On Vegan “Masculinity”

I have been a vegan for over 15 years. I have been a man for over 35 years. When I went vegan, I never felt particularly troubled as a man by the decision to stop eating meat and other animal products. I was aware of the caricature of vegetarians in popular culture, which attaches femininity (which is “bad”) to any and all things “veg,” but my process of going vegan was very simple: Could I continue living in a way that did, or even could, cause harm and suffering to other beings.

The answer was “no,” and I was vegan.

Recently, there has been a renewed attention to the issue of masculinity and its ability to withstand the supposed weakening, feminizing qualities of veganism. A recent story on NPR recounted the lifestyles and stories of vegan men who were seeking to expand the notion of masculinity to include things like compassion, sustainable living, and not eating other animals. A few months ago, VegNews published “The Vegan Man Issue,” making a similar attempt at dispelling the concerns of modern manly men that going vegan would mean…well, terrible things for their manhood.

A number of strongly negative reactions to these proclamations of vegan manhood have come out, thankfully. But as a vegan man, I have been particularly bothered by these efforts to save masculinity from the threat of veganism.

Or, put another way, I have felt deeply disconcerted by the attempts of some to save masculinity from supposed threats through an effort to make it subsume those threats within itself.

From my perspective, masculinity and the entire system of rigid gender binaries are not worth saving. They are not worth shoring up, they are not worth bailing out, and they are not worth the harm to be done by hamstringing the subversive political energy of ethical veganism–a subversiveness towards oppressive systems that has been talked about more widely since at least the publication of Carol J. Adams’s The Sexual Politics of Meat.

Let me be blunt. I do not want masculinity to feel safe about veganism, because I do not want patriarchy to squelch yet another effort to bring it down (which, I believe, ethical veganism damn well ought to be doing). I do not want my life as a vegan man to be constantly measured against some code of abstract qualities, from appearance to behavior, so that some of my fellow males might not worry about becoming more “feminine” should they decide to stop being assholes and go vegan.

And I sure as hell do not want feminism and the inherent feminist component of ethical veganism to be sanitized, silenced, and suffocated by some clumsy, panicked effort to expand or redefine “masculinity” so that it includes what has hitherto been denigrated as central to “femininity”–thereby continuing to relegate the feminine to the role of less than, secondary, or inferior.

I am sick and tired of how much harm we do to individuals by trying to fit them into the masculine-feminine ideological box or judge them based on their ability to cram themselves in it. I am hopeful that ethical veganism can help us all to see the dangers in oppressive systems, no matter what form they take.

 

Creating Sanctuary: Interview with Ren Hurst-Setzer of Sanctuary13

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It is rather fun to watch an idea spread. One of my recent personal story-interviews was with Amy Dye, whose decision to rescue and care for two sheep at her home offered a perfect example of a “microsanctuary,” a concept that Rosemary and I have been developing as part of our rescue, sanctuary, and education work with Triangle Chance for All. While we are turning our three-acre property into a microsanctuary for chickens and one day goats and pigs (and perhaps other species), we are also seeking to help other vegans see themselves as caregivers on their own microsanctuaries.

Amy’s story inspired an article on Care2.com by Abigail Geer, which helped to spread the idea of microsanctuaries to a much wider audience … including Ren Hurst-Setzer, who co-founded with her partner Brandy Sanctuary13 in northern California.

Ren’s path to veganism has been intimately connected to her work with other animals, in particular horses. Her story of taking a step beyond non-harming to creating a space of wellness and safety, for non-human as well as human animals, is fascinating to read–and to witness, as Sanctuary13 grows from a vision to a sacred space…

travisIt sounds like your transition to veganism was tied closely to your decision to create a sanctuary for rescued animals. When did you go vegan, and what made you realize the need to stop exploiting animals?

It was actually tied to discoveries I made while trying to build authentic relationships with my horses. I had read in Michael Bevilacqua’s book Beyond the Dream Horse that horses could smell if we were meat eaters or not, and it just made sense that if I wanted to have a real relationship with my horse, it would probably be beneficial not to smell like a predator. As a bonus, my health would probably improve. I had always been open to becoming vegetarian, but that is what motivated me to do the work to make it happen. There is no short answer to this question, as my journey was long and intense to get me where I am today, but my horses have become my equals in every way in terms of our relationships. What they have shown me and taught me through my acknowledging their true nature has made it impossible to not realize the truth: exploiting animals is easily one of the most destructive acts on our planet.

That realization happened prior to changing my diet. I became a vegetarian about two years ago. The switch from vegetarian to vegan is still an ongoing process some days, but I am committed to the full transition. It’s simply taking time for me to change habits, break addictions, develop the skills, and work through the emotional baggage of the past. I have changed so much and so drastically in just the last five years. I really look forward to mastering this area of my life (diet), which has been one of the most difficult for me for as long as I can remember.

Please talk a little about Sanctuary13, your burgeoning microsanctuary in Northern California. How did the idea get planted, and how has the growing process played out so far? Where are you at now, and what are some of your most pressing needs to get started and be sustainable?

In 2012, I became a student of Nevzorov Haute Ecole, a highly advanced school of horsemanship out of Russia. Through my studies there and application of such with my horses, it became completely obvious that domestication in general is a product of ego and a serious setback for human evolution. This is my personal experience, not the actual teachings of the school. Through my past experience with and studies of horses, I already knew that there was nothing biologically different between wild horses and domestic horses. Why then is it so widely accepted to have them in our backyards and use them the way we do when if I tried to do the same thing with a rhino, or even a more closely related zebra, it would be considered a crime? There is no difference. It’s all a crime against nature. I decided that sanctuary was the only viable solution. Not rescue alone, which only treats the symptom, but sanctuary based on results and education, where people can learn and experience something different, something they feel is actually better than the current reality. Take care of what we have, and stop creating more of the problem. We genuinely heal horses here, not just remove them from abusive situations and fix their physical ailments. Our horses are free to express themselves in any way they wish without any fear of punishment, and because of that, they don’t act like your average horses. We don’t use any training equipment or methods. We simply relate to them from a place of authenticity and unconditional love. If enough people can see and experience what I’m talking about, I have hope that it can inspire change in huge ways.

We are just barely getting started and are in way over our heads at the moment. I was a professional horse trainer prior to making a major shift in my awareness through my school horse, Shai. We had 13 horses in our care who were mostly intended to be rehabilitated, re-trained, and then sold. Well, obviously, that was no longer an option with our shift. So we promised them to honor what they had taught us, and we built this idea around them. We were offered an opportunity to work with like-minded horse people in this area, so I walked away from a successful career as a trainer and natural hoof care practitioner, we sold off most of our belongings, and we spent our entire savings moving ourselves and our herd of 13 from Texas to a very remote and off-grid location in Northern California. Nothing has been what we expected, and it’s all been a very beautiful, albeit incredibly difficult, experience. We did not end up working with the other people, and instead found space in our lives to create what we were meant to, which is what will become Sanctuary13. Our name honors the 13 equines that brought us here, but we also happened to land in section 13 of our rural subdivision, as well as on lot number 13 of this section. Coincidence? Doubtful. The numerology surrounding the numbers is pretty spot on as well.

Currently we are living out of a 19-foot travel trailer, solar powered by my very novice skills at setting up such a system. We are working very hard to split our time between making sure the animals’ needs are met, working through these massive changes in our personal lives, and developing this dream of sanctuary. It’s messy and unorganized at the moment, but each day brings more clarity and results. You don’t get 25 animals BEFORE deciding to create a sanctuary without having a massive amount of baggage to unload. Our list of pressing needs is pretty long at the moment. Extra hands and more people involved is a must in the near future, as most of the time it is me against the elements and 25 animals to care for entirely on my own (my partner is a flight attendant and only here about half the time). We just formed a board of directors that will be coming together next week to sign paperwork, and then the real sanctuary work begins.

