Enlarging Our Circle of Love
Reviewed by Carl Blumenthal
By Margaret Fisher. Pendle Hill Pamphlets (number 440), 2016. 32 pages. $7/pamphlet.
A physician, organic gardener, and member of Baltimore Yearly Meeting, Margaret Fisher loves to sing. With Enlarging Our Circle of Love she hits the right notes in her hymn to veganism.
Fisher speaks to my condition because, unlike die-hard vegans who have no doubts about their cause, she struggles with her leading, finding “the Light can show us the way” if only its “heat and passion . . . impel us toward needed change.”
Although my ministry is preparing vegetarian and vegan meals for Brooklyn (N.Y.) Meeting, at home I’m a sinner—consuming meat, fish, and dairy. Whether this is contradiction or compromise, I decided to do Margaret Fisher justice by going vegan. Hence I found my way open to Fisher’s clear and direct message: eating animals is cruel, unhealthy, wasteful, expensive, and harmful to the planet.
Backed by 52 footnotes, her findings are neatly synthesized if familiar. In A Plea for the Animals, Buddhist Matthieu Ricard doesn’t stop with Fisher’s ambivalence about animal experiments. (As a doctor, she believes there are some benefits from humane testing.) He condemns hunting, poaching, and bullfighting; farms, circuses, and zoos. He even has doubts about pets. (I can’t imagine my indoor cats running wild to protest a pet food industry that abuses their zoological relatives.)
Ricard’s book may be the most thorough case since Peter Singer’s classic Animal Liberation for leaving all “sentient beings” well enough alone. Yet Ricard is the kind of vegan who has no skin in the game, so to speak. Unlike Fisher, he’s a paragon of virtue, never wavering or faltering.
True, after her revulsion at dissecting a frog in biology class, Fisher became a vegetarian without difficulty. But converting to veganism was like joining a cult. She remained in the plants-only closet until her meat-eating husband outed her by turning vegan himself. His “repeat[ed] chanting about compassion for beings” at a retreat did the trick.
Between these epiphanies, Fisher sinned by commission and omission: eating turkey on Thanksgiving and keeping the benefits of plant-eating from her patients; feeding her children meat to “normalize” them and remaining silent with f/Friends about her beliefs. Even after approval as a traveling minister, Fisher is more penitent than evangelist.
In the Book of Genesis, God gave humans dominion over all living things and commanded us to multiply. The resulting population explosion hastened our exploitation of the earth. Fisher doesn’t confront the question of whether Judeo-Christianity is to blame for this mess. However, she makes such Quaker testimonies as integrity of conscience and simplicity of lifestyle the basis of her practice.
Besides changing minds one by one, she has few policy prescriptions. (Matthieu Ricard would “just say no.”) Yet policy-making isn’t the point of this pamphlet, nor is there space for it. Fisher’s is a moral call to action. At her most vocal she turns the tables on us, asking how would you (my emphasis) feel . . . trapped, penned, doped, sickened, forced to witness the murder of others, and then “strung upside down by your ankles. If you are lucky at the moment of death you go quickly. If you are less lucky . . . you feel yourself being scalded or skinned while you are still alive.”
Fisher mixes testimony and argument well, insisting, “Stories are powerful, and so I tell mine, but none of this is meant to be about me. It is about all the animals.” And don’t be fooled by the “farm-to-table” stamp of approval. What’s out of sight may still destroy your mind, body, and soul.
My two months as a vegan (as of this writing) is hardly a test compared to Fisher’s 40 years of seeking right relationship with animals. Yet I’ve briefly learned to live well by doing good, cooking such vegan delights as stir-fried broccoli, mushrooms, peppers, and tofu; chickpea, tomato, and spinach stew; and Indian-style cauliflower and greens.
Thus I will support Margaret Fisher if, after her long trial, she finally wants to proclaim, “Animals of the world unite; you have everything to lose if we don’t change.”