Six Feet: An Avian Wondering


Six feet.

This is one of the new unsought mantras of this particular time. It is spoken aloud and internally in our few meanders outside.
The image above was sent to me and I laughed and I started to wonder about it.
Six feet.
The measurement known as ‘a foot’ has ranged in size from 9 inches to over 13 and goes back to Egyptian times. I’m not going to get into the history of the measurement (though there is interest to be had there) but there was a time when ‘a foot’ was  a measurement that related to the human body. Even if you never had actually seen the actual foot of King Henry I, the guy who standardized the 12 inch foot, you had a sense of what a foot was because you had two of them right there at the end of your own legs. But now a foot, despite its origins, seems a little abstract to me. I know what it is. But only because of being around rulers and tape measures.
Six feet.
I have read that when humans are looking at objects to count them they can only instantly (for the average person) see groups of up to four. Any larger than that and they have to start counting individually or make groups of twos and threes and fours. This may be why many non-alphabetic spoken languages often only have numbers that go up to five. Beyond that is ‘many.’ And many could be six or sixteen.
So six feet might be a little hard to imagine. You might imagine an average grown adult male and add a bit. But we are oriented to see adult men upright more than laying out on the ground.
This image above is so great to me because it speaks to a gap in the way we see the world. Maybe even a longing that is secreted from our own sense of desire. How is it that we have so little reference to the natural living world that we don’t use it to measure things? The easy answer is – we don’t have contact with the natural world. So, what do we lose because of that disconnect?
Lets wander away from measuring six feet for a moment or two…
There is a newish book that is worth reading (if you are into this kind of a book) “A Critique of the Moral Defense of Vegetarianism,” by Andrew Smith, PhD, a professor of philosophy at Drexel College who specializes in environmental philosophy. Smith makes the case that there isn’t a morally defensible argument for vegetarianism, and in fact, you can’t even actually be vegetarian.

In the book, Smith also challenges the most common defense of vegetarianism — the “sentientist” argument — which claims that eating animals is cruel because they suffer. This defense assumes that plants, by contrast, do not suffer.

Smith, however, cites a great deal of fascinating evidence to support that plants develop kin relationships, are sentient and can also suffer. Read a book like “Brilliant Green” for more on this. “Plants have biochemical reactions to noxious stimuli that are very much like ours,” Smith writes.

For example, Smith explains that plants thrive in diverse communities, but that conventional agriculture has created unnatural settings where plants live alone — corn with corn, wheat with wheat and so on. In these settings, plants are more susceptible to diseases, which farmers prevent by dousing them in pesticides that will keep them alive just long enough to harvest. This is harmful to the plants, to the land and to the people who consume them. If plants were allowed to live in diverse communities, claims Smith, they would be “happier” and healthier, and thus, so would we. “By treating them well, we treat ourselves and our world well,” he said.

He illustrates how the divisions we’ve constructed between plants and animals, and between omnivorism and vegetarianism, are emblematic of a way of thinking about ourselves and our eating practices that perpetuates an ecocidal worldview—one that destroys the natural environment. And it destroys the environment because we consider ourselves at the top of a pyramid and we consume all that is “below” us. We consider some life more “life-y” hence our care (rightfully so) for mistreating animals in industrial feed lots and don’t think much about mono-cropped broccoli grown in a watered desert in California. If you can get it right now. Vegetables are not easy to come by here in New York City during this phase of the pandemic. I don’t know what it is like in your corner of the world.

Where am I going with this? Bear with me. I think I can connect this to my original wondering and to the mission here at Primal Derma and also to what is happening in the world. Let’s try…

This pyramidal view of ourselves comes from the anthropocentric “Great Chain of Being”. But there is no top. Every living things eats and is eaten. Death feeds life. A more cyclical view of the food chain might include — the cow eats the grass, we eat the cow, the worms eat us, the grass eats the worms. In this way it a person can’t be a vegetarian because even plants essentially eat animals.

Death feeds life and to try to extract ourselves from the cycle of death by removing it’s taint is more than un-human. It’s anti-biotic in the sense that it is actually against life. And this is not to glad-hand or put a good face on what is happening as a consequence of this virus that humans inadvertently invited into our midst.