For sustainability, we’re going to be relying on the programs we develop, which are beyond discussion at this point. This is our life and these animals are our family, so we are committed to doing whatever necessary to care for them regardless of outside funding in the future. This is not about earning a living. The model we are creating is not one that I know to be operating currently in the sanctuary/rescue world, and that’s entirely because of our unique background with the horses. It will be interesting to see where we fit in amongst our new peers.

10153915_1491840011039650_1595996672567491344_nWhere do you see Sanctuary13 five or ten years down the road? What is your vision for the sanctuary after its maturation?

We believe in simple living, and we believe simplicity is the earmark of truth (words by the great Dr. David R Hawkins). In 5-10 years, I see us having a turnkey operation in terms of the animals here having all of their needs met, and our place being a well-organized and well-run facility that operates effortlessly. Our animals are permanent residents, but within five years I would like to implement a foster program to aid other organizations, especially our county animal services, to help place outside animals while using our skill set to rehabilitate those animals and teach other organizations better care practices through the results. I want to keep the organization small because I want this to be a model for what is possible and just how easy it can be to care for animals WELL in smaller spaces than people are used to thinking about. We want to incorporate all areas of sustainability into what we’re doing out here, from our own housing to a very large focus on organic gardening and permaculture. We want people, animals, and the planet to receive equal attention in our efforts.

Though animals brought us to this idea, our sanctuary will actually be more focused on healing people, especially since our resident herd of animals will be in a mostly healed state at that point. We believe that healed people and raised consciousness is the real answer to taking care of the animals, and the problems in our world. Once the animals here have everything they need, we will put a lot of energy into developing programs in experiential education and personal transformation for people. Think of equine-facilitated therapy, but unlike anything I know to be out there just yet. The current model of equine therapy does not fully honor the horse, or even recognize where that horse may not be healed themselves before asking them to be a mirror to a person needing help. There will be no placing a horse in a roundpen so that some strange human can use them as a mirror, a very skewed mirror, to draw out that person’s inner issues. We’re about rising above all that. We want people to find inner peace, to create sanctuary in their own lives—in whatever form they want or need. Unconditional love is the only avenue to peace, and we’d like to teach people how to find the courage to get there through our model with horses.

After maturation, I’d like our team to travel the globe and help other organizations and people implement similar models at their own facilities. We are very much still walking the path ourselves, so this is all very much a developing projection of our current feelings.

You have begun talking about Sanctuary13 as a “microsanctuary.” What does the term mean to you as you are building Sanctuary13? And what role do you see microsanctuaries playing in the future of the vegan and animal rights movement(s)?

I’m sure the size requirements to be considered “micro” will be determined at some point in this movement’s evolution, but for right now I just think of “microsanctuary” as an animal sanctuary that operates on far less land than is considered normal in that industry. And it operates successfully on less resources. Whether by housing fewer animals or by using advanced methods of caring for and understanding them, it doesn’t take nearly as much space as often thought to keep animals healthy and happy—that means a LOT more people can do it, which means a LOT more animals get saved. I think the role these places play will have a massive impact on people. Imagine: If there was a rescued pig in every neighborhood, who was loved and well cared for, and people interacted with that pig … how easy would it really be to go home and open that pack of bacon? There is a huge disconnect for people between the animals they eat and the animals they welcome into their homes, and it simply comes from not understanding their value as sentient beings. If more and more opportunities like that become available, more and more people will see that there is no difference between the cow on their plate and the dog in their backyard.

Vegans who also provide a home (i.e., sanctuary) to farmed animals are not many in number. Why do you think so many vegans avoid adopting farmed animals? Is it mostly a practical issue in your experience (for example, all vegans live in urban apartments and would violate their lease if they got a chicken), or is it also a mentality problem?

10256085_1491246271099024_1422908420512177955_nI have a lot of respect for people who understand just how much of a commitment bringing another being into their lives is supposed to be. It is no simple undertaking to care for animals—they require far more than food, water, and shelter to be fulfilled, happy, and healthy unless they are able to live completely natural lives amongst their own kind, without human intervention (which isn’t likely possible in a micro-environment). The amount of time it takes to really learn about an individual species and provide for its needs is a lot of work, and you have to be passionate about it for it to work out for everyone. I think most vegans who don’t desire to care for animals have no need to change that, and I think that’s a sane decision. They are actually doing a great deal for the planet by simply setting the example in not creating the problem to begin with. Providing a home and providing safety are not the same thing. In the horse world, I see it every day—horses in rescues and sanctuaries who are in pain and probably worse off from their suffering than if their lives had just ended. It’s very common, and I’d prefer to see the rescuing being done by people who are capable and who are not in need of rescue themselves. I’m sure our own horses suffered through the massive transition we’ve gone through in the past year, and that’s nothing compared to traditionally kept horses. I also see a LOT of vegans training and riding horses because they have no idea of the harm that is caused to the animals. Riding horses is no more vegan than eating a cow—it’s exploitation at best and does nothing for the animal’s well-being.

You have said that a primary purpose in starting Sanctuary13 is education. What unique educational opportunities do you see your microsanctuary being able to provide to the public? What are some of your educational goals, and what steps are you putting in place (now and in the future) to accomplish them?

Our knowledge of horses is in no way limited by what we wish to do with them. What I mean by that is most people cut off their learning about these animals the second that it threatens their current reality—especially professionals who0 risk losing their income if what they know becomes irrelevant. We already walked away from the professional horse scene and have nothing to fear. We know what works, and we know what keeps horses healthy and thriving. We have zero vet bills to speak of outside of freak accidents, which are rare at best. We can teach people how to care for horses on a minimal budget and reap giant rewards through these relationships, by loving and honoring these creatures in the most unconditional way. In this way, we help horses in need find non-traditional homes with a new market of horses lovers not attached to the idea of riding, and we raise consciousness through their model of care. This goes for the farmed animals as well—there is no difference, and the more we experiment in relating to pigs and others the way we have learned to with the horses, the more that becomes true. We can teach people what unconditional looks like so that they can take it back home and use it where it’s needed most.

Other educational goals would surround vegan meal preparing, cooking, gardening, and anything learning based that we can tie back to our sustainable agenda.

Thanks for talking with me about Sanctuary13 and your transition to a place of true respect for non-human animals!

The Recluse and the Rescuer

Originally published on the Vegan Carolina blog.

017It is 6:30 a.m. on a Monday morning, and I am carrying a screaming (not squealing) potbellied pig named Lola to the car. I will spend over thirteen hours that day taking her to her permanent home at PIGS Animal Sanctuary in West Virginia, after having rescued her from sad conditions and having cared for her for two weeks prior …

Three years ago, this scenario would have seemed entirely foreign and utterly intimidating to me. I have been an ethical vegan since March 1999, but most of that time was spent in isolation—as the only vegan I knew wherever I lived, and as the only member of a one-person household. My dedication to avoiding a part in the exploitation of non-human animals was (and always has been) central to who I am … but the notion of bringing others into my life was another story.

I mention all of this in a past-is-prologue sort of way simply to throw into relief that image of me with a screaming pig in the wan, pre-dawn light. Thankfully, Lola was not screaming because my novice hands had an improper hold (I managed to master pretty quickly the art of picking up an unwilling pig), but because pigs simply do not like to be picked up.

I know this now, both from research and from experience, much as I know that roosters make a particular sound when they find food for their hens, baby goats suck down a bottle at light speed, and rescuing animals in need is perhaps the most satisfying activity one can do as a vegan.

