The Dawning

How I caught a glimpse, through the unlikely medium of roadkill, of what lies beneath.

By George Monbiot, published on the Guardian’s website, 27th August 2015

The first hour of the day, before the sun is over the horizon: this is the time to see wildlife. In the spring and summer, when no one else is walking, when there is no traffic and the air is dense, so that the sounds of the natural world reverberate, when both nocturnal and diurnal beasts are roaming, you will see animals that melt away like snow as the sun rises.

Whenever I stay in an unfamiliar part of the countryside, I try to wake before dawn and walk until the heat begins to rise. Many of my richest experiences with wildlife have occurred at such times. In this magical hour, I too seem to come to life. I hear more, smell more, I am more alert. I feel that at other times my perceptions are muted, my senses dulled by the white noise of the day.

Last weekend, I camped with my family at a barn-raising party on the western foot of the Quantock Hills, in Somerset. On Saturday I crept out of the tent at 5am, when the faintest skein of red cloud netted the sky. Below me, mist filled the valley floor. I slipped through the sagging fence at the top of the field and found myself in a steep, broad coomb, covered in bracken.

I climbed for a while, as quietly as I could, until a frightful wail shattered my thoughts. I crouched and listened. I could see nothing on the dark hillside. It came again, from about fifty metres to my right, half-shriek, half-bleat, a wild, wrenching, desolate cry, a cry that the Earth might make in mourning for itself.

My mind spooled, discounting possibilities until only one remained: a fawn calling for its mother. I waited, and soon I heard her answering bark, coarse and coughing, like a dog with bronchitis. Then, to my left, I heard others bark, and soon I realised that I was standing between two halves of a herd of red deer, ranged across the hillside above me. Upwind, they were unaware of the intrusion.

Now I saw them, on a false summit a little way above me, silhouetted against the dawn sky, their great ears twitching and turning as they gazed into the valley below. The barking and grunting intensified as the two wings of the herd converged, before they crossed the ridge and vanished into the darkness of the hills.

I walked for a while along the spine of the range. As the light rose, the mist rolled up the coombs, then broke into ragged clouds on the summits. I came across another herd, grey and faint in the fog, one stag, several hinds and a line of fawns, little heads just emerging from the heather.

The high ground, as in almost all English upland conservation sites, was sheepwrecked: swarming with the white plague, reduced to low heather and gorse and bracken with scarcely a tree in sight, supporting as a result just a sparse selection of the species that might have lived there. There are some magnificent woods a little further to the east, which number among the few native forests permitted to grow above 600 feet in Britain; sessile oaks writhed and wind-bitten into fantastic shapes. But elsewhere in the Quantocks the landscape pornographers (people who insist on seeing the uplands naked) who dominate British conservation still stamp their fetish onto the hills.

As the sun turned from red to yellow to white, I followed a path down into the enclosed pastures of the lower slopes. Here I found field mushrooms poking through the dew, their gills as pink as raw flesh. I picked some and wrapped them in my shirt. Wild mushrooms collected at dawn and eaten for breakfast are sweet, nutty, faintly tinged with aniseed. They bear no resemblance to those on sale in the shops.

Walking without a map, I reached the valley floor too soon, and found myself on the main road. In some places there were no verges, and I had to press myself into the hedge as cars passed. But on such early walks, almost regardless of where you are, there are rewards. Just as I was about to turn off the road, onto the track that would take me back to the barn, I found a squirrel hit by a car that must have just passed me, dead but still twitching. It was a male, one of this year’s brood but fully grown. Blood seeped from a wound to the head.

I picked it up by its hind feet, and though I had played no part in its death, I was immediately gripped by a sensation so discrete, so distinct from all else we feel, that I believe it requires its own label: Hunter’s Pride. It’s the raw, feral thrill I have experienced only on the occasions when I have picked up a fresh dead animal I intend to eat. It feels to me like the opening of a hidden door, a rent in the mind through which you can glimpse a ghost psyche: vestigial emotional faculties that once helped us to survive.

One of the oldest literary motifs, a staple of metaphysical narratives for thousands of years, is the portal: the gateway through which the hero passes into another world. I have come to believe that portals are mythic representations of these perceptual openings, fissures that allow us to see, though briefly and darkly, the ancient soul of humankind. To me, this ancient soul is the psychological equipment, abandoned but not absent, with which we once navigated a world where we were both hunters and hunted. To judge by my own fleeting experiences, the land beyond the portal is an enchanting, electrifying place, in which senses and sensations are tightened and stretched, tuned as at no other time to both the inner and the outer life.

All this, in response to a dead squirrel! Well, I’m sorry, it’s how I felt. Unless you have felt it too, it doubtless sounds as if I’m raving. But I am trying to describe something that I believe to be fundamental; an essential yet neglected component of our being.

I showed the squirrel to the small tribe of children that had formed in the campsite, girls and boys between the ages of three and nine, and asked them if they’d like to watch me prepare it. As I expected, they clustered round, enthralled. How wrong we are to assume that children will be repelled and horrified by dead animals! On the contrary, they want to see as much as they can. What tends to repel and horrify them is the suffering of live animals. In this respect, they often seem to me to have a keener ethical sense than adults do.

