The question of how a food lives on in us first arose when I was eating a delicious organic artichoke. I was happy with this beautiful food and the opportunity to eat it. Until I tuned in. Then I found a being who was not at all happy to be eaten, but was a mix of angry and sad. Startled, I contemplated the reality of artichoke as a big thistle bud: When you eat us, we don’t get to fly. When we’re allowed to flower, we develop seeds with parachutes. The slightest wind sends us flying, which is our greatest pleasure in life. Even more fulfilling is being eaten by a bird, then we fly higher, farther, faster. When you eat us, all this delight is stolen. We don’t like it.
I had a very different but equally startling experience while working on a painting after a trip to Alaska. While in the State Museum in Juneau, I encountered a stuffed sea lion amid artifacts of the age of European conquest. She overwhelmed me with a presence that seemed replete with request: please paint me, paint this sorrow, paint my place and people. I’m not used to having requests from long dead taxidermy, but this was clear.
After returning home, I began a multi-paneled watercolor combining the sea lion as central image, a band of conifers at the top, with a band of Tlingit dancers just below. The bottom section is ocean waves. There are two panels of Tlingit form line animals to each side: raven, salmon, and beaver on the left; eagle, orca, and bear to the right. The sea lion is centered in a circle of stars, black above her and red below. I had already painted the top, bottom, and side panels when I began work on the sea lion. Here I discovered a “mistake”: her snout touched and partly obscured the snout of the form line orca. In my experience, painting “mistakes” like this are deliberate content from a deeper level. So what was this, making her head less clear and emphatic on the paper? Messing up the flow of the composition?
I thought of the artichoke who wanted to fly. I thought of the sheep who prefer being eaten by the cougar and coyote who know them. The command to honor seemed embedded in the loss of habitat, culture, respect and freedom that this sea lion shared with trees, humans, otters, salmon, soil. But the image says she hates being permanently dead in a museum display. She had wanted to fulfill her purpose as orca food. She had wanted to swim as an orca. She had wanted to embrace her destiny of becoming orca.
Zen Buddhist practice includes a formal meal ceremony with evocative instructions: consider the ways and means this food has come to us, and, let us consider our merit when accepting it. The former weaves through all our explorations of how plants and animals live before they become food. The latter has a far-reaching implication for what happens after.
These experiences of how a being carries the consciousness of its food suggest an interpretation of merit radically different from virtue. Is the life this food fuels a life this being will enjoy? Does this life increase wisdom and love? Is my life entertaining, satisfying, and kind?
Can my life bring joy to the beings I eat, as the bird brings joy to the thistle, as the orca brings joy to the sea lion? To offer merit to my food as I receive it becomes a compass for how I live.
© Sandy Eastoak 2018
Voices of the Community are guest posts by members of our extended community who have important insights, perceptions and information to share about the multi-dimensional reality of life, the Earth, and the many beings we share it with. If you would like to contribute to Voices of the Community, contact us at info at stregatree.com
Sandy Eastoak is a professional artist and poet who grew up in New England, where she was raised by trees. Her art and writing diligently and passionately celebrate our oneness with all forms of life and empower our return to harmony.
The Pacific Northwest, including Oregon, Alaska, and Northern California have deeply colored her inquiry, and invoked Native rights and culture as essential. Previous books include Twenty-six Companions: Celtic, Buddhist & Native Spirit Guides; Four Crowns for Mother Earth; Rhymes with Pillow; and Elect Indians. www.sandyeastoak.com