“Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered.”
A couple of months ago I got a call from the dispatcher at our local police department. She said that she’d gotten a report that there was a pig on the main road and wondered if it was one of mine. I was pretty sure it wasn’t and after a quick head count determined that it wasn’t, but as is often the case with stray livestock in our neighborhood I volunteered to go round it up. I forget what I was doing at the time, but that was pretty much the end of my work day as I made my way down to the road with a bucketful of apples. The pig was standing on the shoulder of the road, a nice looking Landrace, plump and well cared for judging by behavior. It came to me readily when I offered the apples and I took a length of rope I’d brought and fashioned a harness for the pig while it ate sweet apples on the grass by the side of the road. One of the officers on duty drove up and asked if it was mine, I told him it was for now, but that he should expect a phone call around 5:30 when someone came home from work and found their pig missing. He took a picture of it with his cell phone and thanked me for rounding the animal up, then drove off. I took my time with the pig, dropping an apple every few minutes to keep it walking beside me and every time a car drove by you could see the occupants straining to catch a good look at the guy walking the pig on a leash in the middle of September. One big SUV with out of state tags pulled over and the guy driving leaned out and took a couple of minutes of video. “You’re gonna be on youtube!” he yelled as he drove past and honked the horn twice, sending the 150 pound pig into a wild fit that took a few minutes to control. I just waved back as the vehicle disappeared from view and went back to dropping apples, one by one. The day was pleasant enough and every ten minutes or so another car would slow down and the driver would offer some comment or another but I kept my cool and enjoyed the walk as best I could, heading back up the side of the mountain towards the farm, a six month old hog following me like a puppy.
I have no idea how many pigs we’ve raised since we first moved here, over a hundred is a fair estimate. We’ve brought in pregnant sows that we traded for firewood, bought piglets and raised them for slaughter. These days we have our own line of brood sows and keep a dozen or so at any given time, a boar for breeding, gilts to replace our sows, litters to sell to other farms a couple of times a year and feeders that we keep for our freezers. We practice an open pasture system for our livestock, moving them through different parts of the farm over the course of the year. They help us to turn cleared land into pasture, working like they were being paid to, rooting through rough terrain and unearthing rocks that we use to build stone walls and foundations for new outbuildings, preparing the soil for seed. They learn the limits of their enclosures through the use of electric wire, set up and taken down as the soil is flipped and turned. We don’t pen our animals except for farrowing and then only to keep an eye on and protect the new litters. The pigs have learned the limits of the farm and they rarely give us much trouble, teaching the younger generations the best places to forage for acorns and mast where to stay to avoid the dogs, where to go to get out of the cold. In the Spring they follow the cattle to help flip the cow patties and uproot the larvae of flies and beetles for protein filled fodder and have learned from the cows, I assume, to graze on the green grass rather than to ruin the sod in the pastures. Every year one of the smarter piglets will attach itself to the dogs and behave as a minor pack member, if they allow it, and they herd cattle when we move them from one pasture to another. I have seen three or four hogs at a time moving the sheep back and forth across the paddocks as if they had a plan only to lose interest and head off to one of the orchards for a snack when they lose interest. I don’t name them, don’t get attached and when the pigs leave for another owner or wind up in the freezer there isn’t any emotion in it. As smart as they are, they’re still just hogs. We feed them, they feed us, just another part of the plan.
The phone rang at a quarter to six and sure enough the guy who called was looking for his pig. He asked if I’d bring it back to his place and I told him that wasn’t going to happen, but if he came to the farm I’d be happy to help him load up his pig. A couple of minutes later he showed up, a twenty-something with a highly waxed pickup truck. I took him to the pig and it became clear that he had no idea how to proceed, so I took over and grounded the hog while he watched. The kids were watching too and my daughter finally said to him, “You should help my Father with the pig.” He helped grab it by the legs and with a little bit of effort we finally had the animal in the back of his truck. I offered to ride back to his place to make sure it went well if he’d be good enough to give me a ride back to the farm, which he did. Once the pig was back in her pen I asked him if he’d ever done this before. “No.” he responded. I asked him if he’d ever slaughtered a pig or butchered one and again he said simply “No.”
“Call me when she’s ready and I’ll give you a hand with it.” I offered and he said he would.