* * * * *

My wife, Rosemary, and I each had dreams of starting an animal sanctuary before we met in cyberspace, and eventually in person. She was the one who actually set my feet walking on the path of rescue, though: a little over a month after we started dating I rescued a deaf former bait dog whom I named Iris, and it was all a fairly quick transition from isolated hermit to animal caregiver.

Once we moved to Chapel Hill (a return for both of us, but in different ways), we quickly realized that there was an urgent need for rescuing farmed animals in the Triangle. After helping secure a good future for a white goat named Lily and then for Bubba the famous ram in Durham, we started thinking seriously about putting more—and better organized—energy into getting farmed animals off the agricultural assembly line.

Thus was born Triangle Chance for All. There was and has been an astounding response to our efforts to rescue and provide or secure permanent sanctuary to farmed animals, and to couple that with outreach and education to promote a vegan lifestyle. For us, the two are intimately connected: rescuing farmed animals helps individuals but does nothing to stop a system of exploitation, and focusing only on advocacy leaves many individual animals with no chance for a better life.

1014944_585913268181570_2850846520415736500_oFor me, vegan advocacy is filled out, completed, and made fully consistent by this life of animal rescue and care. Although it is a very new way of living, I find it very natural to live in a home that is also our microsanctuary for rescued farmed animals (along with our own rescued cats, dogs, and rabbits). It also makes sense to be building a community around this twofold idea that veganism is the only satisfactory response to the suffering of non-human animals and rescuing individual victims of that system is a worthy endeavor to pursue as a vegan.

I could not have imagined myself saying any of that three years ago. And I am sure that many people reading this feel the same as I once did. After all, many of us might see cats or dogs as a little intimidating but still a normal part of your average household. Farmed animals, however, are often viewed as “other,” even by vegans: they live on farms somewhere out in the country and are owned by farmers … unless they are lucky and go to a big farm sanctuary that is also out in the country and run by a different sort of farmers.

But what if every vegan extended their circles of compassion and companionship to include, actively and directly, the millions of farmed animals who somehow get a chance to get out of the exploitative farming system? What if more vegans considered a flock of chickens in the backyard or a couple of sheep out by the garden normal … not “other”? What if more vegans began to see themselves as caretakers of their own microsanctuary, be it on half an acre or a dozen acres?

How much good could we, the ones who already care about the well-being of farmed animals, do for individuals who have been bred only to suffer and die for human ends?

* * * * *

The day after my trip with Lola to West Virginia, I spent another twelve hours in the car transporting an injured rooster from Georgia to Carolina Waterfowl Rescue. While I was driving on Monday, TCA rescued two more (very young) chickens from a local shelter, and we were all preparing for a bake sale through which we could spread the word of veganism over a vegan cupcake or cookie … And while all of this seems normal now that I have committed myself to the life of an animal rescuer and advocate, I still occasionally reflect back on where my life was just a short time ago and remark on how quickly things have changed.

The deep contentment and peace I feel now, beneath the frenzy of rescuing animals and helping to run an organization, to me reflects the fruition of my principles put into practice. It makes me feel, finally, that I have an answer to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “most persistent and urgent question”: “What are you doing for others?”

And I am grateful for that.

Life with Sheep: A Vegan’s Story of Giving Refuge

522Since getting into animal rescue, and in particular starting an organization that rescues farmed animals, I have become fascinated and inspired by the many vegans who see the plight of farmed animals and open their homes to–or create homes for–the cows, pigs, sheep, goats, chickens, turkeys, and other animals dumped into the “food animal” and “livestock” bucket. Even by vegans, these animals are often seen as “other” when it comes to consideration as companions.

Amy Dye is someone who has seen the realities of animal agriculture and has changed her life accordingly–by becoming vegan and by rescuing farmed animals. Not only does she and her family have some awe-inspiring garden spaces thriving on their one-acre property in Maine; she also went beyond the fairly entrenched ideas (even amongst vegans) that “companion animals” are exclusively dogs, cats, and occasionally other small furry creatures, and that veganism is a diet.

So there is something special about those vegans who have a flock of chickens and feed the eggs back to their ladies, or who start a sanctuary to give shelter to roosters–perhaps the most discriminated-against animal around. Amy’s verdant homestead and her two sheep are good examples to us all of how we can extend the circle of companionship to include farmed animals…and how “micro-sanctuaries” (as my wife calls them) can–and must–spring up wherever possible…

photo(17)When I was a child, my family raised chickens and turkeys for food. I vividly remember anticipating their arrival each spring. The mailman would pull into the driveway and beep the horn, presenting a small, brown box with 50 peeping chicks. Out came the camera, documenting their first steps in the outside world on our basement carpet. All summer long we would feed them our leftover sandwich crusts through the fence of their outside coop. They hung out with us in the yard, keeping our dogs and me company on warm summer days. Inevitably, the dreaded day would come that my stepfather would slaughter each one in the side yard, leaving a circular, fly-covered bloodstain for the remainder of the fall. Their heads were left in the compost, tiny eyes closed. I would shut my shades and hide in my room on these horrible days, feeling very different from the rest of my family, who happily dunked the dead chicken or turkey bodies in boiling water and then hung them upside down to pluck.

Even though I was extremely upset that the birds were killed each year, I did not realize that I did not have to eat them. I ate all animal products, just like everyone else, without giving it a second thought. I had never heard of vegetarianism, much less veganism, until much later.

As I grew up, I became a dog rescuer, focusing on dachshunds, only because Ziggy the dachshund was the first one I rescued from our local shelter. Pippin and Winston came next. Pip was a breeding dog from a puppy-mill raid in Tennessee, and Winston was left behind when his owners were evicted from their home, also in Tennessee. With age came a husband and human babies and declining health for the “furkids.” I lost the last of the dachshunds, Ziggy, who was fittingly also the first, two years ago.

My husband and I became very interested in gardening and being more self-sustainable around this time. We had always enjoyed having a garden, but when we moved to a new house with more land and sun, he especially embraced vegetable gardening. We had discussed getting some goats for milking, and even visited a few farms. The woman at the first farm pointed out a skinny Nubian cross goat and informed me that she was going into the freezer soon if she couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her. I asked her how they killed the goats, and she told me that they take them behind the barn and shoot them in the head. She laughed when I suggested putting them to sleep, as the vet bills were more than they could afford. The barn was lined with angora rabbits in cages. In the distance, over a small hill, were white turkeys, undoubtedly the same breed as the ones from my childhood, waiting for the weekend to be slaughtered for the Thanksgiving holiday. The woman at the next farm told the same story (shooting in the head, which ones would be in the freezer, etc.). While we were there, one of the females went into heat and she let a male go in to mate with her. “She’s a virgin, so she doesn’t know what to do,” she said, as the male chased her around the enclosure.

In doing my research about the goats, I read a story about a woman who was doing what we had intended to do, raise them for milk. I had never thought about the fact that they had to stay pregnant most of the time in order to produce. The baby goats were not allowed to nurse and then were sold to whoever wanted them. The woman in the story recounted a time when one of the kid goats was sold to a family and put into the trunk of their car to be slaughtered for Easter dinner. That was her aha moment and mine as well.

After these experiences I decided to not pursue the goat idea. Still not “getting it,” I decided that I would like to get some ducks instead, since we have a brook that runs behind our house, and we could use their eggs. I ordered four ducks–two Khaki Campbells and two Cayugas–from an online poultry clearinghouse. Just like the chickens and turkeys, the ducklings came in a tiny box. I found out a few days beforehand that they were coming from California . . . I live in Maine. Even though I was worried about the ducklings when I knew they were in the mail, I still didn’t make the connection that what I was supporting was wrong. I figured that since this is the way it is done, it must be OK. I later found out about how inhumane the practices at hatcheries are–that they kill most of the male birds, because they are not considered valuable because they don’t lay eggs.

