Love’s Labours

Labour Day was nearly over before we realized what day it was, or remembered to wish our accountant a happy birthday. This was because we were too busy about our labours to think about the privileges workers have gained through time, by way of broken heads and broken strikes.

We are farmers now, and we work all the time. If we are not physically labouring, we are plotting and planning or we are fetching supplies from the Little Smoke, which in our case is Smithers. I have found, at my age, that a day of gentle bending over the garden beds or the canning table, and maybe a trip to the library, is a good sandwich activity between days of heaving and ho’ing. No matter how we organize our day, or the week, we no longer work for the Man, so we are not resentful nor overly burdened. No, choice is a precious commodity – almost as important as clean drinking water – and we know we are greatly blessed.

The labours of choice this past weekend included butchering two Very Large Pigs. Technically, the term “butchering” refers to the cutting up of a carcass and its packaging into meal-sized portions, but for many of us it has come to include the acts of slaughter which are so necessary to the successful getting of meat for the omnivore’s table. Slasher flicks and mass shootings have given the word “slaughter” some mighty ugly connotations, which some folks have confused with wanton murder and mayhem, and it’s possible we need a new word for the careful ending of a pig’s life, and its transformation from living hog with agency and a heartbeat, to meat. You are welcome to submit suggestions in the “reply” area of this blogsite.

We have participated in the killing of six pigs to date, and commissioned death-by-abattoir for seven more. This is not a large number, though much larger than what I might have anticipated before beginning this adventure in growing our own food and supplying some of the neighbours with (I cough modestly here, for we are but beginners) arguably the best pork they have ever eaten. In these parts, the preferred method of dispatchment is a .22 cartridge between the eyes and somewhat above, but we are not yet Good Shots so we have asked various friends and neighbours to do the shooting. This weekend, for several reasons, including the increasing ineffectiveness of a .22 as the pigs get larger and more hard-skulled, has marked the end of that era and the transition to using a captive bolt gun, which we can operate ourselves with one hand while lying to the pig about the day’s planned activities. When loaded, this instrument is every bit as dangerous as any firearm and must be kept on a high, unobtrusive shelf, with its ammunition held separately, preferably in one’s underwear drawer.

The pigs we have chosen to live with can comfortably grow to just under four hundred pounds in a year, and if they have a large space in which to roam and explore, they will not acquire an undue amount of fat. I’m not speaking of the precious lard, which is that two or three-inch layer on their backs that is rendered into the best and healthiest cooking oil on the planet, but rather of the unfortunate gobs that accumulate amongst the organs and throughout the muscles of a sedentary, confined pig that is fed atrocious things like outdated grocery store pastries and mouldy produce, or even “crumbles” from the feed store rather than fruits and vegetables, grains and things they find in the dirt – or soil as it is properly called when rife with microbial activity and the industry of earthworms and beetles.

Because pigs have an satisfying conversion ratio of feed to meat, and further, a body type that carries a gratifying percentage of meat on the skeleton, they have for centuries been seen as easy keepers. The downside, and it’s a grim one, is that it is commonly believed that “pigs will eat anything”, which they will, of course, if they are starved of healthy foods, and they can seem to be thriving in awful conditions and close confinement. As a result, pigs have long been badly kept and badly treated, and these practices have certainly carried over into the factory meat industry. A person would only have to sample a plate of home-raised freedom pork ™ (just kidding) right next to a supermarket cut for their taste to be forever changed. Freedom pork can be prepared any way you like, of course, and there are many fancy butchers and fancier foodie cooks who can do it supreme justice, but the ultimate test is to just COOK it, undisguised by sodium and sauces, if you want to judge its quality.

