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"Veganism is the consciousness that River was powered by, aspirant to and shared so peacefully-yet-strongly with those of us blessed to have so much of him.
When a very young River and Rain experienced great success with their singing act in the local talent contests it attracted the attention of the town newspapers. During once such interview their Mother said, "When we left the Children of God, we thought, 'What next?' And vegetarianism was obvious." She also proudly told reporters about just who was the most responsible for the family's change of lifestyle. "River actually took it one step further. He insisted we eliminate cheese, eggs and milk from our diets. He is a sensitive child. He cannot tolerate the slightest form of abuse."
So from a very young age River took in a keen interest in the welfare of animals. "When I was old enough to realize all meat was killed," recalled River, "I saw it as an irrational way of using our power, to take a weaker thing and mutilate it. It was like the way bullies would take control of younger kids in the schoolyard."
The family did not always find their new lifestyle easy going around the time when River was just starting out on the road to fame. On the set of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers for example, River, with strong backing from his parents, refused to wear anything supplied by the wardrobe department that was made of leather. The studio eventually gave in but River was teased by the other cast members right through until the end of production. Because of his isolated upbringing in South America, River found it quite impossible to defend himself in these circumstances and was reduced to tears on several occasions.
Bravely, River would remain true to his ideals for the rest of his life. Once his fame had spread, he would often use interviews as a vehicle to bring important issues to the attention of a wide audience. Unfortunately though, his good intentions would sometimes go to waste if the interviewer misinterpreted his intentions. Defending himself, River said, "I know there's sort of a goody-goody image that goes along with that sort of thing but there are some things that are just too important."
"One of my beliefs is about harmlessness to animals," said River. "I don't believe in eating meat or using any animal by-products or contributing to suppressing animals. Animals can't really voice their opinion. We feel as though we can be one of the spokespeople on their behalf." Heart Phoenix would also become a passionate supporter of animal rights and the vegan lifestyle. "We don't harm animals in any way," she said. "We don't take from them either. Which means no milk or milk products. We even have trouble taking honey from bees. We also refuse to use soaps that use animal products in their ingredients. We just eat vegetables and lots of fruit and soy stuff. Once you meet all my kids though, you'll understand how healthy our diet is."
River's first girlfriend, Martha Plimpton remembers one incident well. "Once, when we were fifteen, River and I went out for this fancy dinner in Manhattan and I ordered soft-shell crabs", she recalled. "He left the restaurant and walked around on Park Avenue, crying. I went out and he said, 'I love you so much, why?' He had so much pain that I was eating an animal, that he hadn't impressed on me what was right. I loved him for that, for his dramatic desire that we share every belief, that I be with him all the way."
Veganism was not the only cause that River felt such passion about. Green issues would also be equally important to him. "Priority number one on the whole list for us and for the whole world really is the environment," said River during an interview once. "It's the life support system that keeps all of us, men and women in our civilized realm, alive."
During the filming of Running on Empty, actress Christine Lahti remembers one incident in which she brought the entire wrath of a conscientious seventeen-year-old upon her. "I drank a diet coke on the set of Running on Empty, and he was furious with me," she recalled. "He was so adamant about clean, pure living."
Christine Lahti would break down with emotion during River's memorial service.
Over the years, the family would build up a huge collection of environmental books and educational material. River's mother would now find herself being asked to speak at ecological conventions and to give her expert views. River himself would also volunteer to give educational talks at local venues.
One of the most important books that takes pride of place on the Phoenix's bookshelf is Diet For A New America by John Robbins. Details of this fine book can be found in our Phoenix Bookshelf section.
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