I began having conversations with friends that I could easily be vegan, but I was afraid of how it would affect my family. My husband and I had several favorite dishes that we liked to make together, and honestly, I was scared that I would cause disruption in the family. In the fall of 2012, I saw the movie Forks Over Knives sitting on the shelf at the video store. Although my reasons for being vegan weren’t health-related, as a Registered Dietitian, the topic interested me, and I thought my husband would enjoy it as well. After it was over, he said, “I’m in! I will do a plant-based diet for a month.” That 1158was all I needed to hear. I’ve been vegan ever since.

I became involved very quickly in animal rights activities and began looking for more “farm” animals to rescue. We only have about an acre of land, so it couldn’t be cows, and our town doesn’t allow pigs, so they were out. I had goats in the back of my mind and began looking through Farm Sanctuary’s animal adoption network. I saw an ad from Christine Egidio, mentioning that she was an ex-sheep farmer, newly vegan, looking to re-home some of her girls. I immediately e-mailed her to inquire. Two months later, I drove to Danbury, Connecticut, to meet Christine halfway to collect my two new friends, Violet and Clover.

The first question people ask when they hear I have sheep is, “Are you going to shear them and use the wool?” I tell them that yes, you have to shear them because we have domesticated them so that their wool would continue to grow and get matted and attract disease and cause extreme discomfort. They also want to know what I will do with the wool. It’s hard for them to accept that I am going to leave it outside for the squirrels and birds to make nests out of. Here in Maine, as I’m sure is true in other parts of the world, it is very “cool” to spin yarn and knit your own hats, sweaters, etc. What people don’t realize is that by and large, “wool sheep” are not allowed to live long lives. Once they are done producing nice wool, they are sent to slaughter, just like any other “farm” animal. They are commodities.

The girls themselves are similar to dogs in temperament, I would say. However, they don’t get as depressed as dogs, I have found, being left alone. When I scratch their necks they shake their legs just as dogs do and they are always thrilled to be in your presence when you are around. They have distinct personalities, even though they are twins (fraternal)–Clover is more of the bossy diva, and sweet Violet is a laid-back love bug.

I would say to any vegan considering rescuing a farm animal to go for it. I built the sheep enclosure myself with a post hole digger. On days when I don’t spend much time with them, they are content to be by themselves. It doesn’t take much time at all to make a world of difference for these special souls. I work and have two small children, and I have done it. You can too! We also only have an acre of land with a LOT of gardens and play equipment for the kids–you just need to be efficient with your space.

I think of the millions of sheep and lambs slaughtered and/or mistreated every day as I look in their eyes. Each and every animal is special and unique and deserves to live their lives. Until the world is vegan, we need to give refuge to the ones who make it out alive.

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“I always end up back at the Earth”: Interview with Vegan Illustrator Matt Gauck

Vegan always wins...
Vegan always wins…

It is funny how you meet certain people. We all have those stories of randomly connecting with someone who, in short order, feels like an old friend.

This is certainly true for me when it comes to Matt Gauck, an impressively interesting and creative nomadic vegan illustrator (or “drawist,” as he puts it) wandering the world (mostly on two wheels) with a home base in Portland, Oregon. Since getting in touch with Matt for some logo work for an event (Vegan Night Out) and a non-profit organization (Triangle Chance for All), I have had the good fortune to trade many an e-mail with Matt that left me laughing and feeling good to know that someone out there was doing something interesting.

Matt’s artwork is often humorous and always thought-provoking, with a deep core of environmental awareness coupled with a keen attention to the most pressing social issues of our time. While much of it is dark, with a rather morbid sense of humor (which I love) and a healthy dose of metal, Matt’s art is as varied as the situations our planet and its passengers face today.

You can check out Matt’s artwork at Cargo Collective, and you can learn about and support his upcoming bike tour/book tour/story-gathering tour by donating to his Indiegogo campaign.

How long have you been vegan, and what motivated you to cut animal products out of your life?

Well, my official jump to veganism happened about six years ago, right when I moved to Portland. I had been vegetarian for a long time before that, like seven or eight years, and I was super into dumpster diving from 2002 through about 2007. When I say “really into” I mean I literally didn’t buy almost any food at all; and I would only buy vegan food, even though I didn’t consider myself vegan at the time. Even from the beginning I had more of a problem with the money side of the industries of exploitation, and wanted to avoid putting any money into that market. Anyway, when I moved out here (to Portland) I found that dumpster diving is way less of a possibility for a variety of reasons, and I finally started putting my money into the vegan industry, and went vegan. I also read Animal Liberation by Peter Singer, closely followed by that collection of essays about the Animal Liberation Front, Terrorists or Freedom Fighters?, that Sue Coe did the cover art for…those helped round out my politics regarding animals.

You have said that you are doing your best to live by the phrase: “How will you live your life so that it doesn’t make a mockery of your values?” How does veganism tie into your overall value system—and putting your values in practice? How about music—has the soundtrack of your life influenced those values and actions as well?

I love that quote. Everybody can learn something from that, no matter what you’re into. Veganism is a huge part of my value system, but that’s still just a stepping stone to me—my main interest is honestly just eating vegetables and simple, whole foods, and supporting small farms, farmer’s markets, and co-ops. I think the logical transition is vegetarian to vegan to farmer to Walden pond or something like that. Self-support, or supporting a small group on a small scale: that’s a great idea and ideal to me. I think the backbone of this quote is responsibility, and then also being fully intentional about all the decisions you make.

As for the music thing, it helps me remember things outside my everyday life—people writing lyrics about issues overseas that are less visible to me, things like that—that keeps me feeling like I can be involved in things beyond my immediate life, which is super important too. I still love the “personal liberation” type of lyric writing the most—the reminder that you can live any kind of life you want to, despite what contemporary culture says about it. Live in the woods, do art for a living, write and travel full time, the idea that desk jobs and careers aren’t mandatory for growing older.

Your illustrations are fantastic in that, besides the artistic skill and aesthetic appeal, they largely pack a powerful punch of social justice and cultural critique—on topics as wide-ranging as overpopulation (the “Vasecretary” poster) and flaccid environmentalism (Contemporary Environmentalism at Work) to the nonsense that is the Paleo diet, along with more personal works. What inspires you to make art, and what idea(l)s and philosophies and issues fuel that work?

Oh man, art… I love making art, and I will always want to draw and paint stuff, but sometimes I honestly have no idea where this stuff comes from. It’s like, well, there are these issues in the world, and some of them are so ridiculous that I have to come up with some way to laugh a little about it. Not that I don’t take it seriously; but I really think that humor, and this “over the top” type of thing really helps people to think about things differently. The same way that satire is an effective way to get an idea across to a differing viewpoint…this is my sort of “visual satire,” as it were. A lot of friends of mine tell me they can see humor in even the most straightforwardly graphic stuff, like a bull goring someone; it’s SO over the top, you have to laugh. I like that reaction.

I do find that my best, and most pointed, work comes from when I have conversations with people I disagree with, and see things I get irritated by. I swear, all I have to do is search “hunting” online, and once I see all those pictures of hunters who have killed huge animals, I have to get that anger out somehow. So, typically, I draw.

What, for you, are the most pressing social issues of our day? How do you approach taking them on—in your artistic creative process and in your daily life?

It’s hard, as I think there are so many that are all intertwined, but overall, I find that the environment, like, the physical Earth itself, and everything human beings have done to it—that seems to be the most important to me. Social justice, class lines, and trying to eliminate capitalism in general—it all means a lot, but somehow I always end up back at the Earth. I can see that awful plastic garbage patch in the ocean in the back of my head. I honestly don’t “think” too much about how I can make art about any particular concept; most of them are just so obvious already in the world, that my brain is already responding to them just by being alive, hearing people talk about these things, seeing ignorance and misinformation spread… Making art is a way of dealing with social problems; they make for the best concepts, since everyone can relate on some level, since all these problems have some overlap. The best art, to me, has a purpose and a clear concept to it. You need something to say before you say it, you know?