A further test of these methods is to allow a pig a year of pleasant, rambling life (which would of course include a winter, if you have winters where you live) and plenty of conversational scratches, and see what happens. These two pigs grew to about 375 pounds in a year, and their hanging weight (head off, feet off, guts out) was 300 pounds if you claim back the jowls, heart, liver and kidneys. The head is full of beautiful meat, however, and the trotters are cartilaginous and lovely. The tail makes delicious soup. I think I heard an indignant gasp somewhere: oh! What about the extra expense to gain that last bit of weight? In this case, the sibling pigs were butchered in May or June at about 230 pounds and these two gained a further 140 pounds each in 3 months. Crazy, right? And each consumed about 200 extra pounds of grain from the local grain farmer. We soak the feed for 24 hours and instead of indulging in a gym membership we carry buckets of porridge to the troughs. At 20 cents a pound in 2019, it cost an extra 40 bucks to gain a hundred pounds of meat. Wait, a few bales of hay for bedding and casual snacking. But they also contributed hundreds of pounds of manure and plowed up a good deal of the pasture, which we then re-seeded with peas, oats and timothy grass. It makes me happy just to think about it, and I’m not even really nerding out here.

An important caveat, though, is whether or not you actually like pigs. I thought I would like them, but I didn’t expect to love and enjoy them and find myself hanging about the barnyard or standing and gazing out at them lounging in the pasture, or galloping in for supper. We attend to their mud wallow, and shower them off when it’s hot, if they want that. There are shady woods in all the pastures. That special pig stink? It’s more like an aroma if they’re fed well and get their exercise. An acquired taste, nevertheless, I will grant you. When people first visit, their reaction will range from slightly-flared nostrils (a kindred spirit!) to a certain degree of nose-wrinkling.  (I wonder what we actually smell like, day-to-day? I don’t think it matters unless we go to town and those trips are such special excursions that we generally spruce up anyway.)

Well, this has been fun, but the sky has lightened considerably since I first sat down here and it’s time to feed the three red piglets, their mom and uncle, their dad and his first and second wives – who are both pregnant. We do make sure the ladies have proximity with their husband but there’s no forced mating. As I read that over I think, how would you actually force pigs to mate? Not a pretty thought. But what I mean is, if the lady seems distressed, or wants to be let out of the boar’s half-acre, we are happy to oblige and try another time. Because of this soft-headedness we get piglets less often and at odder times than would suit real farmers, I’m sure. Winter piglets can be more of a challenge, but if we make sure the mommas have what they need-plenty of old bedding under them that sends off heat from the composting action, and just enough fresh hay to make a nest without losing newborns in it, grandma as a doula and a nurse pig, and a certain amount of space and privacy – then farrowing should go about as well as it always has. Generally the hard part is fetching Mama and a dog kennel full of babies back from the far corners of the woods, and then she takes it from there.

It’s sad about the lives that just ended, and we’re tired in a way you don’t get from fetching wood or vigorous shovelling. We’ve come to know that when you prepare to take a life in this unavoidably harsh way, and spend hours scalding, scraping, disembowelling, drawing and quartering a carcass and many more hours cutting and wrapping meat for the freezer, you are working under a shadow. It passes, and you let it pass, so that you can get up in the morning and care for those pigs, knowing that some of them will come under the knife in their own time. But not today.



Margins of Error, Measures of Faith

January in the Kispiox, and 2019 stretching out before us like a country road. Looking back at 2018 feels like time-lapse in reverse. Christmas has come and gone, whoosh! The Solstice, a family wedding, everybody’s birthday, the mud season, whoosh! Samhain, more birthdays, start of school, the harvest, the drought season, the smoke and fire season whoosh, woosh, woosh!! all the way back to the last time I posted, about the arrival and departure and re-arrival of the faery cows.

It was a summer of second chances. I know you’ve been waiting to hear what happened about the cows. You will remember the neighbours brought them home in their stock trailer, having given up on the usual methods of herding and roping from horseback, and resorting to seduction by oats. The price of the herd’s leisurely stay, besides my deep embarrassment at being That woman with cows but no experience, was a long lecture about my terrible choice of breed and an offer to take them straight to auction. How to explain that I didn’t know myself how it had come to this, but magic and mind moving were highly probable and as tempting as the offer was (it’s only money, and borrowed money at that) I was merely a pawn in the cows’ project to find themselves a new home. No, better to smile and open the gates – to a more secure barnyard, and to adventures yet untold.

