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Another Living Thing: Caca, Ovejas, y Una Niña

In the 1950s, the Canadian government forced the Inuits into settlements. An old man refused to leave, even after his family left him with no weapons or tools to fend for himself. While a blizzard smothered the Arctic lands one evening, the old man left the warmth of his igloo to do a very simple thing: take a shit. He defecated into his hands and began shaping his own feces into a blade, spitting his saliva in a thin line to form a sharp edge. With his all-natural knife in hand, he ventured out further from home until he came across a pack of dogs. He stabbed one dog and skinned it, stretching out the skin into a makeshift harness and fastening it onto the rib cage. The old man then took off into the ice desert, his improvised sled harnessed to another dog nearby. He escaped with nothing and left nothing for his oppressors to hunt him down with.

The shit-blade exemplifies how the people of one culture may approach and utilize the things around them (and within them) in a different way from others. My first reaction to the story was how ludicrous it all was. It sounds inhumane to slaughter a dog with a knife made of your own shit. But my definition of what is humane and what is not is based largely on everything I have been exposed to and how I was exposed to it all. To the Inuits, the shit-blade is a symbol of their survival and fundamental to their desire for survival, a source of hope and salvation. It is something to celebrate. And so while this story may be disgusting, so too is it, to say the least, remarkable.

Rarely am I forced to confront the waste I produce or think about how to discard it, where it goes once I have discarded it, and what affect it is has on my surroundings. I was raised to poop into a toilet, flush it away and use the ventilation system in my bathroom if necessary. Everything is done to make sure the poop all goes away— the sight of it and the sent of it. My relationship with my waste is one of secrecy and shame. No one wants to know or talk about (or smell or see) your poop, and it’s for good reason. But here, we talk about how we’re pooping on a scale of 1 to 10 on a daily (1 being you’re pooping rocks and 10 being you’re pooping chocolate milk). During our hikes, we carry a poop shovel with us so we can make a hole in the earth to cover up after we finish our business. When there are toilets to use, we must flush with a bucket of water. At the organizations we visited over this past week, including ecological farms and eco-active schools, there are only dry bathrooms, and water is used exclusively for washing hands. One granja (farm) we went to has a system set up that directs used water to flush toilets. An organization called Mano a Mano dries out all the feces workers produce throughout the day to avoid any lingering smells and uses it as a fertilizer for the crops they grow. The existence of these sustainable systems, in place of sewage and drainage systems that I am more accustomed to, reflects the vastly different ways these communities in Bolivia approach waste, and to that extent, the life that produces such waste. It is hard to avoid the fact that I am by nature wasteful, implicitly and explicitly harming natural and man-made structures that I have been a part of since I was born. If the saying that I am what I eat is true, then it is just as important for me to acknowledge that I am also what I waste and what I shit.

However, the story of the old man does not end with his shit-blade. He uses the knife to kill a dog, and then uses another dog to complete his escape plan. How can one kill a dog? Why did one dog die and the other live? How can one kill anything at all? Why do we get to choose what lives and what dies? Is it a choice? And if all of this is to ensure our own survival then must our survival always be at the expense of something or someone else? Is it possible to minimize the damage we seem to inevitably cause, and if so, how? Is “damage” even the right word?

I remember asking the same questions when our group was gathered around a sheep just a week or so ago in San Salvador of Cochabamba. It was then when I began to really think about not only the waste I produce but everything I am consuming as well, everything that sustains me and all that it takes. Three women wearing straw hats and thick, colorful skirts knelt down with knives in their hands. One woman tied the sheep’s legs together so it could no longer move. Another woman picked up a rock among the hundreds of others strewn over the sparse grass, each one covered in thin layers of dirt and dust. She scraped the knife along the rock as if cutting into it, then brought the knife to the sheep’s neck for the first incision. What made this any different than dissections of frogs and lamb hearts and fetus pigs I have done in science classes back home? What made this any different than going to the market to buy a whole chicken, or grounded beef neatly packaged and wrapped in plastic and styrofoam? There are sheep, chickens, and cows being killed all over the world at this moment and not every one of their death’s has an audience to grieve for them or with them. This sheep, squirming on the ground moments before it was killed, is no more special than the other ones that are still roaming around. Maybe it was trying to set itself free or find a more comfortable position. I could not tell. I wondered in that moment how I was any different from the sheep. What do I really own, if there is anything that I can really call mine? I have ownership over my own body, just as the person next to me has ownership over his own body, and this sheep, just moments ago, had some sort of ownership over its own body too. Though, even when its legs were free, it was guided around by a shepherd. Is the relationship between sheep and shepherd akin to a shepherd and God then, or some god, some divine thing, something larger than we can comprehend, us and the Pachamama, whoever and whatever it is we believe in? The sheep must have some awareness of its inherent freedoms as a living thing in a shared space among other living things. Once the knife cut through its neck and blood began oozing out into a blue bin nearby, all movement in the sheep’s body ceased. I turned away and sat down. I began crying and I wasn’t sure why. I wasn’t sure what I was grieving for, if there was anything to grieve. I wasn’t sure if I was grieving for the right thing, if a right thing existed, if it was the sheep, or rather, every living thing that has ever been killed and will ever be killed to ensure our survival that I was crying for. I wasn’t sure really if I was grieving at all. It seems that some living things always end up in the hands of other living things, and that isn’t a good or bad thing. It is essential to the ecosystem, to the balances within nature, and fairness no longer matters at a certain point. Fairness never played a role. I wasn’t sure if I was grieving out of care or guilt, if I turned away because I couldn’t bring myself to watch the sheep die or because I couldn’t look at myself in the eye any longer, and face something that has always been happening and will continue to happen. But it occurred to me then that the very least I could do was watch and make sure that I remembered every part of the killing, every little detail, as best I could— how warm the sheep’s stomach felt moments after we began skinning it and how cold it felt once we had finished, how its heart was still beating and  its muscles were still twitching as if it was struggling to come back to life, hanging onto some loose end, how if I didn’t look at the rest of its body and only into its eyes, it still looked alive. I kneeled down and helped spread its legs out so the women could cut into its body at a better angle. I tried to close its eyes but they would not budge. The women were going to use every part of the sheep’s body just as the old man had used every part of the dog’s. The meat would last for about two weeks and feed the community as they worked on the rain water entrapment tank nearby. It was all for good. It was not in vain.

Were these women inhumane? Was the old man inhumane? I don’t think so. To some extent, the act of killing is part of what makes us human. That is not to say we are killers. We are trying to live. I am trying to live, and sometimes all I can do is accept that my attempt to remain alive comes at a cost. What I must do is find some way to minimize that cost. As much as I found the killing of the sheep hard to watch, another part of me found it fascinating and beautiful. At the end of the day we are just made of a few parts that seamlessly fit together. There is some order within the chaos, and we each carry our own system. I look up to those women and to the old man for how in touch they are with their environment, all that they consume and all that they produce. There are stories of farmers whispering into the ears of the sheep they are about to kill, “Thank you, Pachamama, for letting me have this sheep.” And that reminds me that though my body belongs to me right now, it will only for a while. It will, like every other living thing, and all the waste that every living thing produces, return to the earth, return to La Pachamama. This the community I am bound to, one of waste and survival, one of hypocrisy and transience, that which I must surrender to and revel in as another living thing.