Vegetable Stand

Stop paying taxes? Escape to the woods? Sit in? Why not go vegetarian instead?

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The marrow of an animal? That's another story.
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“Is it not a reproach that man is a carnivorous animal? True, he can
and does live, in a great measure, by preying on other animals; but
this is a miserable way — as anyone who will go to snaring rabbits, or
slaughtering lambs, may learn…Whatever my own practice may be, I have
no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its
gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals….”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

In 1845, Henry David Thoreau set off on a lone journey into the
woodlands owned by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson. He wanted to know if
living more simply, in closer proximity to nature, would make him a
better person, and if being a better, simpler person was the path to
creating a better society. Walden is a unique and pioneering work in
civil disobedience. But Thoreau’s two years in the woods were part of
late-18th- and 19th-century America’s many experiments with alternative
ways of life. All over the United States, people were living guinea
pigs of their own idealism. Wacky communes espousing everything from
free love to chastity sprouted up from Massachusetts to Texas. These
eccentric communities shared one fundamental creed: that
self-improvement, self-discovery, and self-fulfillment were essential
to achieving a better society. At a time when the Western world was
being swallowed by industrial smokestacks, and men, women, and children
toiled away in nightmarish working conditions, Utopian community
leaders went back to the basics, namely, the power of the individual to
control his own destiny and do good, often in opposition to the
mainstream. It’s no surprise, then, that diet was considered central to
radical self-improvement. Vegetarianism was honored as the most radical
diet of them all.

Vegetarian ideas figured prominently in 19th-century intellectual
circles. Though practicing vegetarians remained outside the mainstream,
as they do today, vegetarianism itself was intriguing, its arguments
compelling. Thoreau, for instance, was not a strict vegetarian, but he
did believe that the vegetarian diet was “the destiny of the human
race.” Not because animals were cute and fuzzy and therefore ought to
be saved from brutality, but because they were dirty and difficult and
expensive. “The practical objection to animal food in my case was its
uncleanness,” he wrote in Walden, “and besides, when I had caught and
cleaned and cooked and eaten my fish, they seemed not to have fed me
essentially. It was insignificant and unnecessary, and cost more than
it came to. A little bread or a few potatoes would have done as well,
with less trouble and filth.” You can stand around in the forest,
waiting to spear, skin, and roast a bunny for your next meal, but…why?

Thoreau’s views on meat-eating were no doubt influenced by his
friend and fellow Transcendentalist Amos Bronson Alcott. In the early
1840s, around the time Thoreau decided to traipse about Walden Pond,
Alcott formed a vegan utopian commune in Harvard called Fruitlands. As
you can guess by the name, Alcott’s community was much less tentative
about vegetarianism’s essential place in an ideal world. “Who loves a
garden still his Eden keeps,” he wrote. In Fruitlands, the garden was
all that was needed to sustain and bring one closer to prelapsarian
days, when animals and people lived harmoniously. Eden or not,
vegetables took less time to prepare, and had the advantage of
liberating women from kitchen labor. Of course, without the use of
animal labor, the 14 residents of Fruitlands had to toil all the more
on their communally owned property. The fact that they renounced animal
fats as a means of light and heat meant they often lived and worked in
dark and cold. Because Alcott thought trade was a form of labor
exploitation, Fruitlands aimed to be self-sufficient through
subsistence farming. Yet the commune lacked the economic sustainability
of more ingenious Utopian societies like the Shakers and the
Perfectionists at Oneida, for whom design, craft, and trade were the
backbone of their longevity. The Fruitlands experiment failed after
seven months, about the time it took for the weather to chill.

Vegetarians kept on trying. Not many associate the ascetic cracker
that bears his name with radicalism, but Alcott’s friend Sylvester
Graham was about as radical a vegetarian as they come. For this
Presbyterian minister and his rabid followers (who called themselves
Grahamites), the Graham cracker wasn’t a treat for kiddies, a vehicle
for burnt marshmallows. It was a symbol of righteousness and the power
of the people. In his “Defence of the Graham System of Living” which he
dedicated to the “Rising Generation,” the vegetarian diet was thought
of as a means to curb misery and disease, primarily rampant in cities.
Most importantly, it was a tool that any individual could employ to
better his or her lot:

The system of a simple [vegetable]
diet…strikes at the root of all evil, and is an experiment which may be
tried with success, not alone by nations, but by small societies,
families, and even individuals.

He then claims that had the masses of Paris sated their hunger with
vegetables instead of blood, they would never have supported
Robespierre, the force behind the Reign of Terror. Whether or not the
French can ever become passive vegetarians cleansed of their innate
bloodlust, the basic premise of what a vegetarian diet could offer
remained: a personal, incremental, nonviolent revolution.

These more puritanical ideologues — and the thinkers they influenced
— who promoted vegetarianism on the grounds of health and cleansing
rather than taste may seem unsympathetic to most 21st-century
Americans. They were unsympathetic to most 19th-century Americans. But
it’s worth bearing in mind that vegetarianism, at its roots, was not
considered a simple dietary choice; it was an act of civil
disobedience. Alcott spearheaded the strategy of tax evasion as a means
of opposition to war and slavery, the same strategies Thoreau wrote
about in Civil Disobedience. He was a dissident of the first degree —
an outspoken abolitionist, promoter of women’s rights, and educational
reformer. His vegetarianism was not just a natural extension of these
values; it was his reformist ideals put into practice. One individual
was not going to single-handedly end slavery, but could easily live a
life that practiced nonviolence and equality.

Control over one’s own body is the most rudimentary freedom, and
using diet as a means both of social cohesion and freedom from the
mainstream has been a part of independent communities for thousands of
years, from Judaism to the Nation of Islam. In 1995, when he was 34,
Dexter Scott King, son of Martin Luther King, Jr., visited the comedian
Dick Gregory at his vegan health spa in the Bahamas. He came to feel
that veganism gave him “a higher level of awareness and spirituality”,
and he has been a strict vegan ever since. For Dexter Scott King, like
his 19th-century counterparts, abstaining from meat is a clear
extension of his father’s principles of nonviolence. He even converted
his mother, the great Coretta Scott. And so Thoreau’s Civil
Disobedience, so influential to the young Martin Luther King, Jr.’s own
ideas on freedom, continues on 160 years later. “There is a connection
between how you have life and how you treat others,” Dexter Scott King
said told Vegetarian Times back in ’95. “It starts with the individual.”

As vegetarianism grows in popularity, vegetarians remain America’s
kooks and outsiders. Even Thoreau, who now is considered a giant of
American letters, was a kook in his lifetime. In Emerson’s eulogy, he
chided Thoreau for allowing his friends to fish him out of jail by
paying his taxes, calling him “the captain of a huckleberry party.” But
he also knew that big ideas had to fail for a long time before they
succeed. “The scale on which his studies proceeded was so large as to
require longevity,” he wrote, “the country knows not yet…how great a
son it has lost.” So while America’s kooks are doomed to failure, they
are often its greatest experimenters. Even as they fail, vegetarians
continue to promote ideals that most Americans share: the power of the
individual to be radical, to be disobedient, to change the world. I
salute you, kooks and outsiders, glorious failures, O Captains of
huckleberry parties. Fail on. • 26 Monday 2009

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set magazine and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany’s selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at stefanyanne@gmail.com.
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