A Personal Anecdote
In 1971, my family moved from Lake Tahoe, Nevada to Tampa, Florida. My father, an installation engineer, had just completed putting in a phone system for Harrah’s Hotel and Casino. His next job would be for a department store chain in Florida. He and my mother decided to travel by car and so my parents, my kid brother, our dog, Rusty, and I sausaged a half dozen suitcases and us into my father’s secondhand Chevy.
About 60 miles outside of Austin, Texas -- where we had stopped at Dusty’s Steak House to eat earlier that day -- our trip was suddenly interrupted by one of the most exquisite sites that I have ever seen. I had been dozing in the back seat when my father’s swearing awakened me. As I looked out the car window, I could see that we were in the middle of a vast plain of tall grasses. To my left, coming over a hill, was a parade of Herefords. I was familiar with the sleek cows of New Jersey since most of my childhood had been spent in the Garden State, but these creatures wore an abundance of curly fur, white about the head and legs, with large patches of auburn or black fur along their midsections. As the herd approached the main road, my mother continued what had become her mantra by then, “Red, slow down!” Of course, Red, my father, did just the opposite until we had to come to a screeching halt as the herd was just about to step onto the road.
Within moments, the cows surrounded our car. Rusty woke up and started barking. My father continued his swearing and my mother yelled at us to roll up the windows to guard against marauding cows. My brother and I sat in amazement, staring at these magnificent creatures with their striking colors and lumbering benevolence. As we held little interest for them, the cows casually moved on across the road and our path was clear to travel again.
In looking back -- about thirtyfive years, now -- I remember the awe that I felt for the Hereford. Ironically, I don’t think I gave any thought at the time to the fact that less than a couple of hours earlier that day, I had probably devoured one of their relatives, or at least a few choice pieces of cow at Dusty’s Steak House. It’s not that I think that cows are people, too. They’re not. They’re cows. But if I had to raise, rope, slaughter, skin, butcher, and cook one, I don’t think I’d ever eat meat again. Nowadays, I just go to the market and quibble over how much money I should spend for a decent cut of sirloin without a thought to the sacrifice that made the meat possible in the first place.
In order for people to live, animals (and plants) must die. The significance of this idea is usually not uppermost in our minds when we dine at an upscale restaurant or go food shopping at our local supermarkets. We no longer paint monumental murals, as did early huntergatherers in their cave paintings, in honor of those animals that have sacrificed their lives for us. Nor do we deify animals as gods and goddesses. Stop and Shop and Stew Leonard’s aren’t sacred tombs. But according to Joseph Campbell, in his book
The Power of Myth
, people living during the Paleolithic era saw the killing of animals as ritual acts. Campbell also suggests that killing animals had “a sense of guilt connected with [it].” (Campbell 90) Therefore, early huntergatherer peoples made a covenant with animals. Through ritual, animals were thanked for their willingness to sacrifice their lives and were assured transcendence and rebirth (which in turn replenished the food supply). Animals were considered equals, or given their superior physicality viewed as gods, givers of life and inspiration. They were seen as models for how to live. We have remnants of this kind of thinking today, largely in eastern religious philosophy as it is represented by the practice of martial arts and yoga, wherein practitioners represent animal physiology in their poses or positions.
After sharing the story above with my class, I will ask students to think about experiences that they -- or people they know -- have had with animals and to write about them in their journals. Afterward, students will share and discuss their entries.
To Serve Man
Damon Knight’s short story, “To Serve Man,” addresses issues of killing and eating, but in a rather ironic way. The Kanamit are grotesque-looking, pig-faced aliens who have come to Earth claiming to offer humanity health, happiness, and a world without war. Peter (the story’s narrator) and his friend Grigori are translators at a U.N. session that is being held to find out why the Kanamit (whose only other languages are English and French) are really here. In very short order, the Kanamit have changed the Earth from a volatile planet threatened by its own technological capabilities to destroy itself into a Garden of Eden where there is more than enough for everyone, thereby eliminating the need for war. To ensure world peace, the aliens have also installed machines in every nation that “[create] a field in which nothing can explode” from hydrogen bombs to combustion engines. Thus, all the armies of the world are immobilized.
Both Peter and Giorgi leave their jobs at the U.N. since the institution will soon become obsolete. While Peter embraces this new world, his friend remains skeptical. Both decide to learn the Kanamit language to see if they can find out more about their intentions. They also put their names on a waiting list to leave Earth for a ten-year exchange program on the Kanamit home world. In the meantime, they work on translating a book that Giorgi lifted from one of the Kanamit staff. In a couple of weeks, they have been able to translate the title: “How to Serve Man,” which seems to quash any suspicions about Kanamit altruism.
When Peter meets up again with Giorgi a couple of weeks later, he sees that his friend is very upset. Giorgi tells Peter that they are both booked on the next exchange program flight, which would have been excellent news were it not for the fact that Giorgi had translated the first paragraph in the Kanamit book. Giorgi relayed the terrible news to Peter. “How to Serve Man” was not a manual of good will and peace on Earth after all. It was, in fact, a cookbook.
Reading & Discussion
After the students participate in an oral reading of “To Serve Man” by Damon Knight, we will discuss the plot and theme of the story as well as the irony of how a world made peaceful had also become defenseless.
LESSON TWO: Food Chain Arguments
In “To Serve Man,” Damon Knight presents a world in which humans are no longer at the top of the food chain. The off-world visitors from Kanamit are far superior in intelligence and technology and obviously feel justified in herding humans as a source of food. Students will be asked to write an epilogue to this story wherein a meeting has been granted to Peter and Giorgi to plead the case for humanity’s survival. They will have to prove to the Kanamit why humans are worthy of their independence and freedom, which may be a difficult argument since it was not until the Kanamit arrived on Earth that the planet was able to provide for all its people and eliminate the need for war.