dragon-like monster living, in most cases, in the sea. The sea represented the dangerous forces of chaos epitomized in this monster, threatening to invade the land and overthrow human community. The hero-God fights with the monster and defeats her (e.g., the Babylonian Tiamat) or him (Yamm of the Canaanites, Lotan of Ugarit, Leviathan or Rahab to early Hebrews), thus assuring his people’s survival. In some forms of the story, the resemblance to the central action of Jonah is fairly explicit; the hero is swallowed by the monster in apparent death, and either breaks out or is otherwise expelled in symbolic rebirth. (This apparently primitive scenario is far from dead; in the nineteenth century Longfellow used it in his epic poem The Song of Hiawatha; Walt Disney used it in Pinocchio, and James Cameron strongly echoed it in Titanic when Rose descends into the seemingly endless corridors of the growling, sinking ship.)
As the Hebrews over centuries came to understand their God to be creator and lord of all the earth, Leviathan ceased to represent the threat of chaos to human society; e.g., in the book of Job he is described in detail as one among other wonders of God’s creation. By the time Jonah was written, perhaps 400-200 BCE, the terrifying dragon has dwindled into a big fish, one who is obedient to the motions of God’s mysterious but compassionate purposes. The fish, it might be said, has taken a longer journey than Jonah has! As a symbol the fish is a positive figure; instead of the devouring monster he seems, he serves as a lifesaving place of refuge (however uncomfortable) and a means of partial turnaround for Jonah. But no, he is not a real animal.
Nineveh and Assyria
Our story is set in the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the eighth century BCE, when Israel, along with other lands in the Near East, were threatened, and devastated, by a new rise of the Assyrian empire. “Jonah, the son of Amittai” is the name of a real prophet who is mentioned briefly in II Kings 14 as having made a political prediction prior to the Assyrian invasion of Israel, but nothing more is known about him as a historical figure; the parable is simply woven around his name.
Much, however, is known about Assyria. Centered in what is now northern Iraq, it had existed for somewhere between a thousand and two thousand years, boasting extensive development of art and other signs of high culture. Several times over this period it moved aggressively against other nations and swelled into a large empire, notably its last blast during the ninth to seventh centuries BCE. In the lightest cases, its kings demanded tribute (protection money); their armies also besieged, pillaged, took captive and deported many of a country’s inhabitants, replacing them with deported peoples from elsewhere, in order to undermine a people’s self-identity and thus prevent revolt. Skillful bas-relief murals in palaces and public buildings shows some invasions as featuring massacres, with piles of severed heads. The gruesome treatment of those who resisted, or were thought to have resisted, included gouging out eyes, cutting off limbs, impaling, flaying, and
burning. And it was not only the victims of their conquests that the powerful in Assyria enjoyed killing; they were also big on hunting and murdering animals, with the king specializing in canned lion hunts. No doubt the one kind of thrill-killing supported the other.
By the time Jonah was written, the Assyrian empire had been extinct for centuries, and no longer posed a threat to Israel, but once-conquered peoples can have long memories. When the prophet finally obeys God’s command to preach to Nineveh because “its wickedness has come up before me,” he resents God’s decision to spare the city because the people repented. Jonah’s feelings did not arise merely from a tendency to be suspicious of foreigners (though there was in fact such a spirit in post-exile Israel), as commentaries such as The Interpreter’s Bible claim. We can begin to put ourselves into Jonah’s head if we imagine the scenario of the story reset during the twentieth century: “Now the word of the Lord came to Rabbi Goldstein of New York in 1943, saying, “Arise, go to Berlin, that great city, and cry against it.” The unhappy rabbi would have no great expectation of his preaching being met with success, or his life being very long, if he obeyed. (One could well imagine his being tempted to sail for New Zealand instead, though, unlike Jonah, he would have no illusions about escaping from God’s unbearable presence by such a flight.) Kurt Mitchell’s 1981 picture-book version of Jonah, showing him as a mouse and the Ninevites as cats, gives the reader/viewer strong sympathy for Jonah’s attitude.
