The act of killing is something a person had damned well better take seriously.
I have fished since I was about five years old, when I waded, scared to death, at the edge of an underwater drop-off in one of the big rivers in upstate New York, at the bottom of a 300-foot gorge, with my Dad. He was crazy to have let me do this at that age, but since I ended up not drowning I'm now glad he did it. I now spin fish and fly fish wherever there is clean water, fresh or salt, including a cold, clear river near my house where a few days a ago a fat, strong, more-than-foot-long rainbow trout gave me dinner. I never set foot in a river or in the surf without intending to bring home food, whether the day turns out that way or not. When I kill a fish I know damned well I am killing a being, and I express thanks for its feeding me. Nothing fancy or sanctimonious. It's just the reality: I've killed and I'm going to eat and I need to acknowledge it.
For me personally, knowing what it feels like to kill seems like the very least I can do as a flesh-eating person, and I'm pretty weirded out by our society's accepted habit of eating dead creatures while shielding ourselves from any experience of the killing. Sure, we have all gotten hints or explicit evidence of the predatory lie we live from news stories or horrific food documentaries, and we all know that the pale flesh beneath the plastic wrap in the market was a living creature that felt pain just a while ago. But for me, if we have have never held a writhing fish in our hands and then conked it to render it unconscious before disemboweling it and cutting off its head, or if we have never followed the blood trail of a dying deer and then put it out of its suffering, or if we have never wrung a chicken's neck, something at the heart of the death-for-dinner reality has escaped us.
I know better than to get up on any high horse about this. We all have hypocrisies in our personal ways of life. It goes with the territory when our beef comes from a far-off giant processing plant and our porch furniture comes from a repressive factory regime in Asia. I like and own leather jackets, but I have never executed or skinned a cow or witnessed its death in an industrial abattoir, and I never will. I may one day own a pair of snakeskin cowboy boots, but I will never slay and skin a rattler. You have your own version of the same dynamic. I know meat eaters who very comfortably eschew any knowledge of how cattle and pigs and chickens die on corporate killing floors. I know catch-and-release fishermen and women who regard my habit of catching-to-eat as awful and self-indulgent, and I respect the conservation ethic that makes catch-and-release the rule in many waters due to sheer human traffic and mistreatment of nature. To me personally, making fish suffer purely for one's own pleasure, when one intends simply to throw them back, is barbaric. But the fact is that, even as a food fisherman, I'm wild about fishing itself. I find something both primal and connectively grounding in it. I enjoy the strength and the wiliness and the fight of a healthy fish that is fooled by what I offer. So I cannot claim that this is purely a food thing for me (although, especially these days, that's a big part of it). More messily still, even if I am stalking a particular fish that I can see in the water, I cannot control my sometimes catching a young fish that I need to put back or that may die from the ordeal of having been caught. Hunters with guns or bows, I guess, at least have more control over which animals they kill. So I freely admit that my approach to this is no tidy or clean affair. It's just my way of working out what feels balanced and what I can live with.
But I do think it is important for us, as people, to put some personal thought, some feeling, some effort into trying to work this out within ourselves, wherever that leads each of us. Our see-no-evil consumer ethic encourages the opposite. And I think that's bad. At a time when manufactured experience seems to shield us from virtually all knowledge of the effects of our way of life, I think the effort of paying attention to these questions, however conflicted and incomplete, adds some leavening to our sense of place in the living world, some sense of impact. Especially when it comes to something as essential as what we eat.
Sometimes, I think, even a little knowledge can be a good thing.