Living in the country, there are some beautiful things you get to experience that you simply don’t experience elsewhere. Without sounding too much like a Kubota tractor ad, I will say that nothing quite beats an early morning walk down to the river with a hot thermos of coffee, except perhaps doing that and bringing your swimsuit. Or the thick racket of peepers and bullfrogs and cicadas in the night.

But it’s not all joy and romance. Sometimes I’ll step out into the night air and look up at the stars, do some deep breathing, hope to “have a moment,” appreciating the quiet, resounding grace of the cosmos. Generally, I will just have begun thanking God for all this vast quiet…when it is broken with the chilling shriek of some small woodland animal, slowly being eradicated just yards from where I’m standing. I get the high-definition, extended play version. It usually goes on longer than I have the stomach for, and I’m back inside in the comforting embrace of TV noise.

I have always preferred thinking about Nature as peace-giving and not vicious. More “Peace of Wild Things,” less Grizzly Man. Nature has always been the place of retreats, of “quiet times,” of introspection and transcendence. The hurricanes? The wildfires? The hawks after my chickens? Well, let’s just say there’s some cognitive dissonance.  In an essay called “Sister Turtle,” from her new collection Upstream, Mary Oliver spells out this dilemma. This dilemma, between the world’s natural beauty and its savagery, between love for the world and the world’s insistence on death, forms the basis of what she calls her soul’s anxiety. It is also why she is almost, but not quite, a vegetarian.

For some years now I have eaten almost no meat. Though, occasionally, I crave it. It is a continually interesting subject of deep ambiguity…to consider Nature without this appetite—this other-creature-consuming appetite—is to look with shut eyes upon the miraculous interchange that makes things work, that causes one thing to nurture another, that creates the future out of the past. Still, in my personal life, I am often stricken with a wish to be beyond all that. I am burdened with anxiety.

Oliver cannot escape the fact that, no matter what she might want to say of herself and her convictions, the world is ultimately connected by way of spilt blood. To see human life as disconnected from that equation is to be in denial. And, if she’s honest with herself—and she is, brilliantly so—she has predatory urges of her own:

Of appetites—of my own appetite—I recognize this: it flashes up, quicker than thought; it cannot be exiled; it can be held on leash, but only barely. Once, on an October day, as I was crossing a field, a red-tailed hawk rattled up from the ground. In the grass lay a pheasant, its breast already opened, only a little of the red, felt-like meat stripped away. It simply flew into my mind—that the pheasant, thus discovered, was to be my dinner! I swear, I felt the sweet prick of luck! Only secondly did I interrupt myself, and glance at the hawk, and walk on. Good for me! But I know how sparkling was the push of my own appetite. I am no fool, no sentimentalist. I know that appetite is one of the gods, with a rough and savage face, but a god all the same.

All of this as a setup for Mary’s larger point about, yes, turtles. You can tell the woman has a soft spot (heh) for turtles, and who doesn’t love the slow, disadvantaged, and miraculously diligent reptiles. She writes about how coming upon a traveling turtle always delights her, but also saddens her, as the disruption could scare off a mother turtle before she’s laid her eggs—eggs that she’s suffered and waited so long to lay, eggs that might potentially never get laid, all because she’s startled her. On top of this, Oliver describes the perpetual vulnerability of their lot, how despite the grueling and difficult journey, even her eggs will, in all likelihood, be dug up by hungry raccoons before they are ever even born.

On a walk in the early summer, Oliver spots one turtle in the process laying. She wonders what the turtle sees in her: a friendly creature with good intentions? A killer, a predator? “She sees me as a danger, and she is right…it is five a.m.; for me, the beginning of the day—for her, the end of the long night.”

Lest we get a bit too David Attenborough, this is where stuff gets weird. Later that evening, Oliver returns to the nest, to find the turtle gone. Thinking this might be the moment where she digs into the nest to see if the eggs have in fact been laid, we are given a strange turn:

There were twenty-seven, smaller than Ping-Pong balls, which they somewhat resembled…I placed thirteen in my pocket, carefully, and replaced fourteen in the nest, repacked the nest with sand, and swept from the surface all sign of my digging.

I scrambled them. They were a meal. Not too wonderful, not too bad. I could not crack the shells, but had to make a knife slit to enter each bright chamber. The yolks were large, the white of the egg scant; the little fertility knot, the bud of the new turtle, was no more apparent that it is in a fertile chicken’s egg. There was, in the fabric of the eggs scrambled, a sense of fiber, a tactility, as though a sprinkle of cornmeal had been tossed in, and had not quite dissolved. I imagined it as the building material of the shell. The eggs were small enough that thirteen made no greedy portion. I ate them all, with attention, whimsy, devotion, and respect.

Maybe it’s because we’ve all been thinking about food and drink a little much lately (and I now legitimately wonder what turtle eggs taste like), maybe it’s simply because I was shocked by this narrative turn, but I found it profound that Oliver faithfully departs tree-hugger pantheism here, in favor of something much more offensive, but much more real—a world in which a cost is paid for one’s own survival. In the “whimsy” of her scrambling those eggs, she points out a world wherein we live by way of death. And that to deny the fact that you are a predator is to blindly accept an inflated anthropology. That you are not the “type” of creature that kills, that you are, instead, a morally evolved being. Of course, by extension, and Mary Oliver might wonder the same, that moral evolution seems shortsighted, to say the least. Why are we killing one another? And why did Christ hang on the cross? Even vegetarians are vicious…

I don’t think it’s too far a stretch. In his essay for the Food & Drink Issue, our friend Benjamin Self says as much, comparing this notion to his consumption of fast food, a cheap and painless way to never think about the “costly” world he lives in. But what he misses, he argues, and what we miss, is the gratitude that comes in understanding the costly death we’re given life by.

This [understanding of costliness] is a fuller experience in the way we eat—an experience, even, of God’s extravagant love—that brings us to a place of gratitude. But it is worth remembering that that invitation is still only an echo of the invitation of the Eucharist. It is there in the ritual offering of Christ’s body and blood that the real feast is laid before us—the body and blood of the Lord, who alone takes away the sins of the world. If Jesus had been just a prophet, he might have said to us: “Stop hurting yourselves, there’s a better way.” He might even have shown us the Way. But it would not have been enough. For in all our striving, we would have remained “degraded prisoners.”

No matter how or what I ever eat, I am and will always be a sinner in desperate need of saving. As Bonhoeffer understood, the real “costly grace” always comes in the knowledge that the real cost has been paid on our behalf—and then compels us back in our gratitude to deeper faith in Christ.