It is the very people who perpetrated the atrocities sketched above that Jonah’s God wants to see repenting--i.e., turning away from the power-madness and runaway greed that had fuelled these horrors, and taking up the lives of justice and compassion that are the natural expression of the Image of God within. The prophet, understandably, would much rather the Ninevites get what they deserve, but after his harrowing adventure with the storm and the monster fish, poor Jonah knows he has no choice, and turns his reluctant steps to “Berlin.” What he threatens the Assyrians with is not specified beyond the vague “In forty (or three?) days, Nineveh shall be overthrown.” Was Jonah thinking of a gruesome military attack of the sort the Assyrians had themselves specialized in? That would seem appropriate. A rain of fire and brimstone from heaven like the legendary one that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah? We aren’t told, but when Jonah has walked the length of the city preaching doom and emerged, probably surprised that he’s still alive, he puts down his “The End is Near” sign and sets up an observation post outside the walls in hopes that he will get to see the catastrophe happen.
The overthrow, of course, doesn’t take place, and Jonah’s sense of justice is outraged. Not only that, he is probably still frightened; very likely the rumors he’s heard that these demons in human form have changed their ways don’t mean much. As long as the city is intact and functioning, it’s likely to continue its atrocities against its neighbors--and of course he is thinking of his own people. He has survived the big fish and his dangerous preaching mission, but he may still end up devoured by this Assyrian monster. God, however, takes their repentance to be genuine. Thoroughly angry, Jonah argues with God (a long Jewish tradition), saying, in effect, “I told you so. I knew you were a merciful God who dislikes vengeance, and that you’d let these devils off the hook after all. This is maddening! Stop the world; I want to get off.”
What Kind of Compassion?
Apparently Jonah thinks that God’s stance is a mushy mercy that obliterates all justice and common sense. Is this the case? It’s worthwhile for us to look carefully at God’s answer, because real animals have an important part in his explanation, as they had in the Ninevites’ expression of repentance. When the king made his proclamation ordering that everyone fast and put on a hairshirt in order to show that they had all truly changed their ways, he included animals: “Let not human nor beast eat or drink anything, neither flocks nor herds, but let people and animals be dressed in sackcloth; and let everyone call urgently on God, and give up their violence.” And God, explaining to Jonah why he has decided not to destroy the city, says “Should not I care about Nineveh, in which there are over one hundred and twenty thousand persons who can’t tell their left and right hands apart [i.e., young children] and also many animals?”
In other words, “the evil ones and the innocent ones are all bound up together; if I summoned an enemy to torch the city and massacre its inhabitants, I would be doing a terrible injustice to the little ones and the beasts.” Here the author of the parable is roundly rejecting an earlier conception of the organic unity of a family or a people, in which the sins of the fathers may appropriately be visited on the children (and sacrificial animals); that is, all members of the group are united in guilt and subject to punishment when their forebears do evil. Jonah has taken this view for granted in his hope to see the catastrophe, and so have the Ninevites, as seen in their insistence that the animals participate in the fast and the sackcloth. But the author of Jonah is not the first in post-exile Israel to reject this idea in favor of the responsibility of the individual only for his or her own deeds.
So far so good. But what about all those in Nineveh whose hands still drip with innocent blood? We can’t help but share some of Jonah’s feeling that their repentance is cheap; it shouldn’t get them off scot-free after the sickening atrocities they’ve committed. Couldn’t an omnipotent God have devised some “smart” fire-and-brimstone for them? Apparently not. And even if that were possible now, there would still be the problem of all the earlier imperial killers, going back (intermittently) over more than a thousand years, who continued in undisturbed possession of their arrogance, their bloodlust, and their loot throughout their lives. The parable doesn’t solve all problems; one might say it doesn’t even speak to the crux of the problem of evil. Further, it doesn’t acknowledge the fact that accountability is usually necessary both to stop evildoers in their tracks, and to give pause to future would-be looters-torturers-killers. The Pinochets, their henchmen, and their US colleagues have to be brought to trial, or future Pinochets will follow in their footsteps, confident of immunity.
The Bundle of Life
But we can be grateful for what the parable does say. It emphasizes that we--human animals of all ages and moral levels, and the furred and feathered sorts--are indeed bound together, but in a somewhat different way than primal people thought. We are bound up together in God’s infinite love and compassion, which is stronger than vengeance, which never gives up even on the most depraved killers. That love calls on us daughters and sons of the prophets to urge them to change their violent ways, and Return to their true selves and to God.
God’s mercy is nothing new; in fact the earlier “sins of the fathers” passage (in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5) acknowledges it: God “shows lovingkindness to thousands [of generations] of those who love me, and keep my commandments” to love their neighbors as themselves. When we show love and compassion in action to both victims and victimizers, however small our actions may seem, their effects go on forever.