We walked away from our old life right as the markets began to tank in earnest, right after the Bear Stearns debacle, when Paulson and the Too Big To Fail crowd gathered around the public trough to wet their snouts, but good. I’d seen it coming for some time having been in the finance business and I had done everything I could to get us out before the whole shebang went bottom up. I remember driving a load of our belongings up to the farm from New Jersey and listening to Bloomberg Radio as the market went down 777 points in a single trading day. Part of me was excited to have been prescient enough to make our move before it all went south and part of me wondered if I had done the right thing, something I have questioned many times since, as one quantitative easing followed another and the markets not only rebounded but soared to new heights. After a while I stopped wondering because our lives had changed so much it wasn’t as if we could ever go back, even if we had wanted to, but we didn’t. The only kind of stock we owned these days was live. I never stopped paying attention though, fascinated by the behaviors of large groups of people almost as much as by the animals I worked with on a daily basis. Between the two I prefer the cattle and the hogs, but the people with their tranches and derivatives are just as fascinating, especially when you know where they’re heading in the end.
Last week the phone rang and the young guy with the pig asked if my offer was still on the table. I told him I could come by on Sunday if that worked and he said yes. I asked if he had a .22 and some ammo and told him I’d bring the knives and the tractor. I told him not to feed the hog for a couple of days but to make sure she had plenty of water. On Sunday, after breakfast, I drove over wearing my slaughter clothes; rubber boots and old Carhartt overalls so worn out they barely held together. I had sharpened a pair of Finnish knives a friend had given me as a gift a few years back and stuck them on my belt. I also loaded and holstered a .357 as a backup. I’d done this often enough in the past few years to be prepared for eventualities. He’d penned his pig for it’s entire life, something I wouldn’t do, but it wasn’t my pig. It was the coldest day of the year so far and the snow was frozen solid. The pig watched me as I drove up his lane and every time it exhaled a puff of steam came out of her flared snout. I brought a bag of rotten apples and pears and dumped them on the ground a couple of yards away from the pen and waited for the owner to come out with his rifle. I opened the gate to the enclosure and let the pig out. She danced around in circles and did laps around the yard where it had been plowed, sniffing the air and making chorfing sounds in the icy air. After a while she circled the pile of fruit and settled in to feast, like she’d never seen food before. I showed him where to shoot, told him to get as close as possible and wait for the right moment to take his shot and to safety the rifle and put it down before I stepped in to stick the pig with the knife. After a bit of rooting in the pile he leaned in to her and took his shot dropping the animal on the white ground. I stuck the knife in just under the jawline and cut across the arteries and the blood came out in a gout, steam rising off the red stained snow. We spent the next hour and a half eviscerating the carcass and skinning it, then split it lengthwise along the spine with a bone saw. We hung the halves in his garage and cleaned up the mess and I told him to call me in a few days when he was ready to butcher.
I saw that the markets went red for the opening days of the New Year. I listened to the experts on the radio talk about how unimportant it was since we weren’t in a recession and they actually sounded like they believed what they were saying. Some of the really big retailers were going down the tubes and closing stores like most people flip off lights before bed. They said it was because the Winter was unusually warm, but last year they said it was because it was especially cold so I’m not sure if they really know what the problem is. They said that all of the gains from the last year and half had been erased and it was because China was becoming a service economy. Or because oil prices were lower. Or North Korea. No one seemed to agree, or care.
We butchered the pig this morning in his garage, I showed him how to disassemble the hams and the bellies and clean the ribs and filet the loins. He learned how to cut a butt roast from the shoulder and the difference between baby back and country style ribs. I stayed around long enough to make sure he understood what he was doing and cleaned my knives and left for home. He never once said thank you, not when I rescued the pig, showed him how to slaughter or butcher, but he did offer me the organ meat for the dogs and barn cats so I accepted that as if he had. I didn’t do it for the thanks anyway, I did it because he is a neighbor and a neighbor showed me how to do it when we first moved here and I wanted to wipe the slate clean. I gave him the number of a good smokehouse for his ham and bacon and I’m guessing he has at least a hundred pounds of meat to show for his efforts. I know my family would go through that in a just a few months, but a single man might get enough out of it to last until his next pig is ready around this time next year. I haven’t got the faintest idea what the economy will be like by then but whatever it’s doing won’t be based on the day to day realities of people feeding their families, but on intricate data based high frequency trades based on computer models and algorithms sent by laser from one bank to another. Someone will be getting rich no matter which direction things swing and the old admonition to buy when there’s blood in the streets will ring as true then as it was when the term was first uttered. Some days I feel like I live light years from my old life and some days it seems like there’s not a whole lot of difference except for the species involved. I used to think a lot about the potential of mankind, but I’ve grown up a lot since then. There are still plenty of wonderful people doing important things with care and diligence, but for the most part I don’t think there’s much to be hopeful about. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do the right thing even if there’s no thanks in it because sometimes it’s important to just show up and do what you have to do, even if it means walking a pig down the side of the road.