One line in my neighbour’s soliloquy on cows, and Dexters in particular, stays with me still – “five-strand barbed-wire fence, zing-tight”. And someone else’s advice “keep ’em close til they know where’s home”. Close to us and the feed room, presumably. In the dread heat of the drought last summer, with a wildfire burning up the road, while the fencers worked their way around the 18 acre field, we worked around those seven beasts, bringing them hay, harvesting their poo, letting the other critters (goats, geese, pigs, skeptical horses) introduce themselves. Taking our time.

I will always be grateful to that neighbour for her kind heart and sharp words because telling me I can’t do something always clarifies my resolve about things.  We’ll learn to harbour Dexters, and we’lI do it right.  In due course we opened the gates for the herd to enjoy a few days of clover in the larger barnyard, and then they were off to their blessed freedom in the fields and woods beyond.  There were days without any real contact, maybe a sighting of sturdy black outlines in the distance. My daughter and I would have high-fived if we had the energy. Relief after prolonged tension is so draining.

This is not to say that the life of the herd has been altogether uneventful since. In early September, when I was on my own here, the youngest calf fell through the rotted boards covering an abandoned well.

Imagine you hear the cows making strange noises and you run out to them and see, to your horror, that the ground has opened up. There before your eyes is a square, timbered hole full of water. Imagine yourself looking down at the calf, plunging and splashing, her eyes rolled back in her head. You are looking at blind, reddish membranes. Zombie cow. The other cows moaning and keening, peering into the hole. You throw yourself flat on your belly and by stretching down, can just touch her. The water smells like a vase after the flowers have died. You wiggle forward, balance on the edge of the hole, reaching for her. She plunges, goes under, comes up blowing. You grab her by the jaw, hold her nose out of the water.  She’s so heavy. There are old boards floating in the hole and you try to work one under her front legs. But she’s a cow. Now what?

You obviously need help but it’s wonderfully private here, off the road. The nearest neighbours are elderly, the others you haven’t met yet. The dogs and goats have gathered round but you are the only one with thumbs. You are the only one who can decide whether to lie there til your arms give out and watch her drown, or to leave her (trust her!) while you run uphill to the house, the keys to the truck, an old choker you’ve found useful before. Those ubiquitous cargo straps. Not that you have a list, you just grab what you see.

You bump back across the field in the truck, the gate swinging shut behind you. You don’t need the horses getting out.  She’s still afloat when you get back.  You have her by an ear, leathery, thick in your grip. You’re trying to tie a strap around her head. Like a halter. You’re still terrible at knots (and you don’t know more than 2 or 3 constellations, and have never learned to make creme brulee). Eventually, after losing her once or twice (she goes under, she comes up panting and splashing but her eyes are the right way around) you get her tied, head above water, to the blessed clump of little trees growing beside the hole.

You take a breather. You’ve been hyperventilating for quite some time. You tried to haul her out bodily, belaying. You considered (for a wild moment) getting down and pushing her out. But you couldn’t find bottom by plunging a pole down, and she’s three feet below the level of the ground. And you’re smarter than that, but you don’t have a clear course of action. You need to think. There’s a jar of old tepid water in the truck, and three goats have barged in the open door, looking for crumbs.  You take a drink, choke on the water in a dry throat. It feels like you’re really short of time.  If only there was someone to take charge, and help the calf.  You don’t think you’re the one.