I borrowed an axe and sharpened it on a stone, told the children what I was about to do, in case any of them had qualms, then chopped off the head, tail and feet. Immediately, a lively argument erupted over who was to claim these trophies. As I opened the abdominal cavity with my penknife, they pored over the guts, fascinated by the anatomy. They asked me to cut open the heart, to see what it looked like inside. I showed them the tiny atria and ventricles, in which the blood had now clotted. Then I skinned the squirrel and stretched and salted the skin on a piece of plank, whereupon another dispute arose about who would take it home.

Squirrel meat, while the flavour is excellent, is tough, and on previous occasions I have stewed it. But that wasn’t possible at the barn, where there was only a barbecue and a camping stove. So I spatchcocked it and marinated it in lemon juice for a couple of hours, before we cooked it slowly on the barbecue. It was exquisite: tender and delicately-flavoured.

I’ve eaten plenty of roadkill. I’ll take anything fresh except cats and dogs (my main concern is for the feelings of the owners, rather than the palatability of the meat, though it would require an effort to overcome the cultural barriers), but I was never before foolish enough to mention this eccentric habit on social media. I noted on Twitter how good the meat was, and was greeted by protests.

Alongside the various “yucks” and concerns about disease and fleas, none of which seem valid to me if the meat is properly cooked, were comments questioning the ethics of what I had done

“Disappointed, what a strange thing to do, you should have just buried it.”

“… we should treat animals as equal until they are. Eating it demonstrates that it is worthless.”

“I thought I could look up to you, you monster …”

“The big question is what makes a squirrel different from a human. Very few people would consider it OK to eat a dead person.”

“… all that good stuff you’ve done and then you skin a squirrel and eat it, huge fall from grace.”

I asked one of these respondents why she felt the way she did, and she was good enough to give me some answers. She told me I should “have respect for the life and feel sorrow it has been killed. Not think skin it and eat it”. I asked her whether she would find it more or less upsetting if I had eaten some chicken or pork. She answered, “I’m not a veggy! Please just don’t scrape things off the road and skin them. Your time better spent highlighting eco/politics.”

On one level, I think I can understand these comments. We have become so far removed from the realities of meat production that anything which reminds us of where it comes from and how it is processed (let alone reared) is disturbing and dissonant. So it should be, given the realities of factory farming and slaughterhouses. But it seems to me that some people have confused what is customary with what is ethical.

Familiarity can render any kind of horror invisible, and the common modes of livestock production are no exception. It is the unfamiliar that attracts opprobrium, even if it inflicts no harm.

The great majority of farmed meat, in my view, is unethically produced. The treatment of farm animals, particularly intensively-produced pigs and chickens, is a suppurating open secret, sustained by tacit consent in a nation that purports to love animals and lavishes affection on dogs and cats. Pigs are just as intelligent and capable of suffering as the pets we treat almost as if they were children.

While free-range production tends to be kinder to the animals, its environmental impacts can be much worse. Free range chicken and pig farms pollute groundwater and rivers. Outdoor pig farming has often caused soil slumping and erosion, resulting in muddy floods downstream, some of which have repeatedly inundated people’s homes. A friend describes the worst examples as “opencast pig mining”. Sheep ranching across most of our uplands inflicts environmental damage out of all proportion to the tiny amounts of meat it produces, as the sheep seek out any seedlings that rear their heads, ensuring that trees are scoured from the hills.

And most of the farmed animals in this country are fed on either soya or maize, whose impacts on the living world are terrible. A new paper in the journal Science of The Total Environment reports that “livestock production is the single largest driver of habitat loss”.

Perhaps you can dismiss these problems from your mind. But the overuse of antibiotics by livestock farms, that can lead to resistant strains of pathogens, and the competition for scarce arable land between the production of animal feed and grain for human consumption must surely trouble anyone with a concern for other people.

Even organic, low-input, high-welfare production could be described as ethical only if we ate less meat. Then, if manure production were in balance with crop production, it would make sense. But we are swimming in animal manure in this country (sometimes, given the state of our rivers and coastal waters, literally). We need less of it, not more. In the context of overconsumption across the spectrum, and the vast land-take this requires, any form of meat production exacerbates the problems.

I don’t regard the eating of meat as wrong in itself; it is contingent on circumstance. I don’t have a problem, for example, with eating wild rabbits, pigeons or deer. All live here in great abundance, as they benefit from the way we manage the land. Deer are, by any reckoning, overpopulated, due to the absence of predators.

I see rabbit, pigeon and deer meat as by-products. The animals are killed primarily for pest control, and will continue to be killed, like the squirrel on the road, whether or not we eat the meat. Suppressing their populations does not damage ecological processes; in the case of deer it tends to enhance them. If some of the millions of grey squirrels killed every year in this country were sold for meat, it would be no bad thing. The same does not apply to pheasants laid down by shooting estates or grouse slaughtered by driven shoots. In both cases, their management, designed to boost their numbers, causes grave environmental problems, and any purchases that help to make these industries more viable contribute to the damage.

Perhaps if we engaged more with the natural world, and developed a better understanding of our evolutionary history and our psychological place within it, we might spend more time thinking about what we eat. In doing so, I believe, we would enrich our lives, as well as the life of the more-than-human world. To seek enlightenment, about ourselves and the world around us: this is what makes a life worth living.