[Farmed] Animals run no risk of going to hell; they are there already.”--Victor Hugo (pictured)
--Contributed by Lorena Mucke
"Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them; and those who are ill-treated, since you also are in the body." Hebrews 13:3
--Contributed by Lorena Mucke
For as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other. Indeed, he who sows the seed of murder and pain cannot
reap joy and love. --Attributed to Pythagoras
--Contributed by Judy Carman
A Glimpse of the Peaceable Kingdom
Silverback Gorillas Befriend Human
A family of gorillas pay a friendly hands-on call on an encampment of human beings, giving great delight. See Gorilla Visit .
--Contributed by Marjorie Emerson
PETA recently announced that " President Obama has just signed into law a bill that includes language requiring the Department of Defense to create a strategy and timeline by March 1, 2013, for replacing the shooting, stabbing, and dismembering of animals in military training drills with human simulators and other modern non-animal methods.
--Contributed by Will Tuttle
New findings from researchers at Emory University suggest that these primates have a sense of fairness, an attribute that was once thought to be uniquely human. See Fair Chimps
--Contributed by Robert Ellwood
Whales’ Real Threat
Although many fewer whales are hunted nowadays than decades ago, sadly, many more are dying. The main culprit seems to be overfishing, which is changing our oceans forever. Whales die entangled in fishing gear and also due to ship strikes, pollution, ocean noise, and climate change. See Whales
Humanity’s appetite for fish (and for cows, who currently are the largest ocean predators) is driving whale populations to a dangerously low number. Our choices can be devastating to God’s Creation.
--Contributed by Lorena Mucke
Reader’s Digest Affirms Veganism
Surprisingly, the website of the traditionally conservative Reader’s Digest has an article by one Perry Blumberg recommending vegan diets for their many health advantages. See Digest . (However, the website has another essay recommending dairy, among various foods, for its supposed helpfulness in weight loss!)
--Contributed by Lorena Mucke
Compassion for Lent
Many Christians around the world have long followed the practice of giving up or abstaining from something, such as a particular food, during the Lenten season in order to express penitence and to strengthen their faith and character. Voices are now being heard encouraging Christians to limit or give up eating meat for Lent , on Fridays, or even permanently, primarily for compassionate reasons rather than the benefits of discipline for oneself. See Voices .
There’s more: check out a series of three excellent essays by Catholic priest Frank Mann, “Abstaining From Meat Can Be Transforming,, “The Call to Mercy,” and “Withdrawing Support for Animal Cruelty.” See Transforming , Mercy , Support .
--Contributed by Lorena Mucke
Pioneer: Maria Rosa Martinez
The Power of an Idea Whose Time Has Come
An Interview with Maria Rosa Martinez
When and why did you become a vegetarian?
I was seventeen years old. It all started when I heard a lecture given by Vera Borman, a Spanish-speaking US citizen and a remarkable Theosophist, in my home city of San Rafael, Argentina. When I heard for the first time about the spiritual evolution of everything on Earth, I started seeing things differently. Not only was this idea of evolution eye-opening to me; the idea of One Life as present everywhere affected me even more. From this perspective, a chunk of roast beef stopped being a piece of tasty meat; I saw it as the cow who had been alive, perhaps with a calf, an animal who participated in the One Life, but had been slaughtered to enable me to enjoy my customary diet. I could no longer continue eating flesh.
But the change was not easy; there were many things to be faced and dealt with, such as social habits like getting together with others for a BBQ. Friends and relatives started asking me to explain why I took this step; I had to begin reading about a proper balanced diet; I had to learn new recipes. Even my Mom was wary, and told me she would not cook anything different for me--but, of course, she did; her attitude changed too. Amusingly, in contrast to her initial reaction, later she herself became a vegetarian.
Many people still fear that going vegetarian will mean poorer health; did you become ill or get weaker?
Of course not; I became healthier, much healthier. But this benefit was a byproduct of my decision; I decided to be a vegetarian “for the health of the animals,” not because of my health. If we change our diet primarily in order to be healthier, our emphasis is different. We learn that there are so many unhealthy things in our diet that are not derived from animals, such as too-spicy or oily food, soft drinks, sugar, products made from white flour, and the like. The key to this new way of eating was rather identification with the animals. To eat anything that had eyes became out of the question; the decision had been taken, and though sometimes I remembered a meat dish as tasty and pleasurable, the suffering presence of the animal in it made me change the memory it brought to mind. I don’t mean that I brought up the memory in order to resist eating that piece of meat; the memory just came out of it. I saw it differently. I felt that if I continued eating meat I was an accomplice of this sad, cruel business of killing animals .
