Spring 1985, Volume 2
Levi S. Peterson
The Lamb and the Lion
Levi S. Peterson is a Professor of English and former director of the Honors Program. He is the author of a book of short stories Canyons of Grace and editor of a collection of short stories, Greening Wheat. He is presently working on a novel.
I am in Snowflake today. We arrived at three this morning from Utah. Others had come home, too, and sleeping bodies were everywhere on the floors and sofas of my mother's house. When my wife and daughter were settled, I took my sleeping bag and went out onto the back lawn. But I was too tense and fatigued to sleep. The automobile still rumbled in my bones, and my emotions eddied and roiled among old imperatives and unfulfilled obligations. If I peer into a closet in my mother's house, I seem to see, ghost-like, the person I should have been. The conscience of my childhood hangs in that house, like one of my old coats, small and worn, still there on a nail behind the kitchen door.
I unzipped my bag. I exposed my arms and chest to the cool air, and I opened my hand upon the damp grass. A breeze stirred the overhanging elm trees. The Arizona sky glimmered with a brilliant dust. Dogs barked. Then I heard high shrill voices and the dogs broke into a paroxysm of baying. I could not quite believe what I heard.
Beyond the edge of town, coyotes had begun to howl. One howled, then another, and then came a relay of rippling, receding voices. Their sound was a gift, an unexpected return of lost wealth and old love.
Someone in Washington D.C. has decided to let the coyotes flourish. It was thirty-rive years ago when I last heard coyotes in Snowflake. While I was still a little boy, a neighbor became the government trapper. He drove a black panel truck adorned with the white emblem of the Department of Agriculture, and he pursued coyotes with steel traps, poisoned meat, and cyanide guns. Small yellow signs, warning people about the guns, appeared on fenced posts in the hill surrounding the town. A cyanide gun was a tube buried in the earth with a baited tip protruding. When a coyote took the bait, a cartridge discharged and filled its muzzle with cyanide. The trapper's barn exuded a rank odor, and the carcasses of coyotes were stacked like cord wood at the door. In the barn once, I saw live coyotes hung to die from the drainage of blood to their heads. They twisted their weak tawny bodies as if to peer at me, and coagulating blood gathered in a drip at the end of their noses. I can only suppose that the trapper killed the coyotes in this way to conserve their urine for bait. Now the poisons and the cyanide guns are gone. The conservationists have won a round. No one knows how long the victory will hold, but for the moment, the coyotes have come back to Snowflake.
A month ago I watched a television show documenting the loss of lambs to coyotes in Utah sheepherds. In one startling scene, a telephoto lense depicted an actual attack of a coyote upon a lamb. There was no growling, no slashing attack no display of violent energy. Deliberately, almost mechanically, the coyote trotted up to the lamb, seized it by a leg, and tugged it a yard or two. A nearby ewe bleated and made a short charge. The coyote retreated, sat on its haunches, and waited. It seemed to have absolutely no doubt that in the end it would wear down the ewe's will to protect her lamb. In a moment, as the television image faded into other scenes, the coyote seized the lamb again.
I thought about the lamb this morning. I turned on my side in the sleeping bag and wriggled a little to find a low spot for my hips.
With a coyote's howl dying in the distance, I had to ask whether I prefer lambs to coyotes.
William Blake wrote poems saying that lambs are innocent and tigers are evil. I suppose coyotes may be categorized with tigers. There is something chilling about the casual, callous way with which predators kill. They do not sense the divine mystery of being in their prey, for them, a living creature is simply food, and its terror and desperation are nothing. Blake was right. The predators violate the Christian conscience. Ethically the herbivores have it over the predators. We do not feel sorry for the grass that the antelope and buffalo eat. Herbivores tend to prune rather than kill, and even if the plants they eat die, we assume that plants lack sentience and cannot suffer. In Eden, all creatures were herbivores, at least the Renaissance painters show them as such, and they show us that the Peaceable Kingdom to come at the end of the world will be populated by plant eaters. Wolves will eat grass, and the lion and the lamb will lie down together. it is no accident that Jesus is called the lamb.
I desire, or at least part of me desires, a Peaceable Kingdom. I have an impulse to will absolute compassion upon the universe.
One day when I was thirteen, I agreed to slaughter one of my rabbits for the family dinner. I had built my rabbit herd with fervor. I made pens from scraps of lumber and shreds of chicken wire. I talked trade with other boys and watched with fascination as my buck bred my does. I was filled with reverence when I peered into a hutch and saw the squirming mass of fur that told me a doe had pulled her belly clean and had borne a litter of blind naked babies. How could I kill my rabbits? I debated for half an hour with a club in one hand and a dangling rabbit in the other. At last I clubbed the rabbit and pulled off its head. I did not hesitate again throughout my teen years. I felt good about providing meat for the family, and I found myself able to kill almost any animal. Then one day when I was twenty-one or twentytwo I passed the window of a butcher's shop in a Belgian city and saw the hanging carcasses of rabbits. I was a long way from home and my compassion came back to me in a flood of horror. I seemed to me that humanity had never escaped cannibalism. The fact of species among living things gave me no comfort. The Latin descriptions and genetic boundaries seemed meaningless. I intuited too keenly the desire of all animals to live; I noted too scrupulously the similarity between their musculature, their rib cage, their intestines, lungs, and heart, and my own.