Besides your artwork, you do a lot of bike-touring and have been known to go on the road with bands. Would you consider yourself a fairly nomadic person? What about this sort of lifestyle do you find fulfilling and enlightening?

I’ve been super lucky to befriend the right people (which happens when you’re as polite and talkative as I am) and have gotten to tour fairly frequently with some friends in bands, which has been a great way to reinforce the DIY network of people I am friends with all over the planet. My partner, Sara, gave the best description of me, when she called me a “charismatic introvert,” which seems pretty apt. That works into my nomadic disposition—I love getting to see different things, go on hikes in strange places, camp in insane spots; but I really love getting to return home someplace to avoid people for a little while, too. I joke I have a split personality thing happening, which isn’t true, but it’s an accurate way of looking at how I approach life. Travel, meet people, do exciting things, then, hole up, draw stuff, listen to audio books. I make the best of each of the seasons, really. Spring, summer, fall—outside. Winter, early spring—inside. I find the whole of this process very fulfilling, and inspiring.

The bike touring is just a more concentrated approach to getting crazy stories, and having fun out in the world. My bike is like a story generating machine, seriously.

Have you encountered any difficulties as a vegan on the road—such as trouble finding places to eat, run-ins with hostile people, etc.?

So far, nothing too bad—mostly someone offering me food, and then glaring in confusion when I’m like, “Oh, that’s really nice, but I actually don’t eat…” Yeah, that thing. Some guy in Alaska offered me moose burgers, to be cooked IN the parking lot of a Safeway, and I told him I just ate vegetables, and he said, “Oh, man, you one of them “healthies’, then huh?” I love that. There’s always the moment of getting to the only restaurant in some town, only to find that they use chicken stock in everything from the salad to the French fries, at which point, you just deal with it. I’ve eaten A LOT of bagels with peanut butter for dinner on bike tours.

Where are you going next, artistically and personally? And where do you feel the vegan movement NEEDS to be going next to sustain itself and make a real difference in the world?

Next, I’m physically going to ride across the country with my partner, Sara, and writing a giant zine about it. My previous zine efforts are being released as a book this coming June, so it’ll double as a book tour as well. The goal both during and after that is to get a bunch (about 15) paintings together for a show I’m having in November of this year, which means September and October, I’ll just be painting pretty much full time. Keeping in motion helps the ideas coming, so I’m not sure where my life is headed after that, though I’m sure I’ll have ideas in the next couple months.

As for the vegan movement, I’d love to see people becoming more interested in shopping at farmer’s markets, growing their own vegetables, and just using the resources we have available to use wisely. Even just growing herbs in your window sill, or setting up something to catch rainwater, is a move in the right direction. I want the vegan movement to CLEARLY be the movement that is actively interested in saving the world, rather than abstaining from something specific. My goal when I’m older is to live in a self-built (or with friends, realistically) structure, in the woods, with small, sustainable farms on all sides. I’d love to see more vegans getting excited about that idea.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with me!

Totally my pleasure—thanks for asking such good questions, and being part of so many rad organizations.

Fifteen Years

It is often a difficult task to recall the exact details of a moment or period from our past. No matter how desperately we go in search of lost time, we seem to seek for shadows that disappear when we attempt to shine light on them.

Me with my childhood dog, Bear.
Me with my childhood dog, Bear.

What I can remember of my process of going vegan is that it was an intense, but short, period of reflection on the ethics of what I was eating. As someone who had cared about animals since my youngest days, it had always made sense to me that harming animals was wrong…though I still ate them. I finally realized that the consumption of any animal products, not just meat (I was vegetarian at the time), would or could produce unnecessary suffering. No living being wants to suffer; therefore, causing unnecessary suffering was indefensible.

I made the decision to go vegan on March 6th, 1999, shortly before my spring break as a college sophomore and a week before my twentieth birthday. Afterward, I missed yogurt for a few days, but otherwise there was no anguish or regret for me, nor has there ever been in the ensuing years.

College: Before veganism.
College: Before veganism.
LordBeliar
College: After veganism.

My thirty-fifth birthday is a week away. While the fact that I am in my mid-thirties is still a strange thing to process, that “birthday” seems fairly trivial in comparison to my fifteenth veganniversary. So forget about the birthday celebrations, please…I have never liked them anyway. It feels much more significant for me to commemorate the day I made a conscious choice to live my life, and to relate to the world, based on an ethical principle of ahimsa, or “non-harm.”

Please help me celebrate my fifteenth veganniversary! It is easy to do: just go vegan. Today.

If you need motivation and support, it can be helpful to watch something informative about veganism, such as Vegucated (available on Netflix), and find a good vegan food blog, such as Oh She Glows, and maybe pick up a cool vegan cookbook or two (from the plethora that have been published). You can even join a vegan community online or a vegan Meetup group in your area, or you can take a vegan challenge. You are also welcome to get in touch with me if you have questions or need some direct guidance. I am happy to do it. Whatever it takes for you, please help me celebrate a life that is not fueled by torture, suffering, and death.

It really is not as challenging as it might seem before you do it. One day very soon you will understand this, too. And just imagine what it will feel like, fifteen years from now, when you reflect back on the choice you made long ago to end your role in the system of suffering…

Today is a perfect day to start the journey.

Making the Connection: A Personal Story

christine egidio sheep

As a vegan advocate, it is always a question for me of what will finally get someone to wake up and realize that he or she can no longer exploit animals. For most people, their only interaction with farmed animals is at the end of the production process–as a hamburger, as ice cream, as leather boots…

Yet many people spend much or all of their lives in direct contact with farmed animals and somehow persist in the exploitation. We call some of them farmers.

It is almost an Earth-shattering moment when we see someone who raised animals for food transition to veganism. These rare few, farmers like Harold Brown or Howard Lyman who are also two vocal vegan advocates, made the connection, saw the animals in a new way, and stopped. They went vegan.

Christine Mariani Egidio is one such person. She lives in New Jersey and was well on her way (with her husband and sons) to making a life as an animal farmer. Her story of becoming vegan is a powerful and inspiring example of one person’s ability to put honesty and compassion over habit and personal tastes. She was kind enough to share that story with us…

In April of 2009, we purchased 32 acres and decided to get into breeding and selling meat sheep to help pay the mortgage and to provide income after we retire. We decided on Tunis sheep because they are very docile and easy keepers. I purchased three breeding ewes and a ram (Lasa Sanctuary now has two of my original breeding ewes, Lily and Roslyn. The third–Sofia–died along with her lambs during her second year with us.)

I am horrified to tell you my motto about our sheep breeding business. I would tell everyone, “They have a really great life, up until they no longer have one.” It makes me cringe now to type that. I wholeheartedly believed in the “humane slaughter” myth. And even worse, even though I soon learned that sheep all have individual personalities, are SMART, and definitely form bonds with one another, show joy, fear, friendship–every human emotion–I still did not make the connection. I have always been an animal lover, rescuing dogs, cats, horses–but I still did not make the connection that farm animals are no different in their desire and right to live.

We intentionally bred sheep for three years (the fourth year I was vegan and had separated my ram from the ewes, but he bred quite a few of them through the fence!). I lost Sofia during delivery and Roslyn’s daughter Cinnamon (Daisy Lu’s full sister) during labor. I also lost three lambs. All heartbreaking, many tears cried, but still I didn’t get it.