What about your boyfriend, later to become your husband, your new family?
Though this is a personal issue, I am willing to share it with you. My husband ate meat when he lived with his parents. Knowing I was a vegetarian, when we got married he told me not to make any dish based on meat for him, and he soon became a vegetarian too. My son, who is now thirty-seven years old, has always been a vegetarian. I always think that I became a vegetarian (for/because of) him. I had already been veg for seven years, the period over which physicians say the all cells in the body are renewed, when I became pregnant. The change was a deep part of me, and thus I found it easy to tell him why we didn´t eat meat.
The fact that Argentina is unfortunately a heavy meat-eating country led some friends to tell me I was irresponsible and could cause serious health problems to my boy. This was not always easy to deal with, but I knew I had no choice but to remain firmly committed to our lifestyle; and the “serious health problems” of course never arose. When my son was a small child, perhaps four or five years old, he explained to his friends that he didn´t eat “cow Mom ” or “calf son.” I remember telling him that when he grew older he would be able to decide by himself what to eat, and I would respect his decision. But he never changed his mind.
Why are you now a vegan?
Well, after many years as a vegetarian, I found myself feeling that something was not right, that I needed to make a further change. But it wasn’t easy to do; this “small piece of tissue” anchored in the floor of my mouth kept running my life and telling me what to eat. Then in December 2012, as a Christmas gift--the best I have received in years--a friend of mine sent me a video of Philip Wollen´s speech “Animals Should be Off the Menu.” There was a sidebar to the right of his speech showing another video, of a baby calf trying to nurse, to drink the milk that nature provided to him through his mother. But the dairy worker pulled him away and began kicking him: first his nose, his face, his whole head; when he fell on the floor, helpless to rise, the heavy-booted, enraged man kept on kicking him. The scene was unbearably painful. I longed to jump in and protect the poor little baby creature and stop the man, but of course I couldn´t.
But--couldn’t I? Seeing this event was more than enough to convince me. This kind of torture was indirectly caused by me--so that I could have tasty cheese pizza, a veggie cheese sandwich, or a dish of delicious ice cream. I saw that I was an accomplice of that demonically angry man kicking the baby calf--and I couldn’t live that way any more.
Philip Wollen in his speech says “There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” It seems the idea of being a vegan had been growing in me, and I knew that now was the time for it to be realized, to come true. Knowing that I am no longer helping and supporting this hellish cruelty gives a much deeper happiness than the pleasures of eating foods my taste buds craved over and over again.
This decision, which would seem to restrict my food choices, surprisingly gives me a sense of freedom, freedom which is also joy.
“I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.” Genesis 1:29
Find the most abundant local, organic ingredients available, cook gently, with much love and enthusiasm, and share the results with those close to you. That’s the basic “recipe,” and it always makes supremely nutritious food that also happens to be delicious.
Sunflower Seed Cheeze
1 & 1/4 cups whole raw sunflower seeds
1 - 2 cloves garlic
2 Tablespoons lemon juice
2 Tablespoons ume vinegar
Filtered water as needed
Place seeds in bowl and cover with water. Allow seeds to soak 4-6 hours or overnight.
Rub seeds between hands to loosen skins; skins will float to top of soaking water. Pour out skins and soaking water. Rinse seeds, cover with water and repeat rubbing process 3-4 times until most skins have been removed and poured out. The more skins you remove, the whiter the cheeze will be. Mix seeds with garlic, lemon juice, and vinegar in the blender, adding water as needed for thicker or thinner consistency.
Serve this cool and creamy condiment over grains, enchiladas, pasta, or greens. Can be eaten with crackers, fresh carrots and used as a "ricotta cheese" replacement.
1 cup pumpkin seeds
1 clove garlic
1 teaspoon oregano
1 Tablespoon flax oil
2 teaspoons shoyu (soy sauce)
1 Tablespoon ume vinegar
1/2-1 cup filtered water
Pan-roast pumpkin seeds in a stainless steel or iron skillet, stirring constantly. Remove from heat when seeds are lightly browned, puffed, fragrant, and sound slightly hollow when stirred. Place roasted seeds and remaining ingredients in blender, blend well to a smooth consistency, and serve over grains or greens.
