The livestock missing from trauma therapy

I’m not sure how exactly or where this fits into a project like Regen Ag Science, but I’ve felt for a long, long time that they’re woven together, so here goes a shot in the dark. Maybe it’s a shot across the bow, but of whose ship I can’t yet tell.

I tend to read books in constellations: it’s rarely one that I pick up, then follow with something unrelated. Maybe my pattern-making processes run a little overtime. Something about pregnancy and the imminence of birth – going through that process myself that I might only do once in my life, and that so many livestock animals go through once a year for nearly every year of their lives, however long – drew together a number of disparate threads that I’ve been variously tracing for a long time.

Linking trauma and the long-term effects of PTSD; dealing with some kind of either cyclothymia (cyclic depression) or full-blown Bipolar II Disorder; low-stress stockmanship; regenerative agriculture, reconnection with nature, and the necessity that as a society in the greatest crisis of our time – climate change, ecological falling apart, mass extinction – we need to start thinking, and working, in terms of systems rather than isolated interests.

So here’s my book constellation right now. After they sat in my Amazon cart for several years, I finally threw down some Audible credits and picked up a handful of books that are now forming one of those serendipitous constellations of books that threaten to change everything.

It all started with happening across The Secret Life of Babies at a recent housesit: a part woo-woo, part science-backed treatise on the role of birth experience in our adult lives: how traumas, hormone status (cortisol and oxytocin balances) and our mother’s psychological well-being leading up to and at the time of our birth influences our adult selves. Which after not much thought, makes good sense: she is, after all, literally building our neural map, hormone pathways, and response networks, and these in response to the environment she encounters. Maternal priming at its zenith; not only teaching but constructing the child in a way that ought to help its survival in the world that she physically, psychologically, and emotionally anticipates it will encounter.

And then my husband gave me a copy of Naomi Wolf’s Vagina, which opened a window onto the many, complex and individually varied ways in which, in a sense, the pelvic (or peduncle) nerve drives our psychological well-being; and by extension, how our vaginal experiences impact our ability to function as creatively focused, effective, confident adults. While her writing is at many times disjointed and itself disorganized and hard to follow, her reasoning at times straying into conjecture and self-contradiction, she makes a number of good points about the incredibly negative impacts of sexual and birth trauma on women’s psychology, and the overwhelming pervasiveness of both.

Naturally, the proximity of my looming birth into motherhood was driving some specific reading, which brought me to Grantly Dick-Read’s Childbirth Without Fear, reinforcing the idea that only through a relaxed, safe, supported mindset can women give birth without trauma, and – as hard as it is for many, most even, to believe – without pain and certainly without suffering.  Along with that, I picked up another book by Naomi Wolf, Misconceptions, and in reading sections of particular chapters that were focused on certain stages of her pregnancy – the beginning and end, and the birth of her daughter by Caesarean – I came to understand better the root of many of her ideas and possibly even of her disjointedness in the later book. In any event, both further reinforced the idea that birth trauma, trauma through and to our vaginas, vulvas, and psyches, and psychological unrest in general coalesce into painful, terrifying birth experiences, which themselves then transfer to our children.

And then I picked up two books on trauma itself, that had been sitting in my Amazon cart for several years – Peter Levine’s In An Unspoken Voice and Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score, both clinically-informed and roundly scientifically supported treatises on how we physically store, express, and enact traumas in our lives – through social engagement (or lack thereof), behavioural patterns, thought patterns, disorganization, reactivity. Van der Kolk in particular focuses on our mammalian heritage in expressing trauma, referring to Darwin’s book on the expressions of man and animals; but also offers a detailed roadmap of potential therapies, techniques and case histories of successful recovery from trauma-related physical and mental illnesses.

