To Take a Life

As I write, I am looking out over a snow-spotted mountain heath and a few leafless, wind-bent birches standing outside the window. I’m in the mountain cabin that my grandparents built almost 70 years ago at the tree line in the Swedish region of Härjedalen. My muscles are aching from yesterday’s hard work – helping a local Sami village prepare for the annual reindeer slaughter. My heart is also aching, for the many young calves and a few reindeer elders that were selected, and did not make it through the night.

In A Sand County Almanac American environmentalist and author Aldo Leopold posits that all tools invented by our species are upon closer scrutiny an elaboration of, or an accessory to, the original pair of basic implements: the shovel and the ax. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, and so do we humans. The shovel allowed us to become givers, to plant trees. With the axe we became takers, able to chop trees down. He goes on to speak about how we classify ourselves into vocations, “each of which either wields some particular tool, or sells, or repairs it, or sharpens it, or dispenses advice on how to do so; by such division of labors we avoid responsibility for the misuse of any tool save our own”.

Aldo’s thoughts are close at hand after yesterday’s work, grabbing young calves by their horns and dragging them away from their herds and families – to be kept in a separate pen for a few hours before being trucked off to the local slaughterhouse down the road. My whole life I have been set on respecting all life, to not kill for any reason save to feed myself (and then mostly plants, as I have been a vegetarian for a large part of my life). Now here I am, bringing these young beings to the chopping block, under the shadow of an axe about to come down at full speed. It is a job that needs doing, I keep telling myself.

The calves all act differently, some shake their heads to and fro and do anything to get out of my firm grip of their small horns (which often are soft and some even bend), others follow along calmly, accepting fate, or perhaps not sensing what is coming. A fellow reindeer-pulling colleague shows me that the reindeer become calmer if you hold them with one hand under their chins. It seems to work well.

A few weeks back we help a friend collect his fishing nets in a local mountain lake. Ingrid joins him and they row out to the nets with the boat as I wait with Embla on the shore. I find myself hoping that the catch will be small, that we don’t catch any fish whose time had not yet come. More than twenty Whitefish and a few Pike are pulled up onto land along with the nets. We hang the nets to dry as we untangle the fish from the nets. Then off to a foldable camping table with a white plastic top for the gutting before a final dip back into the lake for a rinse. Several fish are still moving as we bring them to the plastic slaughter table. A sense of calm sadness stays with me that whole morning and into the afternoon.

I realize I am not yet comfortable with this ancient implement, the axe. But I’m not comfortable with the shovel either. Is not the whole extractive industry in some sense an extension of the shovel? For sure, a shovel can be of great help in the establishment of a forest garden or a permaculture patch, but is it not also an inverted axe of sorts – a divine tool that also decides what should live, and hence what should die?

Sometimes our tools of creation and destruction are not used as initially intended. I’m guessing that the kind of mouse-trap that we use in our cabin (the kind where you lure the mice into a cage with a piece of cheese or peanut butter or what have you) is closer related to the life-affirming shovel than the axe. However, as it turns out, this particular tool is apparently of the shapeshifting kind.  With some neglect and time passed, our shovel-trap turned into a death-trap for a poor little mouse that we found when it was too late to do anything about. I found a final home for the little one under a juniper-bush behind the outhouse.

Having had our dog Embla with us in the cabin has brought back childhood memories of Faust, my grandparents’ large Newfoundland dog. I have long thought I would like to read Goethe’s Faust, and the last few months of slow days and long nights have allowed me to do so. One of the passages that stuck with me relates to my ponderings in this post. Faust is beginning to suspect that Mephistopheles perhaps is someone you should exercise some caution with, and finally asks him to unveil his true identity:

Faust: Who are you then?

Mephistopheles:  I am part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good.


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