Book Review: A Faith Embracing All Creatures
Tripp York and Andy Alexis-Baker, eds., A Faith Embracing All Creatures: Addressing Commonly Asked Questions about Christian Care for Animals. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012. 214 pp. $23.00 softcover.
This is the book Christians with vegetarian and animal concerns have been waiting for. Its concise, simple (but not simplistic) essays by a variety of authorities offer thoughtful answers to questions commonly asked by as yet unconvinced fellow-believers. Examples range from Carol J. Adams on "What about Dominion in Genesis?" and Judith Barad's "What about the Covenant with Noah?" to Andy Alexis-Baker on "Didn't Jesus Eat Fish?" and Stephen S. L. Clark's "Does 'Made in the Image of God' Mean Humans Are More Special than Animals?"
Reflections like these will be of great help for those to whom a precise understanding of the Bible, based on sound contemporary scholarship, is important, or who are in dialogue with others for whom it is. If the real meaning of radah, the Hebrew word behind "dominion" in Genesis, or the likely menu of the Last Supper, are interesting and significant topics for you, and you wish to understand them in ways compatible with a love for all God's creatures, this is an accessible place to go.
To be sure, problem areas exist for biblicists, such as the horrific animal sacrifices of the old temple, the texts that describe Jesus eating fish (Luke 24:42) and multiplying fish for human consumption, or Paul's apparently implying that vegetarians are "weaker brethren." However, similar issues obtain with human slavery, which seems to be supported by some biblical passages though clearly transcended by the overarching biblical theme of God's call for universal love, respect, and freedom. Jesus' dealing with fish can be interpreted in rather strained allegorical ways (cited but not endorsed by Alexis-Baker in his paper on the subject) or too facilely dismissed as interpolations. But some of us are not literalistic about everything in the Bible, but are prepared to see it, and the scriptures of all religions, as imperfect yet evocative witnesses to the undying religious quest, and the struggle of the Inner Light to radiate love despite our many limitations. Of this quest and struggle the Hebrew and Greek scriptures are particularly eloquent because of their unparalleled multiplicity of moods and voices.
It may be as well to admit that Jesus who had nowhere to lay his head, and the poor in this outlying province of the Roman Empire with whom Jesus identified, had to eat what they could get. The classical world included not a few vegetarians; they tended to be among the elite who read poets like Ovid and philosophers like Porphyry (see PT Issue 5 ) or were disciples of religious sects like the Ebionite Christians, said to be followers of James the brother of Jesus (see PT Issue 10 . (In this respect the ancient and contemporary worlds are not so different; vegans, vegetarians, and organic food devotees tend to be upscale book-readers, or sectarians like Seventh-Day Adventists, while many of the rest live on cheap fast-food hamburgers or tacos.) For the down-scale, fish was a common staple of the Mediterranean diet then as now for those who could afford it, and several of Jesus' disciples were fishermen at the time he called them.
But something new was coming in through Jesus in his total openness to God; more than his disciples or even he, if it may be said without blasphemy, perhaps realized at the time. The fishermen, leaving their nets behind, learned to “catch men,” or rather gather them into the Kingdom of God. In this same light one might mention, as did one or two of these writers, that Jesus himself grew in breadth of understanding in situations involving allusions to animals. When he went into the region of Tyre and Sidon, a Canaanite women of those parts asked him to have pity on her and heal her daughter, “tormented by a devil.” But Jesus said he was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, of which she was not one, and he harshly added, "It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." To this the woman replied that "yet the dogs eat the scraps that fall from their masters' table." At this Jesus was deeply moved, his comprehension expanded, and he replied, "Woman, what faith you have! Be it as you wish." The daughter was restored to health. (Matt. 15: 21-28)
In the same way, we might ask if the weaker brethren of Paul's passage might not be analogous to us, if we are disciples: "The greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves." (Luke 22:26) Or perhaps the weaker brethren are themselves the animals, for whose sake we must examine our eating habits so as not to injure or ruin one for whom Christ died, and who also waits with the whole universe for God's revelation. (Rom. 14:15; 8:19)
These are the kind of ruminations to which this eloquent book gives rise, and there is much more. The Bible may reflect struggles in the Spirit, and variously colored windows through which the Light is filtered, yet where it is studied love is in the air, seeking to help the faithful to breath more deeply and reach out to more and more of God's creation. Let the final word be with Danielle Nussberger's "Vegetarianism: A Christian Spiritual Practice Both Old and New." In discussing the vegetarian discipline of St. Antony and other of the early Desert Fathers, she writes, "The vegetarian ascetic knew that the moment one made allowances for cruel behavior against any living being, one was developing habits that would slowly erode compassion toward and communion with every other being. Kindness toward other human beings depended upon the graced, habitual performance of every kindness, including grazing with animals [as did Antony] rather than killing or participating in a culture of destruction by consuming them." (p. 177)
A Faith Embracing All Creatures is highly recommended. Read it and talk about it.
