Tovar Cerulli on the ethics of eating and his journey from vegan to hunter

Though they seem polar opposites, vegans and hunters have more in common than you might think, according to Tovar Cerulli. He would know; he's been both. In his new book, The Mindful Carnivore: A Vegetarian's Hunt for Sustenance, Cerulli traces his relationship with mindful eating through years of being vegan to his ultimate decision to hunt his own food.

Cerulli will read from and sign his book at 7:30 p.m. tonight at the Tattered Cover LoDo as part of the Rocky Mountain Land Series. We spoke with Cerulli in advance of his talk about his dietary journey and the complicated ethics of eating.

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Westword: What made you want to adopt a vegan diet in the first place?

Tovar Cerulli: The first reason was simply concerns about animal welfare. And the first step for me, as for many, was becoming a vegetarian. I had grown up eating anything and everything and fishing as a kid, and I had begun to question how I wanted to live my life. I was in college and really asking myself some of those sorts of questions and had an experience in which I caught and killed a fish and realized I didn't need to do that. I could've eaten anything. I could've eaten rice and vegetables and who knows what else, but I did not need to eat this fish. This fish did not need to be caught or killed. That was sort of the turning point for me. I had just come off of a retreat with a Buddhist teacher about practicing mindfulness and this connection between my actions and the world and how I affected things, and so animal welfare made me become a vegetarian. And then as I became a vegetarian, I began to learn more and more about the environmental impacts of the meat industry and other sorts of issues. I was a vegetarian and then a vegan for pretty much the common reason that most folks become vegetarian and vegan: compassion, ethics, ecological concerns, those sorts of things.

What prompted your transition into hunting?

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It was a sort of multi-staged transition. You're not a vegan and then just wake up the next day and say, gee, I think I'll be a hunter. [Laughs.] It doesn't work that way. The first stage of that transition was my growing recognition that my eating had impacts, whether I was eating local vegetables or corn and soybeans grown out in the Midwest, or whatever. I started to realize that the clearing of fields for agriculture wiped out wildlife habitats, that in big industrial fields where big machinery is moving through that lots of small animals were getting displaced, killed, maimed and so on. And that in those fields, and also, as it turned out, just a few miles down the road in a local organic farm where my wife and I would pick strawberries or buy greens, that deer were being shot to protect crops. And in our own gardens we had to deal with insects and a woodchuck eventually, and we were fertilizing our garden with manure, with compost from local dairy farms, and occasionally I'd find a fragment of bone in the compost we were using. I realized that, as I put it in my book, we weren't eating animals, but our vegetables were. Our diet remained intimately connected with animals in terms of fertilizer and pest control and habitat. So that didn't actually change my diet, but what that did is it softened the edges of my rigid, black-and-white ideas about food ethics and what it meant to be a vegan or vegetarian.

The change in diet came from some health concerns. It wasn't that I was desperately ill or anything, but after a decade I had some nutritional deficiencies and my doctor, who was a naturopath, and my wife, who was studying holistic health and was also a vegan alongside me, suggested maybe some of my health concerns like low energy might be addressed by making some dietary shifts. So a radical step was having a bowl of yogurt. [Laughs.] And then we added some eggs into our diet and so on. The stages toward hunting came from a desire to be involved, to confront animal death, whether it was the specific animal I was eating as it would be in hunting, or the fact that there was animal death involved in all sorts of ways with my diet. I started fishing again once we shifted our diet to include some fish and chicken, and hunting was another way to be involved with my food, with death, which I wasn't looking forward to confronting, but I felt like it was important in some way. And also another way to be involved with this place that I live. You get to know it in a way that's different from the way I knew it as a hiker.

What compelled you to write this book?

I had written a couple of essays for magazines about having gone from being a vegan to being a hunter, and those essays, particularly one I wrote for Outdoor America, planted the seed of the idea for me and made me wonder if maybe there was a potential book in there. I think the reason that I ended up pursuing it really had to do with wanting to bridge these worlds that I had bridged personally in my own experience, that I had come to see as linked and as not so radically different. That eating mindfully and eating ethically was not the sole territory of any one group, vegetarians or omnivores or hunters or non-hunters. That there were a lot of common values and that maybe people from different worlds could understand each other's worlds a bit more if I built that bridge in a book.

What kind of feedback have you gotten?

It's been really interesting to get feedback from people across the spectrum, from longtime vegetarians to lifelong hunters. I had one lifelong hunter early on say that he really enjoyed the book and he wanted his sister to read it. She'd been a vegetarian for decades and he and she, as brother and sister, really couldn't talk about food or hunting. But the book, because it spoke his language and her language, he felt like they could both potentially relate to it. I've had reviews from vegetarians who have really encouraged other people to read it and get some insight into other ways of thinking about food, regardless of their diet. One of the most interesting ones was a Buddhist vegetarian who wrote in her review that the book made her think about going back to being a vegan, which she had been before. She also wrote that she thought the author would consider that a compliment, even though I'm not a vegan anymore. I thought, wow, that's really interesting. Because I hadn't thought about it that way, but I realized that she was right, that she had understood that the book was not some kind of argument that everyone should be omnivores or that everyone should be hunters, or anything like that, that it was more of an invitation for people to consider things from some different perspectives and then make up their own mind about what they want to do with their diet.

What do you hope that people take away from reading the book?

One is simply the importance of what I call mindfulness in the book. Mindful eating. By which I mean eating with an awareness of where our food comes from and the impacts that it has and how indebted we are to the world, including animals, for our lives. And related to that is the recognition that there is more ambiguity and gray areas inherent in being alive. I think moral questions around food are important, and they're also complicated. Our interactions with the world and with nature are not black and white, and that's the place where I think that people can start to listen to each other and hear other perspectives when you step back from the rigid, black and white, pure and impure, good and evil sorts of distinctions.

What ways can people who are not necessarily going to become vegan or hunt be more mindful in their eating?

There are a lot of ways, and I think a lot of them have been well articulated by a slew of books that have come out about food over the past decade. Some of what people have suggested has been learning more about where your food comes from, getting more of it locally if you can. I think even if you don't have access to a farmers' market or a local CSA or can't afford to pay for some food that has a good pedigree, there's also value simply in finding ways to learn more about where our food comes from and engage directly in some small way. If you can have a garden or participate in a community garden, and if not so much to produce x percent, let alone 100 percent of your food, but more to have the experience, that direct sense of connection with the earth that we are fed by. Food doesn't come out of the sky. It doesn't just manifest in the grocery store magically. Like us, food is part of this earth we are all part of and connected in this cycle of life and death and food and eating. Anything people can do to connect with that, even if you're just in an apartment and don't have time to go to the community garden and have a pot of herbs or something that you can throw into a salad on your windowsill, at least there's some connection. I think that, in itself, is very valuable just to keep that awareness, that connection, alive.

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