I’m married and have two sons in their twenties, both living at home. My husband, my younger son Derek, and I were all on the Primal Diet (similar to Paleo), so we were eating more meat than anything else. I always tried to buy organic, grass fed, and it was hard to find in our area and very expensive. So Derek got the idea that we should raise pigs, turkeys and chickens for meat (we already had hens for eggs). He was also an animal lover, so he said that in order to make sure that the animals were not mistreated during slaughter, and in order not to cause them stress hauling them from our place to the butcher, he would learn how to slaughter them himself. He felt that if he could do it very calmly and not be rough with the animals, they would not be afraid because they would know him–and that would make it okay. He told me he was going to watch YouTube videos on slaughter and then would find a local butcher to show him first-hand what to do.

I remember so clearly the day I came home from work and Derek said to me, “Mom, I’ve decided to become a vegan.” He is very athletic, and the only reason I could think of to become vegan was he thought it was healthier. So I asked him, “For your health?” And he told me, no, but that he had watched a video of pigs being “humanely” slaughtered by a person they knew, who was handling them gently and calmly, and the pigs were still panicking, trying to get away, and the other pigs in the pen knew what was going on and were screaming and trying to escape. And then he very simply said, “Mom, they don’t want to die.” Such a simple sentence, but so profound. Because that’s it in a nutshell. All of the arguments people have against veganism come down to that one fact…the animals don’t want to die.

I had never known anyone who was vegan–except one friend who had a son who became vegan and lost so much weight and looked terrible. Knowing what I know now, he probably was not eating properly, too lazy to make himself proper meals. I truly believed that humans NEED to consume meat/milk.

I watched Derek for the next couple of weeks and asked him questions. I was haunted by what he said–that the animals don’t want to die. So I decided to give up meat. For about 3 months, I still drank cream in my morning coffee, ate cheese pizza, and didn’t read labels to see if they contained eggs or dairy. But then one day, I saw a post on Facebook about the dairy calves being dragged away from their mothers, and it suddenly CLICKED and I became fully vegan. It will be two years this February 24th.

We had 23 sheep at the time we stopped breeding, and most were re-homed to sanctuaries like Lasa Sanctuary and to vegan families. I still have seven now as my pets.

If you had asked me last week if I ever thought Donn (my husband) would become a vegan, or even a vegetarian, I would have adamantly said NO! He is a typical meat and potatoes guy, very picky, and limited in what he will eat. I would make delicious smelling vegan food, and he would comment on how good it looked and smelled, but would turn his nose up at it when I offered him some. He has been vegetarian for four days now, has stopped using cow’s milk in his many daily cups of coffee, and I truly believe that he will eventually go vegan.

**********

Thanks to Christine for sharing this story. It is heartening to know that change is possible, no matter what path a person may be on. Animals surely do not want to die, and we have no right to mete out death to them…just as we have no right to use them as means for our own ends.

Faced with these truths, the only defensible course is to go vegan.

Breakfast with The Honky Tonk Man: Interview with Natalie Slater of Bake and Destroy

Photo: Bake and Destroy
Photo: Bake and Destroy

My wife and I picked up a copy of the cookbook Bake and Destroy one dreadfully sunny day, and it caught my attention right away. Yes, the recipes were quirky and creative (and vegan obviously); and yes, the author had lots of tattoos. But thumbing through it, I found myself laughing–frequently–at the oddity of it all. And at the rightness of it all (for someone a little off and a little dark, such as myself).

Natalie Slater, who created the Bake and Destroy website back in 2006, pulls out all the stops in her vegan cooking, drawing on her main obsessions of heavy metal and punk/hardcore, professional wrestling, and B-movies. To browse her various manifestations via Bake and Destroy is to appreciate the funny side of darkness, be it the off-color, the odd, or the inappropriate.

After my interview with Samuel Hartman of Anagnorisis, I was eager to explore the idea of “vegans with an edge” more and to speak with Natalie about her metal-fueled path to veganism, her creative process, and her weaving together of all her favorite things in Bake and Destroy. And she was kind enough to oblige…

Photo: Sean Dorgan
Photo: Sean Dorgan

I understand that your path to veganism meandered first through the lands of metal and hardcore. Can you discuss how you became vegan, and when? How did music play a role in the transition?

I was in 4th or 5th grade when Headbanger’s Ball started airing on MTV. One night my uncle was babysitting us and he let me stay up and watch and I just became totally obsessed with thrash metal after that. All the New Kids on the Block posters in my room got replaced with pages from Metal Hammer. There was a little crew of “metal kids” that hung out at school, and once we hit high school we started going to see any live music we could–there wasn’t a big metal scene in the mid-90’s in Chicago, industrial had kind of taken over at that point, so we ended up at hardcore shows. Veganism was a big part of the hardcore scene then, and it was actually a guy named Tim Remis who plays in a band called Sweet Cobra who first got me to go vegan.

What does your music playlist look like today? I see homages to Cannibal Corpse (the Cannibal Corpse Crock Pot recipe for Shredded Humans is perfection) and invocations of Immortal, so you seem to stay up to date on death and black metal, among many other things. What do you listen to when baking and destroying in the kitchen? Do you have particular musical genres for particular cuisines, occasions, etc.?

I don’t think there are many surprises on my iPod. It’s all over the place but the one consistency is that I can’t stand pop music. You’ll find lots of Youth of Today, Mouthpiece, Chain of Strength, Darkthrone, Marduk, Immortal, Cannibal Corpse, The Cramps, Agnostic Front…

Your website, book, and social media channels have a distinctive punk/metal vibe—not in a “Today I’m wearing my Sex Pistols t-shirt” sort of way, where the punk is sprinkled on like funky sugar crystals, but suffused through everything as a mighty mouth-puckering flavor. How does this aspect of your personality and personal life influence your creativity when making new vegan recipes?

Ha! That’s a funny description, thank you. I rarely approach a new recipe from a traditional standpoint. That’s to say–I almost never start out with, “I’d like to make a recipe for peanut butter banana French toast.” I usually start out by daydreaming a goofy scenario–like, what would happen if the Honky Tonk Man had to crash at my house? What would I make for breakfast? Well, he’s an Elvis-impersonating pro-wrestler so I could probably do something with peanut butter and bananas. Maybe start with banana bread and dip it into peanut butter custard…

Along with that, how do you see the relationship between the hard-edged bad attitude of punk and metal and the “cruelty-free,” “compassionate” message of mainstream veganism? Do the two play well together in your head? Do you find any instances in which your musical tastes clash with the principles of veganism?

I’ve jokingly remarked in the past that veganism is very metal because it’s just another way to be disgusted with the human race. But I do think those of us who listen to punk and metal tend to question the world around us more than people who listen to more mainstream music. And when you listen to a song like “Shredded Humans,” to use an example from my cookbook, if you really think about why those lyrics are disturbing you can’t help but realize that’s what we do to animals every day. Butchered at Birth isn’t just a sick name for an album; it’s also what happens to male chicks every day thanks to the egg industry. They can’t lay eggs, so thousands of male baby chicks get shoved through a grinder while they’re still alive. Cows are impregnated by rape racks, their calves ripped from them and sent off to be slaughtered for veal, all so humans can drink the milk that was meant to feed those babies. Most people’s breakfast plate is the result of acts more brutal and horrific than any grindcore song ever written.

Photo: Bake and Destroy
Photo: Bake and Destroy

One thing that struck me when I picked up your book was how much fun it is to read, and your website is also hilarious. I have never seen such a deft handling of professional wrestling, loud music, B-movies, and vegan food, and with such positive and popular results. What does the response to you and your creation(s) say to you about veganism in popular culture? Would you say that your mélange of sub-cultures in Bake and Destroy reflect veganism’s place as a sub-culture, or do you see the vast variety of people and styles promoting veganism today as a sign of its growth and vitality?

