Read up a bit on Ralph Waldo Emerson, an American essayist of the 19th century, and you may run across this: “The greatest delight the fields and woods minister is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me and I to them.”
Emerson likely used “occult” to suggest that our relationship to the plant world is not always easily apparent, rather than suggesting there is anything supernatural to our relationship to the rutabaga.
Regardless, it is clear that Emerson valued the experience of his meetings with vegetables, wherever they might cross paths.
My middle daughter likewise deeply values that relationship.
Nearly five years ago, she decided to shift entirely to a vegan – plant-based – lifestyle, arranging her diet and other life choices to be centered entirely on the relationship Emerson lauds. She earns her nutrition entirely from plant-based sources. The clothes and shoes she wears are not made from animals or their byproducts. And in choosing to not use cosmetics that have been tested on live animals, she joins India, Israel, and the European Union – all of whom (according to Peta) have banned sales of those products.
These are choices my daughter makes on health considerations, but also for moral reasons – her contribution to a world that is closer to freedom from cruelty.
I thoroughly admire her choices, respect her diligence, and adore her for the energy she puts into the whole process. It can take work to find cruelty-free food and products in a world that in one year can slaughter as many as 7 billion animals – nearly an animal each year for every human living on the Earth at this moment – in pursuit of food and various byproducts (such as leather and fur), and that tortures even more for the reassurance that the bizarre chemicals in our shampoo won’t sting our eyes.
My daughter manages this every day, and she even managed to cross the North American continent last summer without compromising her choices.
She is not on her own.
While there are an estimated 375 million vegetarians in the world, the number of strict vegans globally might be more like 10 million to 20 million. (I found no conclusive census of vegans, which accounts for that wide range.)
India can claim the most vegetarians on our planet; an estimated 31 percent of the country’s 360 million residents do not consume meat or fish, although yogurt and clarified butter are common meal ingredients.
Although the percentage is far lower in the United States, one study estimates there may be as many as 16 million vegetarians in the U.S., and suggests that about half of those are vegan – also avoiding all the eggs and dairy products. (Once again demonstrating the uncertainty of these numbers, a different source estimates half that number.)
Veganism is not exclusively a modern phenomenon. One source reports that Amos Bronson Alcott, one of Emerson’s friends, “advocated a vegan diet before the term was coined” – while also sensibly supporting the abolition of slavery and a wider recognition of womens’ rights. (Aside from his progressive diet and lifestyle, Alcott is also known as the father of Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women and several sequels.)
Henry David Thoreau was another of Emerson’s friends, and he, too, valued pushing back against the homogenizing forces of society. Thoreau – author of an entire treatise on how to break rules, and another on how to live more simply in a society that was even then growing in complexity – had this to say, in his essay “Economy,” about an animal-free diet:
“One farmer says to me, ‘You cannot live on vegetable food solely, for it furnishes nothing to make bones with;’ and so he religiously devotes a part of his day to supplying his system with the raw material of bones; walking all the while he talks behind his oxen, which, with vegetable-made bones, jerk him and his lumbering plow along in spite of every obstacle.”
My daughter hopes that her example of striving for a cruelty-free, plant-based life will inspire others to take up the cause – much in the model of Dr. Albert Schweitzer, who believed the way to promote Christianity was by laboring to heal, and not simply by sermonizing (no matter how enthusiastic the preaching might be). “Example is not the main thing in influencing others,” Schweitzer wrote – “It is the only thing.”
I am confident Dr. Schweitzer would enjoy spending time – and sharing a vegan meal – with my middle daughter, nearly as much as I do.