Book Review: The Elephant of Surprise
Brent Hartinger, The Elephant of Surprise. Seattle, Washington: Buddha Kitty Books. Paperback, $12.99; E-book, $7.99. 230 pages. To be published March 30, 2013. Recommended for readers 13 years of age and older.
The Elephant of Surprise is the fourth book in a series about Russel Middlebrook (yes, only one L in Russel), a brave, kind, intelligent, loyal seventeen-year old high school junior who has a strong attraction towards people his own age and gender, and towards secret societies. In fact, he has organized two of these cabals and conclaves himself: The so-called Geography Club and The Order of the Poison Oak (these are also the titles of the first and second books in the series). As to the former, in four books he has had four boyfriends. How, one may ask, can such a kind and loyal boy be such a heart-breaker? Well, it is not his fault that there is not enough of him to go around. And his loyalty is unquestionable to his two best friends: Min, a very intelligent, bookish bisexual girl, and Gunnar, who is technologically savvy, and given to passionate obsessions. Gunnar is quite heterosexual, but he is very comfortable in the company of gay and bisexual kids, and he has an artistic temperament.
One day the three friends are visiting the zoo, which they (especially Min) find a big disappointment. The poor animals are confined and oppressed, and for what? Their prison is not very educational to humans, and fails even more as entertainment. For one thing, it is lacking in the element of surprise--or "the elephant of surprise," a malapropism that becomes a metaphor for the unpredictable element of life. (Something like The Periodic Table of Elephants.)
The three friends soon find more surprises than they were hoping for. To begin with, they encounter two people, slightly older than themselves, who are engaged in the dubious sport of dumpster-diving, looking for food for themselves and for hungry homeless people. They are followers of Freeganism. (This movement really exists, and it has various forms and offshoots beyond what we read about in this book.) Russel, who, as mentioned above, has a penchant for secret societies, is attracted to Freeganism. He is also attracted to Wade, nineteen, an African-American youth who is a very articulate and passionate exponent of Freeganism. He is also handsome and sexy, and Russel, is, as usual, looking for a potential boyfriend. (He claims to have given up on that search, but of course nobody believes him.) So, for a while, Russel keeps busy exploring Freeganism, exploring Wade's emotional life, exploring the unusual relationship between the two of them, and exploring the city--which is a very different place when you are scavenging and foraging. In his own native town, Russel Middlebrook is now as much a stranger as Bilbo Baggins is in Mirkwood. Besides, he and Gunnar have to help Min find out if her girlfriend, Leah, is loyal to her or not. So the book is highly entertaining teen soap-opera as much as a very instructive socio-economic investigation.
Soon a new element enters the story. Gunnar, who (as he insists) is not blind, sees some details that have escaped the attention of everybody else. His fine investigative mind deduces from them that a terrorist conspiracy is in the works. And from detective story, the tale soon turns into an adventure story, a thriller. To avoid a spoiler, I resist the temptation to describe Gunnar's detective work, or the explosive adventure that follows. (The elephant of surprise would never forgive me!) For the same reason, I decline to say whether Russel, Wade, Min, Leah and/or Kevin find their soul mates, and who ends up with whom.
The book will expand a reader’s vocabulary. It uses, and explains, such rare but useful words as apophenia (the human tendency to see patterns in random data) and paraidolia (the phenomenon wherein people see or hear identifiable images or sounds that do not really exist.
