Is life fundamentally biological or mechanical? How you answer that question determines how you view life and, in turn, sets boundaries on innovation regarding your care for other beings. I see this as foundational to distinguishing between industrial and ecological farms and food systems. I’ve also found that in discussions with industrial food system defenders, this question forces more head-scratching than any other. In my new book, The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs: Respecting and Caring for all God’s Creation, I encourage environmentally minded Christians to embrace an environmental ethic of Christian Stewardship. I argue that if all life were simply mechanical, then it would be inert like plastic or clay. By extension, if life were no more than simple matter, it could be manipulated to the full extent of our imaginations.
Those of you who know me know that I have intentionally chosen the moniker “Christian libertarian environmentalist capitalist lunatic farmer” to humorously dispel the stereotypes that inevitably follow my ecological farming persona. To my Christian friends, I spend a lot of time apologizing for the stances of some of my environmentalist friends. And I spend just as much time apologizing to my environmentalist friends for the stances of some of my Christian friends.
With my feet firmly planted in both of those worlds — growing up in a conservative Christian home with Monsanto-friendly church friends and hippie-dippy, compost-building farming friends — I decided to reach out and wrestle with this taboo paradox. At least, it’s taboo in most churches.
May I offer a bridge? As a Christian, I practice creation stewardship as an expression of creator worship. I believe that God wants humans to take care of His stuff. And I believe that it is His stuff. Per this line of thought, God cares whether we honor the “pigness of pigs” because pigs are more than mechanical expressions of particulate matter upon which humans may innovate and manipulate. Sure enough, mechanical things do occur in life, but I would argue that life — that biology — is far more than simple mechanics.
Life Feels, Forgives, and Heals
Perhaps one of the single largest distinguishing factors between biological and mechanical matter is that living things can heal. If a wheel bearing thumps, you can apologize to it, rest it, and lubricate it, but it will continue to thump. But living things that thump can form new skin or new bark and respond to compost or bone broth. Living things can heal.
My dad used to admonish us: “Remember, machines don’t forgive.” What he meant was that if I mishandle a chainsaw and it cuts off my leg, the chainsaw feels no remorse. It’s just an inert chainsaw and couldn’t care less that it just amputated my leg. Living things, and people, of course, can forgive. A mistreated plant can be nursed back to health with apologetic care. A wounded emotion can be made right with proper apologies and attention.
All of life is pulsing with sentience. From the sunflower that follows the sun’s golden orb across the sky to the bacterial nutrient cafe in the soil that trades plant sugars for dissolved minerals, life’s choreography is both awesome and mysterious. The more we know, the more we know we don’t know.
We don’t know why an earthworm turns right. Why do pigs look the way they do and chickens look the way they do? The mechanical mind-set wades into this mystery like a bunch of swashbuckling conquistadors, patenting, manipulating, deleting, and adding. But we know that pig tails aren’t there to be cut off. We know that chicken beaks aren’t there for us to remove. Animals cannibalizing each other is a sure sign that the factory-farming system is broken and wrong.
I don’t want to live in a world where life is nothing more than rearranged parts. This is important because I ultimately believe that our treatment of each other as humans extends philosophically and spiritually from our treatment of all life. If life is no more sacred than a car or the plumbing, respect for other viewpoints, cultural differences, and vocational choices is unnecessary.
My solution is to contrive a production model that honors the pig’s essence, that captures the pig’s natural inquisitiveness, digging capabilities, and olfactory gifts. At our farm, we don’t put rings in pigs’ noses to keep them from digging. Instead, we use electric fencing to control where they dig — a safe and directed place to play. A pig playpen, if you will. Children in playpens can be happy for hours; pigs fully express their pigness in places where they can explore and perform important disturbance functions.
At our farm, we don’t use rollaway nest boxes for laying hens. I’ve spent many an hour watching hens on nests. They don’t sit there placidly. Even in commercial flocks of a thousand birds, when a hen enters a nest to lay, she’s all business and all about building her nest. She takes a piece of bedding from one side and places it on the other. She moves things around with her wings, fluffing, settling, and positioning.
To deny her all those nuances of nesting seems demeaning and disrespectful. Can you taste it in the egg? No. Could any laboratory measure the qualitative difference between an egg laid in hay compared with one laid in a rollaway box? No. And it doesn’t matter, because beyond nutritious, delicious eggs, I hope to provide the hen a pleasant experience while nestled down in her nest. I hope to honor her for her labor.
Ultimately, I think that level of care translates into caring for individuals near and dear to us, caring for our communities, and caring for the plight of the less fortunate. Plenty of studies show that a propensity toward uncaring behavior moves people toward abusive relationships. This is why I’m such a big believer in children’s gardens and caring for animals. Living things respond to care.
When I transplant tomatoes, I don’t just go through the motions. I’m speaking to each plant, either audibly or in my mind, and beaming encouragement: “OK, little guy, get going. Here you go, little root hairs. Here’s a nice lump of compost — enjoy your first breakfast outside.” When doing this with my grandchildren, they consider such talk completely normal. Only adults think talking to tomato plants is weird.
Fearfully and Wonderfully Made
When the faith community embraces creation stewardship as an act of worship toward God, who owns it all, we will be viewed as the ultimate caretakers. It’s immoral to invoke God’s blessings on a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) because neither the CAFO nor the ideological system behind the CAFO honors the godly essence of the pigs, cows, chickens, and people affected.
A farm that celebrates life’s sacredness, that in biblical parlance is “fearfully and wonderfully made,” is a place where life expresses its physiological distinctiveness. On this divine farm, you’d see pigs in woods, pigs on pasture, and pigs on compost — not pigs in tiny cells with cut-off-tails, living on concrete slats suspended above slurry excrement. No sun, no grass, no butterflies. If we fail to consider the dullness of life for pigs, we fail to consider the dullness of life for people. We become what we create.
Life is so much more than mechanics: It’s vibrant, sentient, and alive. All our techno-sophistication will never capture life. No, life captures us, its dependents, in this great choreography of creation. And, by filling our place humbly and respectfully, we open the way to understand our stewardship boundaries and responsibilities. Ultimately, honoring life is a catalyst for honoring God.
Joel Salatin pastures pigs, in all their pigness, at Polyface Farms in Swoope, Virginia. Salatin is the author of numerous titles on sustainable farming, most recently The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs.