Tuesday, February 7, 2012

When Pigs Can Fly

My Opa used to tell a story about “Das Dicke Fette Schwein,” the big fat pig. It was a tale about a crafty farmer and his wife overcoming their natural enemies – the wolf, the fox and the rabbit – and securing their prize pig from these three through quick wit and careful planning.

My story is called, “When Pigs Can Fly.” It is a cautionary tale about an idiot who couldn't drive a pig from point A to point B, but who was granted a miracle of grace entirely beyond his deserving.

Winter having come on, and our two pigs having fattened up, the plan was to butcher “Bubbles,” the castrated male, for meat, and to transport “Dandelion,” the reproductively intact female, to our friends the Vanderkamps, who had agreed to winter her with their pigs, breed her to their boar and send her back ready to raise a litter of pigs here come next May.

My preoccupation in planning the transport was in getting Dandelion into the truck. The first time was pretty easy, as it turned out. With me carrying a bucket of slops ahead of her to coax her, and David and Jenn holding boards beside her to allay her fear of heights, she clambered up the ramp I had built for her without much fuss. I tacked a board across the back of the truck bed already boxed in on the other three sides, and left Dandelion thus ensconced, feeling quite clever and pleased with how well the loading had gone. I thought, now I can get a few things done, and leave with Dandelion right after lunch to be at the Vanderkamps by early afternoon, as they had suggested.

After lunch, when I went out to the truck, Dandelion was happily back with her buddy Bubbles. I had not secured the board nearly well enough, and if there is one thing pigs can do, it's push. I was a bit surprised that she had jumped the tailgate, but with her buddy Bubbles in clear sight, crying for her to come home, I could understand it.
Loading Dandelion the second time was a big headache. She was much 

warier now of the truck. After a dozen failed attempts, our patience and confidence were wearing thin. Our inexperience was glaring us in the face.

It was Johanna who came through for us big time. With me and Jenn blocking and pushing from behind, Jo let Dandelion get her whole head into the slop bucket at a crucial moment, and then pulled that bucket along with all her strength. Up to her eyeballs in slops, Dandelion forgot her inhibitions just long enough for us to get her all the way up the ramp and slam the tailgate closed.

This time Jenn guarded Dandelion while I secured all the corners of the box with extra cross braces and screws. We had her. We were a bit delayed, but could probably be at the Vanderkamps by quarter past two.

Sophia rode shotgun and kept an eye on Dandelion through a slot in the board behind the cab. I was hoping that once we got going, Dandelion would settle in and lay down. As we pulled out on the road, Sophia checked a couple of times and could see Dandelion standing around. Then, a couple of miles out, she couldn't see her anymore.

“All I see is a big pile of straw.”

“Are all the boards still in place?”


“Nothing looks broken?”

“She must be laying in the straw right behind us where we can't see. There's no wind right behind the cab, so she must have settled in back there.”

I never fathomed that a 240 lb pig could jump or scale a five foot wall.

We drove all the way to the Vanderkamps, feeling like real farmers, driving Dave's Dad's old red beater Chevy down highway 44, full of confidence and empty of sow.

We got there, backed up to their hog barn, and I climbed into the back. No pig. I kicked around in the straw to make sure. She was gone.

“Well, you better go look for her,” said Gerd, the real farmer. “Here, take this knife. You'll probably have to bleed her out if you find her. She'll be injured. You better take a gun, too.” He brought out his .22 rifle. “You know how to shoot?”

“It's been a while.”

After a quick gun handling and loading tutorial, and a phone call to Jenn, we were back on the road. Martina's parting gesture to us was with folded hands: “We're praying you find your pig.”

On highway 44, I ran out of gas.

That would have been OK. I had brought a gas canister along from the farm. But the red truck, which I don't use much, has two tanks. And if you pour your gas can in the left side, and the little button you haven't noticed on the dash is switched to “right side,” you're still out of gas. So the truck won't start, no matter how much you pump it.

