In my work at the Kamloops Food Policy Council, we take a whole system approach to our efforts to create a regenerative, sovereign, and just food system. For me, this provides a delicious opportunity to think about the strands that weave us humans together with the environment. What has become clear to me is that in so many ways, food is what ties us physically and subliminally to the land and water. Each time we drink water, take a bite, or share a meal, we are consuming something that came from the land and it becomes a part of us; a little strand of attachment that cumulates into a much larger weave. As our food system becomes more complex, global, and commodified, those strands become too long and frayed.
One of the most problematic areas we see our food system fray is with industrial meat. COVID-19 made it clear that the consolidation of meat into conglomerate feedlots and slaughterhouses is not only harmful for the environment but also creates a system that is fragile to disruption. In Canada, the protein sector has undergone intensive concentration, which has resulted in more expensive and less available protein in grocery stores since the pandemic began.
In the U.S., the closure of just three processing plants decreased pork production by 15 percent. The many documentaries exposing the treatment of animals and the protests against eating meat makes a person think twice about that burger. However, ingredient-based advocacy loses sight of the role of animals as an opportunity to weave humans a little closer with their environment; with the land and water they depend on for life.
One of the remedies for this disconnect for me has been taking a deeper interest in animals as friends, food and fur in Kamloops. I recently took up learning how to tan the hides of some of our local animals, primarily sheep. I took workshops offered by Crow’s Nest Wildcraft and embedded in them was an invitation for us to research and understand more deeply our ancestral ties to tanning traditions. As a descendant of Scottish settlers, I feel connected to the creation of sheepskins, something my family most certainly would have been involved in at some point in my lineage. I also feel a very contemporary connection to making a beautiful textile from what otherwise would be a waste product. By gleaning and then tanning the sheepskin, I can honour all parts of the animal, and the reciprocal relationship that humans have with them.
As I comb out the sheepskin, I see seeds and bugs that grow up from the fields that are fertilized by the flock. I see old healed scars and other markings that tell a story about its life. I know that this animal was safe for the duration of its life from predators and disease because of its relationship to humans. I know that it depended on humans for its safety, and I know (now more than ever) that the presence of these local farms also creates safety for us.
In my hide tanning course, we also learned to make leather from salmon skins. By using tannins from bark, we made strong and supple leather with a characteristic fish scale look to it. I thought about our relationship to salmon as I scraped and stretched the skin into leather. Can the human/salmon relationship keep them safe the same way as does sheep? Can we safeguard their habitat and journey up the rivers? Can we look deeply to them as teachers and as gifts to us?
The act of slowing down and contemplating our connection to our food and to animals through hide tanning or simply by being mindful about our relationship to what we eat, helps us to repair some of the frayed strands of the food system and understand more deeply the needs of the local land and water we depend on. Knowing who raised your meat and where your salmon was caught will help us to be in touch with issues such as the challenges small farmers are facing and how the impacts of climate change are affecting fish habitat. What ultimately comes out of that is a deeper understanding of what the land and water is depending on us to do to ensure its ongoing health, and the reciprocity of our relationship.