Well jeeze, after I just got all dark and heavy with that last question I don’t sound like much fun but I’m glad that came across in the book! Vegan athletes and celebrities have definitely helped to make it more of a household word, and of course it didn’t hurt me that CM Punk wrote the forward of my book. What’s great, though, is that a lot of people who bought it just for that reason have reached out to me and told me that they’re making my recipes and really enjoying vegan food. It’s not just punks and weirdos anymore, I mean, I went to Veganmania in Chicago last year and there were whole families of totally “normal” people there–people are just figuring out that it’s fun and easy to eat plants.

You do impressive work to make vegan foods that could appear at grandma’s birthday party, a Sunday brunch with yuppie friends, or a greasy diner in a back alley. (I mean all this as a compliment.) For example, the first recipe in your book is for Banana Bread French Toast Cupcakes; flipping through the pages lands me on your Chicago-Style Sammich; and then I have to pause and chuckle at Spaghetti Cake with Grandma Sharon’s Hater-Proof Sauce. Whom did you envision as your primary audience or audiences when writing your book and developing your website (i.e., the “bad vegans” of your book’s subtitle)? And how does your current fan base reflect that early vision?

When I started my website I honestly only meant for my close friends and family to read it. I was a new mom, bored at home, watching tons of cooking shows on TV and spending my son’s nap time in the kitchen playing around. Once I realized people other than my friends were reading, I didn’t make any effort to change my tone or subject matter. It was a little more difficult convincing a publisher that there is an audience for a vegan cookbook with nods to wrestling, B-movies, heavy metal, etc., but thankfully they trusted me and my book has found its way into a lot of homes–including Elvira’s house! The Mistress of the Dark herself owns my book!

Photo: Bake and Destroy

Your book has a lot of helpful info and resources for vegan baking (and destroying), and your website also has a plant strong crash course and tons of other guidance for vegans cooking and for people cooking vegan (as well as the Joy of Cooking Humans!). How do you see yourself as an advocate for vegan living? Are you mostly interested in the food–creating it and helping people make it? Or are there other components of veganism as a lifestyle and ethical stance that you include as well? And is the food then a portal to that dark and compassionate realm?

I’m sure I’ve been accused of being a “vegan apologist” because of my laid-back approach, but I really think that by being patient and understanding I have reached more people and changed more diets than I would have had I taken a militant stance. It’s not as simple as “go vegan” for a lot of people. I try to give people options and resources that are simple and accessible. When I got interested in veganism there weren’t a ton of resources, I had to rely on other people to teach me and they weren’t always nice about it. The “vegan police” turned me off of the lifestyle much more than they encouraged me to learn more. So I make a conscious effort to not be a jerk about it. I do think vegan food is a “gateway” to making other compassionate choices–from opting for cruelty-free cosmetics to not wearing clothes and shoes made from animals.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with me!

Guest Post on the Vegan Publishers Blog

bubba-the-ram

Since coming across a goat in Gaston County, North Carolina who was going to be auctioned off by the animal control service (rather than adopted out as happens with a dog or cat), my wife and I have been teaming up with some local vegans in order to rescue these victims of the farming industry and the state legislation and find them good homes.

One of the more famous farmed animals to go up for auction is Bubba the Ram, who made himself quite a celebrity in the Triangle region of North Carolina after running around Durham…and doing some property damage.

We have been raising funds for his rescue and will be attending the auction to get him. He has been secured a home in the Red Dog Farm Animal Rescue Network, and we plan to get him there.

Read more about Bubba, the rescue mission, and our plans to seek change in the state laws in my guest post on the Vegan Publishers blog: http://www.veganpublishers.com/a-rescue-mission-for-bubba-the-ram-justin-van-kleeck/.

I will post more about the rescue mission’s results after the auction.

“In My Own Light”: Samuel Hartman of Anagnorisis on Veganism and Black Metal

Photo: Starla Hale.
Photo: Starla Hale

By Justin Van Kleeck

Loud music has been a part of my life for over twenty years. I have been (metaphorically) praising Satan much, much longer than I have been praising seitan as a vegan. Over the years, since going vegan in 1999, death and black metal and veganism have been huge parts of my life, and integral components of my philosophy and activism in the world.<

All the while, I have noticed the dearth of people with similar interests, finding few metalheads who give the middle finger to animal exploitation…as well as few vegans who want to bang their heads. For example, I did a death/black metal radio show, “Voice of the Grave,” for four years in college, during which time I went vegan. Not only did I never meet another vegan while on the air or at shows, but I never even thought it relevant to discuss on the air.

So I always do a (grim and grumpy) happy dance whenever I discover a fellow vegan who loves it loud. Really, really loud. And dark, preferably black.

One remarkable vegan metalhead is Samuel Hartman, the keyboardist for the black metal band Anagnorisis in Louisville, Kentucky. Besides producing some intensely dark, anti-religious American black metal, Anagnorisis boasts TWO vegans (the other is singer Zachary Kerr). I discovered them through the omnipotent polypus that is Facebook, and their latest album, Beyond All Light, has quickly become one of my favorites. 

Learning about Samuel’s veganism and his efforts as a vegan advocate (thanks to a little Facebook stalking) made me curious to find out a little bit more about his world and his experiences as a passionate vegan…who also listens to and makes some serious black metal. Samuel was kind enough to answer some questions on veganism, black metal, touring, doing advocacy, and much more…

Photo: Kurt Strecker
Photo: Kurt Strecker

How long have you been vegan, and what motivated you to cut animal products out of your life?

I’ve been vegan since 2006–it was actually my new year’s resolution that year – and it was originally motivated by health concerns. I had been hearing about the deleterious effects of red meat consumption, and I had several friends who were vegetarian/vegan that I quietly observed and who definitely had an influence. I went vegetarian for a few months and found it easier than I expected, following it up with full-on veganism soon after.

When did you get into black metal and other extreme metal genres?  And how long have you been playing it as a musician?

Many can relate to the trying times of high school: trying to fit in, worrying about self-image, all the cliques, dealing with serious relationships for the first time, etc. I was also sort of an outsider, and to “fit in” I made a conscious effort to get into metal, even though it’s the most “outsider” genre of them all! In reality, it was partly to impress some of the kids I thought were cool, to get in with them and show some edginess. A couple of those kids are still my friends to this day, and while the origin of our friendship was as cliquish as it comes, my love for metal was born and remained strong.

I found my way, like many kids in the early 2000s, through nu-metal, but because of clothing companies like Blue Grape who deftly included a Relapse Records sticker in their packages, I was able to seek out more “extreme” forms of music. I spent a significant period deeply obsessed with metalcore and stuff like Hatebreed/Throwdown, and then shifted towards black/death metal, which is where my interest really took root.

My interest in black metal started in college when I had a roommate who was able to get me past Cradle of Filth and Dimmu Borgir and expose me to Tsjuder, Profanatica, Horna, and some of the more esoteric names in black metal. With the Internet, Lords of Chaos, and a desire to find “the most extreme” it was a clear path to Norwegian black metal and all its facets. As time went on and I learned more about its anti-Christian ideology, it seemed like a natural fit.

I’ve been playing black metal since 2007, when I joined Anagnorisis. A lot of people don’t know this, but I learned how to the play the piano exclusively to be in Anagnorisis. I had some computer background, which translated into synth programming, but as far as technical ability on the keyboard, that was largely self-taught. My musical background from high school was on the saxophone (alto) which I was very happy to bust out to use on Beyond All Light. Lots of weird notes and John Cage-esque parts!