The next book on the list, in this constellation, is Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory, which van der Kolk refers to rather extensively. All of this makes me think of tropes I’ve come across about our greatest wound being the source of our greatest potential, and healing, and so on. So within this, simultaneously, I am asking myself: how do I align myself with this, and continue learning, while focusing on the academic agriculture-based work? How are they connected? Of course they can be – I can connect anything – but in a cohesive, cogent way that others will find helpful, useful, insightful? Is it an ecopsychology approach? I don’t really think so. When we’re talking farmer suicides and depression, it needs to go further than that; but it also relates to our systems of livestock production – the unfeeling, deadened ways in which we raise other sentient beings for production; maybe, similarly, the unfeeling, deadened, oversimplified ways in which we raise the plants we consume, or as animal feed. One simply can’t do that, or work inside that kind of operation, without the kind of deadening that some kind of trauma produces. A healthy, high-functioning human being simply couldn’t do it.

One point raised was that many slaughterhouse workers are illiterate or illegal workers who really don’t have other options – they can’t read the paperwork to fill out applications for other jobs, or other jobs aren’t available to them. Again, the idea of a rehabilitation farm crosses my mind: job training in the extreme, where they learn to work with animals, and conduct humane, conscientious slaughter; learn transferable skills, to read and write, improve their English, farm regeneratively. The healing power of working with and around animals, responding to them in ways that reflect our shared domestic evolution, could be incredible.

And yet along comes this article about Trump’s push for slaughterhouses that can process 1200 hogs a minute. That’s why we have $1.99/lb pork loin at Costco, for one. Who even values life at that point? How could anyone working in that kind of system possibly value the product of their labor? How could anyone running the business end of such an enterprise appreciate the biology of the organism, or of the machine that they’re running? The scale of that kind of production is unfathomable to most regenerative agriculturists and permaculturists — with a few exceptions that were raised in or are familiar with the industrial model of agriculture. For most of us, we get excited about scaling up from a handful of backyard hogs to enough that we can reasonably sell a few in a season, and then beyond that, that we can have a customer list, sell out at a farmer’s market, sell wholesale, and so on. We don’t think in terms of 1200 hogs at any point, really, except maybe in annual production if we’re really pushing limits. We think in terms of sending 10 hogs to slaughter this year, and where to sell beyond our bacon-loving uncle and our mom’s friends.

In an industrial agriculture, psychology and the job are separate issues. Can we works towards a psychologically regenerative agriculture? There is always that piece missing – the social aspect of permaculture that gets neglected; the psychological side of the ‘regenerative agriculture’ conversation. Going beyond just ensuring happy, healthy human beings, what can we do to actively restore the humans that industrial agriculture is damaging? Especially following on the heels of the landscaping worker that successfully sued Monsanto for nearly $3 billion after it was shown that their products likely caused his terminal cancer. We can do better than getting gleeful converts into the regen ag movement: we can actively rehabilitate, retrain, and rethink using the ‘waste streams’ of burnt out, traumatized individuals ejected from the industrial system.

After nearly two decades of stepping through a minefield of my own issues, I think I’m actually ready to start thinking about how I would share some of that learning. I am excited to experience how birth changes my perspective, physical connection to myself, and what gates I pass through in understanding, processing, and re-experiencing the past. With much time to reflect, I’m more curious about what will arise through a dedicated, necessary mindfulness practice — that yawning gap of time that so many struggle with while nursing an infant every hour or two throughout the first days — than anxious about the confinement, which is so fleeting and temporary. My nearly two decades’ worth of journals, hanging over my head in stacked bookshelves, watch me hopefully as I listen to van der Kolk’s reading on the value of writing about both our emotional and physical experiences of trauma and remembering. I can go back to the farm in 2013, when I would awake in the middle of the night, shaking and sobbing, dreams of neglected and forgotten animals, terrors of someone coming in through the window, waiting for someone else in the house to be up and awake so that at last, I could sleep.

Of course: I needed someone else on surveillance before I could relax.

EMDR. Somatic experiencing. Feldenkrais. Alexander technique. Yoga. Acupuncture. Craniosacral therapy. Dance. Writing. Neurolinguistic techniques. Being able to physically reconnect with ourselves, having someone else touch us in a healing way.

Reading on Feldenkrais leads me to cybernetics. I wonder where that will take me next.

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