There’s only you, however, and you call on the goddess (or was that a swear?) and then you know what to do. Something so obvious that anyone else would have already thought of it. You shove the goats out and move the truck into position. You’re going to haul her out by the head. You know where to hook that choker onto the truck.  You helped your son drag an old olive-green GMC down from the pasture, so he could stencil the family name on its side and one day you’ll plant sunflowers in it; the two of you just fetched a clothesline pole with that choker. This is your first truck, and you a country girl (having spent the last 40 years in the city), and you’ve used it for a lot of things but never a calf in a well. The choker is a wire cable, with a couple feet of chain on either end, and solid metal hooks that will fit into certain holes on the frame. Now you’re on your belly again, holding Fiona the calf with one hand, fumbling to untie her from the bush with the other. How did you even do that? You’ve got the free end of the choker hooked under her tangled, makeshift halter. You pray it holds. You drive. Slowly, slowly. You can’t look back, but then you do, and her head is above ground. You drive a little more and she is out.

Her family is around her, smelling her. Licking her. You advance toward her, to unwind the orange strap that held, though it slipped and failed at first, and the yellow strap, that broke once, but you couldn’t start all over and you had to trust it. She flinches away, and you look into her black, liquid eyes and you tell her to stand, so you can get those foreign things off her, and she lets you. Now your legs want to quit, you want to lie down on the solid, warm ground and shake. Cry some liquid tears.

But what’s the good in that? You need to cover that fucking hole before someone else falls in. What if she’d broken her leg? What if it were ANY other beast, bigger and heavier than her? Or me, with no one else around? What if she’d drowned before I heard the weird bawling? What if I had gone to town, like I’d planned? What if the smoker wasn’t about to burn the bacon, bringing me outside to check on it? Geeze Louise, will you quit it.

The next day, it was the strangest thing. Those cows hung around that hole all day, eating grass, staring into the distance. I’d dragged timbers across it, an old gate, some random branches.  I remembered the wells in Ireland, the sacred cow. What could it hurt? I picked the prettiest flowers in the garden, corn flowers, nasturtiums. Sunflowers. I went out there and laid them on the well. The goats must have eaten them, they were gone the next day.

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I stayed shook up for several weeks, mad at myself for being upset.  Fiona was fine.  No pneumonia from the swampy water.  Nothing.  Cows do ceremony, it turns out, and then they move on. We saw how they handled Steery’s butcher day.  They ate their hay, not far away from where he died in the field, and after we left with the meat they gathered around the spot and stood in a circle there for some time.  The next day, they came back and did it again.  And then they were done.  I left flowers again, and fruit. Following their lead in some clumsy way.

It seemed like these incidents were escalating, where the animals had some tangle with the infrastructure.  I wondered who I thought I was, and how I was going to keep everyone safe.  I thought of the time Falcon, the quiet young gelding, rolled too close to the fence and couldn’t roll back because the field was a bit uphill. There was that same initial stress reaction:  “I have to act, and I don’t know how” but after a few fairly crazy ideas ran through my head, I hit on a good one.  I got the Mikita and took a board off the fence. He was up in a flash, and back to grazing. The goats get their heads stuck here and there all the time because they’ll shove them through any opening, trying to get to the greener grass.  Once it was Eleanor Moosevelt, the quarter Angus heifer, and that time I just bodily shoved her back through.  She’s got no horns, it can be a little tricky with the young ones who do.  There’s the way sometimes one animal (a dog) might find it fun to chase another (a piglet), and take a little nip out of its backside because now it’s got its whole head jammed through a square of the electrified netting that is supposed to protect chickens from foxes.

I try to balance out my worried thoughts with the ones about intuition, and paying attention to feelings.  There have been an impressive number of times where I have had an urge about something and arrived “just in time” to help somebody out, maybe catch them about to bust into the grain room (goats can die), or the time Dottie the naughty goat had the goose’s head stuck between her horns and was proceeding to flatten him.  There are some who would have cheered her on, but I have developed a soft spot.  But then there are the times where I’ve not paid close enough attention.  I’m sure there are many interactions in the barnyard that completely escape me.  Most are not serious, but something quite bad did happen recently, involving a lapse of judgement on my part.