I have always felt that my veganism ties in well with my interest in black metal–for instance, seeing the problem of humanity and in particular critiquing the human tendency to just follow traditions, social norms, and authority figures blindly. What interconnections do you see between your veganism and your interest in black metal? What about contrasts or conflicts? Do you feel the two interests and lifestyles coexist easily, or is there a war of inner angels and demons going on in your head?

I think it’s interesting to discuss veganism and black metal this day in age because of the popularity of the Vegan Black Metal Chef; do people really get what’s going on there? Do they realize he’s promoting a diet that’s in vast opposition (ideologically and practically) to most Western thinking, while using a style of music that has its history in murder, Satanism, and is largely anti-Christian? I suppose that’s rhetorical, because, no, they don’t. It’s mostly a “gimmick” and fun to watch–I don’t want to demean what he’s doing–but I don’t think people truly understand the value of something like that. It helped put those terms, veganism and black metal, in some mainstream press, and we continue to see veganism grow larger and larger with celebrity influence and health-conscious eaters. Still, I would agree that veganism largely stays as an outlier (a defiance of “social norms and traditions” as you say) in the world of health and food, much less philosophical thought.

As for a more direct relationship between veganism and black metal, I’m not sure that there is one, other than both have vast subcultures that often take pride in being “different.” Black metal has very little of a philanthropic element to it; in fact even writing that makes me chuckle as “misanthropic” is often the word used by every lyricist, band, or copywriter in relation to the genre itself! Veganism is wholly about philanthropy; helping humans be healthier, saving animals, assisting the world and its inhabitants.

Then, of course, there is the issue of pigs’ blood, animal parts, and other such non-vegan entities used by Gorgoroth, Watain, etc. We played with a band in Chicago on our last tour–Luciferum–who used pigs’ heads on stage. Was I offended? Not really–Chicago’s butcher shops are aplenty (The Jungle, anyone?) and the cruelty is not done by simply purchasing these items from them. Of course, the propagation of using animals – any part of them, for any means–as a means and not as in end in and of themselves is inherently speciesist, but that’s not an argument I’m going to get into with a band like that while on tour. There’s been a fair amount of press about Mayhem front-man Attila Cshiar’s thoughts regarding animal usage while he himself is vegetarian, if anyone is interested in researching that further.

I don’t see a conflict between the two ideologies–at least the ideology of black metal that Anagnorisis follows which is to be anti-religious and play aggressive music – and the ideology that animals are not ours to use for entertainment, food, or experimentation. Both are countercultures (in Midwestern America, anyway), both require a certain discipline to believe or follow, and both have deep cultural and historical roots. I’m loyal to both, and enjoy the intersections they have, while casting out any hypocrisy that may arise by choosing my own versions of each philosophy.

Have you experienced many difficulties as a vegan metal musician? For example, flack from other musicians or fans, problems finding grub while on tour, a sense of isolation as a minority within a minority?

Not really–in fact on the last two tour we had two different venues who provided us food, and both had excellent vegan options. For one of the shows pasta and breadsticks were provided with admission, and I had asked the promoter for a vegan option, so I’m pretty sure he just made everything vegan. That means about 150 metalheads ate vegan that night! Amazing stuff.

With Zachary (vocalist) being vegan I definitely don’t feel isolated, but even if I was the only vegan in the band, it wouldn’t be a big deal. I’ve done this long enough and found enough food choices all over the place, from gas stations to Denny’s to small towns, that I can eat and subsist almost anywhere. We usually hit up the good vegan restaurants on tour, and the other guys are pretty open to that sort of thing as long as the food is good. They’ve all become accustomed to our diets and are pretty accommodating, which shows how awesome they are as bandmates and friends.

As a side note, when Austin Lunn (ex-vocalist/guitarist, now does Panopticon) formed the band he was vegan, and over the years we’ve had several vegan members, so that part of Anagnorisis has always been there. Zachary and I are also both straight-edge, along with our guitarist Zak, which honestly presents weirder moments on tour than being vegan. Imagine a metal band showing up to a venue, and three of the dudes don’t drink–at all!–that can be pretty shocking for a lot of people.

You do a lot of vegan advocacy work around Louisville, and you are a vocal vegan advocate on social media as well. What inspires you to speak out as a vegan and to try to make a better world for animals?

Photo: Too Much Rock
Photo: Too Much Rock

The reasons why I’m vegan are three-fold and in my mind, pretty simple: it’s better for one’s health to eat primarily plants, ideally whole food, non-processed plants; it’s better for the animals, and 99% of the slaughter that occurs is cruel, tortuous and unnecessary; it’s better for the planet, and I want to sustain an earth for future generations (also, I plan to live to 150 via Transhumanism).

I became vegan through my own choices about diet, but also because of the subtle, non-judgmental influence of my vegan friends at the time, including Zachary whom I was hanging out with before I moved to Louisville. It’s my aim to inspire others in much the same way, but I don’t believe that living by example is the only way to do vegan outreach. Handing out pamphlets, doing demonstrations, protesting injustice, organizing vegan cook-outs and potlucks, writing letters and sharing on social media, petitions, and even direct action: it allmakes a difference.

Different people are moved by different means, and corporations are moved by profit. Looking at groups like the SHAC (Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty) and Igualidad Animal (in Spain) are prime examples that sometimes, to stop animal cruelty, more “extreme” measures have to be taken. The idea that direct action is so extreme is a farce, because we take direct action every day to stop the suffering of human life. Direct action regarding animals is simply labeled as terroristic because it breaks an arbitrary law created to protect economic profit.

I say all this not to encourage illegal action or to tell people to quietly eat their tofu scramble in the break room, but to emphasize that almost all advocacy is effective to someone, somewhere. The Blackfish documentary has done an amazing job as getting people fired up about the cruelty at SeaWorld. Mercy for Animals’ Tyson investigation gave huge exposure to that issue and factory farms in general. Many cities promote dog and cat rescue which (hopefully) discourage breeding and purchasing. These are all issues under the umbrella of veganism, and it’s important, at the right time, to link them all together. I believe, as the “abolitionist” crowd is fond of yelling, that it’s important to stay “on point” and promote veganism as the end, not “vegetarianism” or “veg-friendly” or whatever. That being said, we all move at different speeds and can work to reduce suffering in our own way. I’ll even quote an Anagnorisis lyric to wrap this up: “On my terms / In my own light.”

What about Anagnorisis? Do you see any influences of veganism on the music, lyrics, images and merchandise, etc.? The music is very dark and atmospheric, with symphonic elements and yet a seriously hard and heavy edge. I am interested to know what your feelings are about this (and the anti-religious message of the band) juxtaposed with one predominant image of veganism as being all warm and fuzzy and involving lots of hugging of animals…

There’s certainly a lot of animal hugging on tour; we all love dogs and were fortunate enough to stay with quite a few on the last round. As far as veganism influencing the merchandise or lyrics, there isn’t much of a connection. It’s not something we talk about on stage or give out in leaflets at the merch table (although we used to pass out Center for Inquiry and Freedom From Religion Foundation brochures, two groups that I wholeheartedly support). Anagnorisis has never been overly political, and message-wise we typically stick to the banner of godlessness.

That being said, we certainly promote freethought and rejection of dogma, which is often the basis for carnism and the tenets of animal consumption that pervade most omnivores. The idea of an “anagnorisis,” or a moment of discovery, can certainly apply to someone who begins to peer under the veil of animal exploitation in this country. A good documentary that exposes this imbalance is The Ghosts In Our Machine, which I highly recommend.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with me about your perspective as a vegan in (and making) black metal. Stay brutal, and compassionate!

Thank you, Justin, for all you do for the animals, and for reaching out to me!

I welcome any fans who want to know more about veganism to reach out to me, or check out my blog at www.thenailthatsticksup.com Hail Seitan!

Samuel Hartman
@sam_metal