In the span of an average day,
our city-dwelling children might be exposed to dogs, cats, squirrels, birds – especially pigeons, robins, those little guys I maybe mistakenly call chickadees, geese and cardinals – and if our children are very lucky, they might be startled by a sharply-striped chipmunk darting past. In the summer, they can see ducks and even the occasional heron passing through town like a traveler with an intriguing accent. There are so many advantages of urban living with children, too many to list and you already know them but I’ll still give it a whirl: museums, great restaurants, a diverse population, public transportation, cultural richness, so many possibilities for diversions.
As with most things, there are distinct disadvantages to urban living with children as well. The tall buildings can blur out the sky, especially when downtown. How does this influence their sense of vastness, of both ambition and humility? Do they ever feel a gasp catch in their throats when face-to-face with a force of nature that is truly immense? There is not much more ripe with possibility than a whole expanse of stars shimmering in a pitch-dark sky, like pulsating, illuminated holes punched out of black paper, and this is something we city people with our light pollution and towering buildings just get a dim, truncated view of at best. And it’s not just the sky. I worry about my son and his friends having enough trees to climb, meadows to explore, rivers to dunk cups into in order to study the murky contents. And there is always noise – of car alarms and voices nattering on cell phones and the recording on the train (beep… ”An inbound train toward the Loop will be arriving shortly…” beep) not to mention the aural onslaught of the El itself, so much so that my internal radio dial takes at least an hour to switch off when I’m trying to sleep. How does this affect those who are immeasurably more fine-tuned and sensitive?
For me, the benefits of city living outweigh the benefits of a more rural setting and I think this is true for my son as well. We are raising him as a vegan and I think it is pretty easy to live as one where we do, with access to so many well-stocked grocery stores, so many vegan restaurants in relative close proximity and an active, diverse community. At the same time, it is an interesting experiment we are undertaking with raising our children as herbivores. Veganism, it could be argued, is distinctly urban in concept and demographics. On the other hand, it is intricately interwoven with something that was once completely in the domain of the country: how our food is produced, how it arrives on our plates and in our stomachs. So while many city dwellers may be raising children whose palates swoon for cuisines from far-away nations (injera bread from Ethiopia, dal from India), who can easily tell you the difference between omnivores, vegetarians and carnivores, it is a very good possibility that these same children have never seen a four-legged being larger than a St. Bernard up close. The danger of raising our vegan children in an urban setting is that most animals become purely conceptual and our practice becomes merely theoretical. For it to stick, we need to make the animals they are protecting real and the lifestyle they practice an active, personally-rooted conviction.
Insert SASHA Farm.
My family is part of a great group of interesting, dynamic vegans called the Chicago Vegan Family Network. We usually only see one another once a month, but we are a big part of one another’s lives. In addition to our monthly potlucks, our children play together and become passionate friends, the adults offer wisdom and support to each other and we do things like track down gelatin-free marshmallows once a year and flood nearby states with a big ol’ camping trip. Another thing we do, for three years running now, is visit a farmed animal sanctuary called SASHA Farm in tiny Manchester, Michigan, home also to some sort of famous chicken broil. This is where our city children feed voracious goats (is there any other kind?) carrots, learn that pigs loooove grapes, that the safest way to feed a cow is to hold an apple flat in your hand and smoosh it up close. They also learn that cows are slobbery when eating apples. They learn that pigs are covered in bristly hair, cats raised together will eat one another’s food and get a little chunky and that the fluffy reddish dog Toto nips but does not bite. The sheep stay back on the hill in a group, the horses have impossibly soft, velvety muzzles and one of the goats is not too friendly. They learn these things in a very short amount of time and the animals transform from idea into flesh-and-blood in the matter of a couple of hours on a farm. What is sort of staggering to me is how quickly and effortlessly a rooster crowing can become integrated to our minds. At first the sound is unexpected, then it becomes charming and before too much time has passed, the rooster crowing in the background is accepted as part of the environment. As part of our environment. Of course it was. It was as natural as hearing a train overhead and quite a bit lovelier.
This is Nick, contemplating a goat with the most delightfully inscrutable expression.
Tewa, our newest member, originally from Ethiopia, feeding a goat.
Jack here, Alice and her little sister, Eden. Alice is one of the "big kids" now.
City kids, taking a relaxing sojourn on a swing together. These kids are so comfortable together.
Alice with a horse. What more can I say?
You may notice by now that I find it impossible to not try to kiss the various creatures. It's compulsive. I can't help myself.
Jack, Eden's best friend from earliest childhood, also contemplating a SASHA animal in the most beguiling fashion.
Alice again with a cow, ever mindful of avoiding the droolies.
Kids and horses. Pretty self-explanatory.
Sylvana loved the horses.
Justice feeding a goat.
One lucky chicken.
This is Levi in the cat house, which was a very popular destination point for our kids. I think those cats probably got a well-deserved nap when the children finally left.
We had a picnic, played duck, duck, omnivore on the grass outside the barn (Tewa learned this game with astonishing speed), and huddled together to decide which animals we would sponsor as a group. We decided on a goat and a turkey. The turkey was one who was in particularly poor shape. His bones, bent and painfully warped, struggled under the weight of his enormous chest, genetically engineered to grow to immense proportions to supply the boneless white meat of the sandwich and filet, slapped between two slices of bread and never thought of again. This turkey, and so many others like him, was simply not designed to live past a certain age, usually not past a few months. He was without a name; the children, after floating names like "Cool Dude' and so forth, came to the name Al, which was an abbreviation of Albus Avis, White Bird in Latin. Monte Jackson, the wonderful cofounder of SASHA Farm, was so happy that we'd adopted this bird. He told us that he was hoping that Al would make it through the winter.
Unfortunately, we received news last week that Al died. I haven't told my son yet. Our sponsorship money will go towards another SASHA turkey. It is very bittersweet, of course, the little bit of sweetness present because we know that Al got to live out the last of his days at a sanctuary, that he felt human kindness, human tenderness. You see the worst and the best of humanity in stark relief when you are at an animal sanctuary. I am so grateful that our city kids could see this with their own eyes, helping them to develop into even more compassionate, engaged children as they grow up. These animals aren't just conceptual, suffering isn't just theoretical, and living compassionately isn't just an ideology: the animals are flesh-and-blood, suffering is real, and living compassionately is an active, dynamic and personal commitment.
And, of course, SASHA Farm, and the roosters crowing, and the pigs begging for scratches and the goats waiting to be fed and all the magnificent muzzles designed for nuzzling will be around next year, for us city folks to get our country fix.