We were gone all day up to the Wet’suwet’en supporters camp on the edge of the “exclusion zone” while the police did god knows what to the people trying to keep the gas company out of their lands. I had let the pigs out to mingle before I left, thinking maybe proximity to the boar would bring the young sow into heat – good timing for spring piglets.  Sadly, we came home to three wounded horses. Our winter arrangement, the de-icer floating in the stock tank, brings the cows and horses in to the barnyard to drink, meaning, apparently, that Kitsune the boar was somehow able to corner them.  Two have a fairly serious slash each, as if from a knife fight; one is a belly wound, deep but just shy of penetration into the viscera.  Absent easy access to a vet up here, we fall back on homeopathy, a specialty of many British vets but not as common here. I have seen homeopathic remedies do their work in a wide range of conditions and situations, but this has been nerve-wracking.   It’s day five and the wounds are healing, one remedy following another as we give the standard first aid remedy, Arnica montana 30, prepared from the mountain lily, which is so effective for bruising and shock that may everyone have it tucked into their first aid kits, human and vet.  This is followed closely by a combination remedy to counter the possibility of tetanus.  Then we address the painful nature of this type of wound, a cut with likely some nerve damage, with homeopathic Hypericum perforatum, derived from St. John’s wort, and finally, Calendula to help the tissues knit.  Falcon’s slowly closing wound is itchy, a very good sign, but there’s a pocket of fluid under his belly that I would like to see reabsorbed.  I will ungrit my teeth in about a week when it’s clear they’re all out of danger.

It used to be funny when the boar would pace, gnashing and frothing at the horses, but now he’s grown his tusks, though you can’t see them with his mouth shut and we only found them the other day, still short. But sharp. If we were in the city, it would be vets and stitches, irrigation and antibiotics but out here, we have to rely on our own judgement as we decide whether and how to treat an illness or injury.  This is a tough line to walk. We don’t have the option of overdoing it “just to be safe” but waiting to let Nature “take her course” can be excruciating. 

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There are so many contradictions in this life of ours!  We keep a boar so we can have piglets born here (and die here) so their lives are easier and less stressful but then he attacks the horses.  We give the cows a big wide field with plenty of woods and one of them finds a terrible hazard.  We refuse to dehorn the young goats and they don’t always use them responsibly.  The hens hatch out a few real chicks and one of them drowns in the water bucket.   We love and enjoy all the animals we live with and rejoice in the births while we look ahead to the time when we and our friends and neighbours can eat the meat.

Butchering (put your big kid panties on and hear me out) is terrible. There is nothing fun or easy about doing it, or watching someone take the life of a fine young animal and skin it out, helping to scald the hair off if it’s a pig, or learning to kill, pluck and eviscerate a chicken. Though interesting every time as anatomy lesson, and gratifying when it’s all over for now and the freezer is stocked, it’s also primitive, primal and kind of grim. Hunters who have helped us “process” pigs (is “harvest”a better word?) tell us that for them, it’s much harder to shoot a fenced animal at close range than to hunt one down. I think it’s because there’s no element of chance, or escape. So why do it?

Food. It’s not a tragedy to kill for food. Cruelty to animals is tragic, doing nothing to alleviate their suffering, causing them hunger, thirst or pain, isolation and loneliness, close confinement: these things are tragic. I don’t know what you’re thinking right now, but I find that in a death-fearing culture a lot of us don’t really want to know where our food comes from. Strange times.

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I admit that when I lived in the Dream of finding a way to move to the country, to clean air and drinking water and the promise of self-sufficiency, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.  There was no clear plan.  A lot of what we find ourselves doing seems to have “just happened”, although looking back, the chain of events is entirely coherent.  I’ve stopped thinking in outcomes, noticing that the flow of time and events bring possibilities we might never have imagined without the challenges that require a response.  Response can be action or a choice not to act. When you’re living your biggest dream, it has now become your reality – imperfect, challenging reality, and you have to live that.