And when a friendly cottager pulls over and tries to help by pouring a spoonful gas straight in the carburator, the truck will make a nice starting sound, and then not do anything more until you put in another spoonful. But if you keep doing that over and over and over, you burn out the starter. In the silence of the dead engine, you hear your inner critic:

“You don't know what you are doing out here. You are not a farmer. You are an incompetent.”

By this time, Jenn and Johanna had met up with us, not having spotted our pig anywhere along the way.

We abandoned the truck and headed back to St. Ouens, which was about where Sophia had stopped seeing the pig in the back. There was nothing more I could think to do with the truck, and dusk would be falling soon. If we had any chance of finding our pig, we would have to do so in the next hour.

By the time we reached St. Ouen's it was just starting to get darker. We drove slowly, two sets of eyes out each side of the car. Nothing. We stopped at the neighbours:

“Hi, you don't know me, but I'm your neighbour and an idiot who can't be trusted with livestock. Have you seen my pig?”

“Nope. Good luck.”

Back at the farm, we held council with Matthew, just home from work for dinner with his parents. Matt's Dad, Ernie, offered to go out with his truck to tow ours home. We kept our eyes peeled on the way out. It was nearly dark. Again, no pig. At that point, I gave up hope of finding our pig alive. Maybe we'd find her in the morning, dead of injuries and exposure. The meat would be spoiled, and an animal in my care would have suffered a slow and miserable death due to my ignorance.

I had a lot of time to think about this as I sat holding the steering wheel in the freezing cab of the dead red truck slowly being towed home on the 44 service road. I don't really know how to pray in situations like this, other than: “Thy will be done.” “Into thy hands I commit my...pig?”
Jenn has no such theological compunctions. She was praying for her pig to be found, and getting friends to add her lost pig to their prayers, too.

Of all the requests that went up to heaven that night, I don't pretend to know why ours would be granted so directly.

But here is how it happened. Our friend Kate dropped by at the farm to deliver milk. She usually does this on Tuesdays. (This was a Wednesday.) She had had a meeting on Tuesday, so she came today. Of course, Jenn told her about the pig.

Driving home in the dark, thinking about other things, it suddenly occurred to Kate, “Oh, I should keep an eye out for that pig.” And at that exact moment she came up to the place where Dandelion lay way at the bottom of a very deep ditch. And at that exact moment, Dandelion raised her head. Kate's eye caught the movement, and she took her foot off the gas.

Even afterwards, when Kate had gone back to get Jenn, Dandelion was hard to spot, despite Kate knowing where to look. They passed her once and had to double back.

Danders was in pretty rough shape. She could get up on her front legs, but her back end wouldn't move. She was grunting low, restless sounds. Her breathing was hard and raspy. Jenn covered her with a blanket and rubbed her back and spoke soothing words. Her breathing settled.

When Matthew and Ernie and I arrived in our little caravan, Jenn was clear on what needed to be done.

I took out the gun and knife we had packed along in Ernie's truck, just in case.

It's a strange thing to kill an animal you care for. To me, it's a reminder that, for them and for us, there are worse things than dying. What matters is living well until you do. Dandelion had lived about as good a life as a pig can until her last hours of stress and pain.

I put the bullet where it had to go and found her jugular in a hurry with the knife. Life surged out of her in a great spasm, and then she was still.

She was a big pig. The four of us could just barely hoist her up into Ernie's truck.

After a late supper, Matthew, Jenn and I skinned her together, and then I gutted her, without spilling any shit or piss or bile. After so many screw-ups that day, it felt great to get something right. We split the carcass in two and stowed it in the root cellar. We aren't poor enough that the winter would have been difficult to get through without that meat, but we live close enough to the line that recovering the time and resources we put into that pig left me staggered with gratitude.

After I came in and washed up, I sat by the woodstove and sang my heart out:

“We ask only for what we need,
ask only for what we need this day
Saweniminan*, saweniminan, saweniminan
All we need is in the land,
every gift of the land is by your hand,
Saweniminan, saweniminan, saweniminan."

That's the story of when pigs can fly.

*Cree for “Bless us”

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