Monday, July 30, 2012

Walking with the Primeval: sea turtles in South Florida

Imagine this:

In the far distance of history, in times long before remembrance, a hulking shape emerges from the sea. Under the bright moon, the dark form slowly struggles up the shore. Instinct takes it above the tide line; instinct tells it to dig - creating a cradle of earth to safely hold the children this creature cannot stay to warm and protect. After disguising its nest, the lumbering beast returns to the sea. 

It's an evocative image, isn't it? Imagining it gives a sense of the primal, the ancient, and of the basic instinct of life that lies within us as it does with all living creatures.

The fascinating thing is that you might witness this glimpse of prehistory on any given night from March to September - sea turtle nesting season here on South Florida's beaches. I had the good fortune to experience it last night.

I was on the beach with my friend Staci from S.T.O.P. (Sea Turtle Oversight & Protection), watching nests that are expected to hatch within the next few days. S.T.O.P. volunteers monitor the nests so, in the event the hatchlings become disoriented by the lights from the nearby buildings, we can rescue them and take them to the sea.

Staci was headed down the sand a bit to check a second nest while I was staying with the first, watching for her to signal me to come if the second nest was hatching. I saw her stop to speak with a group of late-night revelers that were walking down the beach (presumably about their bright white flashlights - a no-no during nesting season), and when I looked just ahead of them, I saw a large, dark shape moving on the sand. A sea turtle mama was ready to make her nest.

Eventually, after some of the party-people wandered back the way they came, I went to take a closer look but still kept a respectful distance, so as not to spook her at such a delicate time. Even in the dark of night and from a distance, it's an amazing thing to see. The mother's return to the very beach where she was born, the great dragging effort to leave the sea... witnessing that evokes a feeling that I can't quite name, but it's something basic and earthy and reverent. It's something I hope that everyone can experience, but that won't happen unless we protect the threatened and endangered turtles that nest on our shores.

Juvenile loggerhead at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center

If you live near nesting grounds or plan to visit them, please visit S.T.O.P.'s website to learn about sea turtles, their habitat, and what you can do to help protect them. And if you live in the South Florida area, why not think about volunteering your time to help the next generation of sea turtles make it to the sea? All you need is a bucket, a red-light flashlight, and the willingness to go enjoy the ocean breezes and the crashing of the surf for a few hours!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Plants, animals, and souls - a Judeo-Christian perspective

I'd lay money on the fact that within a month of adopting an animal-free diet, a new vegan is bound to have somebody who thinks they're clever asking "What about the poor plants you're killing? Why are their lives less important than animals?"

It's always surprising to me that we need to debate whether to value the lives of animals more highly than plants. But I suppose what we're really asking is, what makes a plant different from an animal? Are animals like us? Are they capable of experiencing life, complete with thoughts, feelings, and awareness? Or do they feel no more than a trampled blade of grass?

I think it's pretty evident that they do have a higher capacity for feeling, as the folks from Free From Harm pointed out in a recent Facebook post.

Someone asked us today, "where should we draw the line with what living things we eat? What if we find that plants are intelligent too?" I responded that SENTIENCE is the moral baseline by which we should base our food choices. The easiest way to understand sentience is this: If you step on a blade of grass, you probably won't feel to bad about it, but if you step on a chicken's toe and he squeals, or if you step on your dog's paw and she squeals, then you're going to feel pretty bad about it. Either of these animals might not get too close to you for while until they regain their trust and confidence in you and realize you made a mistake. That reaction is sentience.

So why is this a question? At least part of it can be explained by examining the carnistic culture. Recent studies indicate that the intelligence of animals used for food is down-played, indicating that people do not wish to think of their food as sharing a common capacity for awareness.

But how we value animals versus plants is closely related to another common question that's pertinent to Christians and Jews, one that was indirectly raised in the recent article 14 Stories that Prove Animals Have Souls. Is there a moral difference in status between plants and animals? What does the Bible say about plants, animals, and souls? 

