SPRINGER MOUNTAIN: Meditations on Killing and Eating. By Wyatt Williams. University of North Carolina Press. 128 pages. $19.
It began with a chicken. It became a quest.
Wyatt Williams’ “Springer Mountain” purports to ask why we humans kill animals for food and how it defines us, as if this remains a mystery.
The real mystery is why Williams, a former restaurant critic who has spent years contemplating food and eating, invested so much time and ink pursuing a phantom.
At a soiree, the current Atlanta magazine writer was told that the excellent chicken he was eating came from Springer Mountain, a little family farm north of the city. But no one could tell him exactly where it was. So he went off in search of the company, only to learn that there was no such farm, at least under that name, only one brand from a closed-mouth corporation called Fieldale.
Still, he suspects there is a secret to uncover, if only he knew what he was looking for. Off he goes, meandering rather pointlessly for the first half of the book. Rambling, however, is not style. A book so brief it is almost a vignette, Part One of “Springer Mountain” reads like a book for young children. But even kids might notice the fragmented, almost random construction, caroming in time and place with little cohesion.
Williams did write a newspaper piece on the subject on 2012, thinking himself done. But he continued looking for Springer Mountain for years, taking a job in a slaughterhouse, working in a farm and more. Why? We never get a concrete answer.
What we do get are lots and lots of statements of the obvious.
But Williams is capable of good reportage. After the midpoint, when he dispenses with the ethereal, he finally settles into a more engaging account: heading to Alaska in search of whales. He offers vivid observations on the town of Barrow, its people and subsistence on whaling. The author also finds some telling insights on why we collect and display things, in the way “maps, museums, books and farms try to do” in a futile attempt to reduce the world to such artifacts.
Williams weighs in on vegetarian philosophies of the 19th century and serves up bits and pieces of interesting or arcane lore from around the globe, bespeaking a fair amount of research casting a wide net. But what does it add up to? He read a lot of books and assembled a lot of unconnected factoids.
The cohesion the book lacks is not merely a narrative one, but philosophical and thematic. Williams confuses his ability to gather facts with an ability to interpret them.
He intended to write a book that would be “a kind of narrative field guide to eating meat, telling stories of raising and slaughtering and preparing meat so that we might glimpse the interconnectedness of our lives,” as if others had not done so numerous times before, and much better.
He concludes that “it is only through killing that we would ever know how we live” and that most of human endeavor and human history — medicine or science or politics or war or trade — is about killing to know who we are.
A questionable assertion. Williams believes he killed animals himself because he wanted to know how he relates to them. And this is his answer: “We are predators, killers. We are good at it. And we like it. The comfort of nature is knowing that we are not the only killers. We are just among them.”
It’s navel gazing that tells us nothing we don’t already know.