Death feeds life.

Maybe nowhere does this notion show up more vividly, culturally speaking, than that winged rotating gyre of oncoming death – the vulture. Feared. Despised. Used as a cruel epithet towards personal injury lawyers or thankless kids cheering on the death of their grandparents so they can get their inheritance.

Poor vultures. The Egyptian vulture hieroglyph held the position that ‘A’ holds in our alphabet. First. Prominent. These birds circle on rising heat columns exerting no effort waiting for the time just beyond when the death has arrived to the animal and the body has turned into a carcass, into carrion. The vulture cares not to struggle with the living. This grand bird would rather peck open a rib cage and be tangled in stinking guts than wrestle their prey to the ground. But after an animal dies, microbes that had been kept in check in its body during life run amok and start to spew out toxic compounds.

How is it that a creature that feeds not only on death, but on rotting death can live? Live so well and admirably that it became an emblem in ancient Egypt and all across the Middle East all the way to India?

Lars Hansen, a microbiologist at Aarhus University in Roskilde, Denmark wondered the same thing. He worked with 26 black vultures and 24 turkey vultures that had been killed by US federal officials as part of population-control efforts in Nashville, Tennessee.

Hansen discovered two interesting features.

Vultures have far more microbes growing on their faces than in their guts.

Vultures are gluttonous eaters, sinking their faces deep into the corpses they eat. So it does make some sense that their faces harbor so many and such intense biota. But when the researchers looked at the birds’ guts, they found many fewer microbes — 76 species, on average, compared to the hundreds typically found in humans.

But Hansen reported also that there was no sign of DNA from the birds’ meals. “The vultures’ stomachs are extremely harsh environments, frying everything that passes through,” says Hansen. “Even the prey DNA does not pass through.”

Did you get that? The DNA is gone. Everything is consumed and disassembled by the gut of the vulture.

Perhaps the ancient Egyptians, or Greeks, or Turks or Indians didn’t know about the harsh acids of the vulture stomach. They likely didn’t. But they knew the vulture. The bird was in their days and in their dreams and sprung into feathered poetry from their unfurled tongues. They saw the birds work in the world and saw their function played out.

To me it is a small heartbreak that the distance we must, for right now, keep from each other is measured in a human made metric. The human foot. The industrial foot. We could use measure like a turkey vulture wingspan now because we might need now to have an eye on the living world and measure ourselves to it. Not to surpass or make it submit, but simply to have an re-earned relationship with the world.

Isn’t it curious that we must keep distance from each other right now as a consequence of humans being willing to go anywhere they want?  The distance we must keep from each other is perhaps the distance  that the wild needs of us. Asking of us. Perhaps. There once was a time where there were wild places that people knew not to tread because the wilderness was for the wild. And they knew that because of their lived relationship with the world that was entrusted to them. And that has largely been forgotten. Every mountain must be climbed. Every depth plummeted. And we inadvertently take souvenirs with us while we split every mystery.

Maybe we are in a consequence of that right now.

It is a small thing, but Primal Derma is a small plea to forge and keep a small relationship with the living world on our side of it. Made from materials we can easily reach, that our ancestors would know, that they knew by their own hand and whose days and regimens were not human centered, but centered on the herd. To love animals is to love the herd. And to love the herd means loving that which sustains the herd – the grass, the land, and the wolf. We’ve deprived the cows from the wolf that would sustain the health of the herd, from that ceremonial exchange. And so we are burdened with the role of the wolf now. And we are entrusted with making death feed life, as it always was.

A turkey vultures distance away from each other might well remind us of this old work. This is not to minimize the sorrow at all that we are in or to bypass them and go to a 10,000 foot view- they hurt, they disable us, they are laying us low presently. But as we are seeing the systems we have all counted on being digested like something in vultures stomach – totally blitzed, we might do well to draw a bit closer to the vulture.

Thank you so much for wondering with me, your skincare provider. 

And as long as I can keep going to the post office safely, I’ll keep shipping your orders out.

Be safe in your corner of the world. We need you out there.


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