Sheep, Cows, and Fields of Grass

grazing sheepSpending a week in the Welsh countryside is like a drinking a nepenthe that scours away all memory of air pollution, terrorist attacks, and venal corporations. The real world feels far, far away.

Although it was the first country to become industrialized (to exploit the coal, copper, and tin in its ground), Wales today is largely a pastoral fantasy, where 3 million human beings share the rolling green hills with 11 million sheep. Everywhere you look there’s a walking sweater, nibbling the emerald carpet. Cuddly types – like me — want to pet and hug all of them, especially the lambs, which are so cute that even the most voracious carnivore might convert to vegetarianism on the spot.

The less snuggly truth, however, is that livestock – the lambs, the calves, and the piglets – will all grow up to be meat on our plates. Seeing these adorable creatures grazing in the fields gave me momentary pangs of guilt, but not enough misgivings to steer me away from lamb chops at the dinner table. Oddly, in some ways I felt good about eating Welsh sheep at a Welsh restaurant. I’ve been thinking lately about what it takes to feed an American, how much energy, both in man hour and calorie terms, it takesSunshine is life to convert our elemental life source, the sun, into food. Most everything we eat “costs” more in energy than the energy it produces. A typical American hamburger requires the expenditure of Middle Eastern oil, Colorado River water, Nebraska grain, and who knows how many other components before it’s palatable. The food we eat contributes to the defiling of our environment, the expenditure of finite natural resources, and the abject misery of the animal species we dominate.

If we could simply eat sunlight – or, more practically, the immediate byproducts of photosynthesis, like grass – the energy-in/energy-out equation would be more finely balanced. And we might not need to colonize Arab countries to sate our oil appetite. The next best thing is a machine that can easily convert something we cannot eat – grass — into something we can. While in Wales I saw millions of these machines: sheep.

Tortured meatLivestock in the British countryside aren’t fed grain. They aren’t confined to gorging pens, where they’re injected with antibiotics and fattened for slaughter. Instead, they roam the fields, eating grass for as much as 18 hours a day, effectively converting the sun’s life-giving energy into fleshy protein that we humans can digest. I’m told that sheep require labor-intensive help with childbirth; and butchering them, I suspect, can be messy and unpleasant. But in many ways they seem like a just and elegant food, one that gives more to humans than they take from the earth.

I still would like to have a pet lamb in the backyard (and my dogs, I reckon, might enjoy it, too.) But since my Hollywood garden isn’t blessed with the magic ratio of dirt, rain, and sunlight that places like Wales possess (and would therefore be deracinated by a single sheep in about half a day), I’ll have to be content with fresh oranges and nectarines as the edible expressions of our sun’s bountiful gifts.

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