I was in Belgium as a Mormon missionary. A mission is a kind of finishing school for young Mormon men. It is one of the essential experiences that make for a full life like baptism, marriage, and parenthood. A mission is supposed to confirm the missionary in his faith and give him a pervasive spiritual joy. It is also something of an extended tour, a chance to see the world. Many of my fellow missionaries had 35mm cameras which they carried on sightseeing days. They took pictures almost as a duty because the slides would preserve the rare and irreplicable moments of their missions. My mother urged me to buy a camera, too, and I recognized a thousand scenes having historical and cultural fame. I saw the British lion at Waterloo, the Eiffel Tower in Faris, the cathedral at Chartres, the lake boats at Lausanne, the storks in Alsace. But I didn't buy a camera. Each month I saved half the stipend my mother and brother sent me and gave it away. I am not sure now that the Belgian coal miners were any more frustrated, apathetic and miserable than most people, but it seemed to me then that they lived sordid lives, cramped into tiny apartments, climbing narrow steep stairways, using ancient toilets set into halls and closets, cooking on small coal stoves, eating tartines and coffee for breakfast and leeks, potatoes, and pork for supper. I could not shake off the numbing sense that until all other people were happy, I had no right to be happy. I never judged my compassionate devotion to others to be effective or complete. As a missionary, I did pretty much what all the missionaries did and still do. I tried to convert people to Mormonism in order to give them salvation. In my unexpressed feelings, salvation was not a very crucial issue. Giving money or coal or bread to people who had little of them did seem important. I was experimenting ineffectually with the Christian ideal of compassionate service. I lacked the genius and the drive to be a true saint, but at least I could deprive myself of a camera.
In an English bookstore in Brussels, I found the books of Albert Schweitzer. I have never read any other books so carefully and repeatedly. I was attracted because Schweitzer was a latter-day rationalist who said that simple, elemental thinking would lead people to truth, virtue, and tranquility. I was also attracted because his rationalism retained the principle of Christian devotion. I responded instantly to his idea that I owed ethical consideration to all creatures, plants as well as animals. Schweitzer simply expanded the realm of those to whom we must devote ourselves from humanity to all life. Reverence for life, he said, was the inevitable conclusion of elemental thinking, and it comprehended all true religion and all true ethics. I like the idea then and I still like it. I think it is one of the world's great spiritual propositions.
For a whilte I tried to live up to the implications of reverence for life. It was a difficult thing to do. The few people to whom I explained the idea took both it and me to be insane. There was no way to convince them that spiders, weeds, and sparrows are to be revered and helped to thrive. I felt a sense of deprivation and further constriction when I realized that I would have to give up my wanton habit of plucking blades of grass to chew on. My sense of guilt about eating meat increased. I pondered the difficulties of deciding arbitrarily which of the competing life forms I should throw my favor to. Then on a rainy April day, after I had returned to the United States, I walked along observing hundreds of angleworms escaping from sodden lawns by crawling onto the concrete walks. I knew that most of them were doomed. When the rain stopped and the sidewalks dried, they would die of desiccation. My conscience was pricked. Here was an occasion when my non-human brothers needed my services desperately. I envisioned myself touring the city with a broom, vigorously sweeping the walks just as the rain ended, eager to save life and regretful that I could not save more.
How far can you go with compassionate service? I had just found my limits. The absurdity of the situation, the image my mind drew of myself brushing worms off sidewalks, was therapeutic. I had better things to do than to salvage worms. I had better things to do, even, that to salvage the human derelicts of Belgian coal mining cities. I could not keep myself to an ethical principle that seemed so selfeffacing and so impossible of realization. It was a fact then and it remains a fact that I have a compassionate self: I want to love and affirm people, I want to make them happy, I want-to love and affirm animals and plants, I want to express in my acts the reverence I feel for all life forms. But -it is also a fact that I have a predatory self.
So I am saying that I do not really prefer lambs to coyotes. As I lay on my mother's lawn trying to steep this morning, I recognized the fallacy of my sympathy for the lamb I saw attacked by the coyote in the TV documentary. My conscience returns to its old compulsions. I identified with the lamb because it was small and needed protection and aroused my parental instinct. But if I save a lamb from a coyote, I am not really saving the lamb. I am just making sure another predator gets its, The sheepman's intentions with his lamb are precisely those of the coyote. He intends to eat his lambs or to sell them to someone else who will eat them. Elegant people sit down to dinner in jackets and gowns and, while their host carves a roast, they converse upon cultivated and moral themes. The polite butcher behind the counter in the grocery store, the beautiful packages of styrofoarn and clear plastic wrapping insulate people from the fact of their predation. There is an inevitable hypocrisy in the ethics of absolute devotion. All life feeds upon other life.
When I returned to the United States following my mission, I expected to give up hunting, but when the second autumn came, I was in the mountains and have hunted and fished every since.
I need to be a predator, at least occasionally. I need the counterbalance my predation gives me against the incessant call of self-sacrifice. Entering my childhood home this early morning, fatigued from travel, I seemed to drown in guilt, I seemed to suffocate beneath the recognition that I do not belong to myself. But my mood gradually changed. Wilderness pervades the lanes and backyards of Snowflake. The wind continued to sift the elm leaves, the night paled, a silver edge of sky rimmed the eastern horizon. Far away a last coyote called, shrill, flute-like, incredibly clear.