I certainly recommend The Elephant of Surprise to people who want to think and talk about such basic questions as what human society should be like. It will also appeal to those who enjoy a good romantic soap opera about love-struck young people, and those who enjoy a good detective story and/or adventure thriller. The publisher recommends the book for readers over the age of thirteen. This point is generally sound, but I would add that readers twelve and under who are intelligent enough to understand the vocabulary and concepts should also read it.
A Note on Freeganism
The basic principle of Freeganism seems to be that food should be freely shared, not bought and sold in order to make a profit. (This principle is in accord with Jesus’ practice of celebratory meals to which people of all classes are welcomed.) The novel avoids discussing religious aspects, as does the Wikipedia article on Freeganism. To be sure, anyone with strong ethical convictions, even if not very religious, must be appalled by the vast quantities of edible food that are thrown away in the USA (as well as in other parts of the world) while people go hungry and malnourished. That is just plain wrong, no matter how you slice it. Both supermarkets and restaurants throw away huge amounts of untouched aliments that are barely out of date, and in many cases (and for feeble reasons) severely reprimand and punish any employees who try to donate, e.g., slightly stale bread to hungry homeless people. It has been remarked that some people have gone from just ignoring the poor to actively persecuting them.
Of course, outdated food may cause health problems, in particular the questionable foods dairy, eggs, and flesh; most products derived from animals begin to decay quickly. (Ironically, other questionables, highly refined and processed foods, may last practically forever.) For that reason, it is wiser to combine Freeganism and veganism. According to Wikipedia, the words "Freegan" and "Freeganism" are in part derived from vegan and veganism. The Elephant of Surprise does not make this important point, which is a good reason for consulting other sources.
The novel talks about other free sources of food besides the dumpster. Some volunteer plants, and other plants that grow wild, may also be eaten. Example: the dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is supposedly a nutritious salad vegetable. Having read that somewhere, I once made a salad from dandelion leaves. Unfortunately, I found the bitter taste very unpleasant; taraxacum salads will not be on my menu. But if you find the taste of those leaves tolerable, or even desirable, by all means eat them.
The book (but not Wikipedia!) mentions another source of food for some Freegans that vegans will eschew: roadkill, i.e. animals killed in highway accidents. Our hero Russel, who is as brave, open-minded and unconventional as a boy gets (and who wants to fit in with his new friends), joins in a meal that includes fox and raccoon. Of course I don’t recommend this, and not only because I am a vegan. Human health is important, and there is the sad fact that the “puir beasties” may have been suffering from, or carriers of, a disease. Bats, coyotes, foxes and others may have been afflicted with rabies. Every armadillo must be supposed to be a carrier of the dreaded leprosy. Rabbits and hares often suffer from tularemia. And so forth. I do not know which diseases, if any, raccoons carry, but I know well that ‘coons are eager garbage eaters (as the saying goes, those masked bandits eat anything they can find, and if they find nothing, they eat something else). And they are off limits for those committed to a kosher regimen. “Touch not the unclean thing.”
Basic housing, as well as food, is treated by Freegans as another thing that should be considered an essential human right and shared by everyone, not a market commodity to enrich those fortunate and clever enough to take advantage of the needs of others. (Dare I say that higher education and health care should also join food and housing in that list? What, I want us to live in Utopia? Yes. indeed!)
Poetry: William Langland, ca. 1330 - ca. 1400
from The Vision of Piers Plowman
I bowed my body, beholding all about me,
Saw sun and sea, and the sand of the shore,
Where birds and beasts with their mates wandered,
Wild serpents in the woods and wonderful birds,
Flecked with many a coloured feather;
Man and his mate, Peace and War,
Poverty and plenty, bliss and bitter bale;
And I saw all beasts following Reason,
In eating the drinking and gendering their kind;
Man and his mate alone were Reason-less.
Birds I beheld making nests in the bushes,
I wondered from whom and where the pie learnt
To lay the sticks that lie in her nest,
Hiding and covering that no fool should find;
In marshes, on moors, in mire and in water
Divers dived. “Dear God,” said I,
“Where gat these wild things wit?”
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The Peaceable Table is a project of Quaker Animal Kinship / Animal Kinship Committee of Orange Grove Friends Meeting, Pasadena, California. It is intended to resume the witness of that excellent vehicle of the Friends Vegetarian Society of North America, The Friendly Vegetarian, which appeared quarterly between 1982 and 1995. Following its example, and sometimes borrowing from its treasures, we publish articles for toe-in-the-water vegetarians as well as long-term ones.
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