Interestingly, the very first "souls" mentioned in the Bible are animal souls. The Hebrew word for soul, nephesh, first appears at Genesis 1:20 in reference to fish, and again at 1:24 in reference to "beasts of the earth" -- what we would refer to today as land animals.

Genesis 1:20 And God said, Let the waters swarm with swarms of living souls, and let fowl fly above the earth in the expanse of the heavens. (Darby version)
Genesis 1:24 And God said, Let the earth bring forth living souls after their kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth, after their kind. And it was so. (Darby version)

But wait! you may say, my translation says "living creature" or "moving creature that hath life." Some versions do translate it that way, presumably to distinguish animal from man, but note the familiar scripture at Genesis 2:7.

Genesis 2:7 And Jehovah Elohim formed Man, dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and Man became a living soul. (Darby version)
The same word, nephesh, is used in all three of these scriptures. There are no modifiers that would indicate a nuance of meaning. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, the word routinely refers to both animals and men. 

Notably though, the word is never used to refer to plant life. If the word actually did have a second meaning which indicated a living thing that was not a soul, wouldn't it also apply to plants?

So, what exactly is the distinction between plants and these "souls" (nephesh)? The scholarly Bible commentary Barnes' Notes has this to say about the full meaning of the term:
nephesh, "breath, soul, self." This noun is derived from a root signifying to breathe. Its concrete meaning is, therefore, "that which breathes," and consequently has a body, without which there can be no breathing; hence, "a breathing body," and even a body that once had breath... As breath is the accompaniment and sign of life, it comes to denote "life," and hence, a living body, "an animal." And as life properly signifies animal life, and is therefore essentially connected with feeling, appetite, thought, nephesh denotes also these qualities, and what possesses them. It is obvious that it denotes the vital principle not only in man but in the brute. It is therefore a more comprehensive word than our soul, as commonly understood.
(Underlined for emphasis by me.)

In the original Hebrew, the word that is used signifies not only "a living creature," but feeling, appetite, and thought. Essentially, the word signifies sentience. That plants are excluded indicates they are not sentient; that animals are included indicates that they are.

The Holy Scriptures, the authoritative guide for those of the Judeo-Christian faith, applies this meaningful word to both man and beast. If we speak of the human "soul" with its full original meaning -- a living, breathing creation of God capable of a feeling, thought, and desire -- then we must therefore allow that animals have these same capabilities. We are all, as the first man and the first beasts were described in the account of our creation, living souls.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Recipes: Chocolate Cherry Dump Cake

Let me be really clear: this is not health food! Proceed at your own risk.

We were having a potluck at work today and I wanted a dessert I could eat, but it had to be something easy since I was also cooking a main dish. So I decided to try a twist on an old non-vegan recipe, dump cake. It'd been a long time since I'd made it and I also wanted to use different flavors, so I wasn't sure how it would come out. Well, pretty darn good!

Chocolate Cherry Dump Cake


3 cans cherry pie filling
1 Devil's Food cake mix
1/2 cup vegan butter

Note: check the ingredients on your cake mix carefully. I found a vegan one at Aldi.


Preheat oven to 350 F. Pour the cans of cherry pie filling into a 9x13 cake pan and spread evenly. (No need to grease the pan.) Sprinkle the cake mix evenly over the cherries, breaking up any large lumps. Cut (or spoon, if using a tub) bits of butter and spread around the surface of the cake mix. Bake 40 minutes, or until cherries bubble around the edges and the cake is reasonably firm. Cool and serve.

Notes on butter: You can use more than 1/2 cup vegan butter, if you prefer a moister cake topping. With a half cup, it has a consistency like a shortbread cookie. Also, if you'd ever previously made this with conventional butter, you may be used to cutting the butter in fairly thick pats. But vegan butter has a lower melting point, so it's better to cut thinner pieces, and more of them.