A Hog Butchering
It's two below this morning, but there's no wind. The woods look scraped and desolate in the sunlight, and I want to take a long walk in there. Today is not for that. There are chores and then there are hogs to kill. So I carry warm water to the animals. I load the wheelbarrow with firewood and then reload the cookstove, a hulky Amish-made number that also heats our house. Later, after banging some minor repairs on the fence, I check on the greens in the hothouse and cold frames — mosh, arugula, radish, and a frilled, red edged lettuce called, sensually enough, Lollo Rossa. It stills me to see they have survived another frigid night.
A little after 9:00 a.m. and the thermometer reads ten degrees. Having grained and hayed them, our daughter Sophie hops around with her Nubian doelings. Homeschool is in session. I watch them in the near pasture. She is large with clothing. They are playing queen of the stump. The little goats seem too frisky for such weather. Up Arcadia Road in National Forest, the waterfalls, frozen for nearly a week, contain more than enough ice to fill our house and barn. It is the colors of the ice that we love, the milky greens and blues, as much as their shapes. But today is for other colors, other flows.
At ten or so, Donnie rumbles up in the flatbed with Pepper — aka Steve, aka Pepperoni Sandwich — and the tools.
"You ready," Donnie says.
"Yes," I say. "How's the fire?"
"It was ice in the hogpot all the way through," Donnie says. "But it's getting there."
I take our truck around and back it to the hog pen and set the rollers in place — conveyer belt salvage. Meanwhile, Pepper, Donnie, and Sophie rustle the goats and dogs shut up in a shed off the barn where they won't be in the way. Sophie heads back to join Kirsten in the house while Donnie and Pepper meet me at the hog pen.
In the shade where the shed adjacent to the hog pen blocks the sun, Donnie bolts a .22 long in his Winchester. He might as well be answering the phone he is so matter of fact about it. We enter the gate, and Pepper and I watch as Donnie — hawk-like as ever with his sharp nose — crouches towards the hog real slow and talking hard but soft somehow. The hog, he's not sure what the deal is, sniffing the barrel, snorting, eventually standing quiet. I'm looking and holding the knife and feeling caves collapse in my belly as Donnie and Pepper and the hog must be too.
I see length, the steady line of the back, no saddle only a slight rise when the hog's nose is down. And somewhere closer than the back of my mind, I see beneath his skin, his insides like a memory trace. I don't have a good memory, but we butchered his brother last Saturday in weather much warmer than this — the images remain.
Hardly any lips on this hog, his jaw long, as if in proportion to the backbone. The permanent grin in the curve of his mouth is unsettling. And that nose — deep-nostriled, quivering and flinching as he sniffs at Donnie, at the gun's snout — the nose looks too sensitive in its moist pinkness to be so practical, scraped along the ground like a plow. The jowl beneath, where head transitions to neck, is bulbous and flared, the cloven hoofs of the forelegs never far beneath, though he kneels to relax. His russet bristles appear longest below the eyes, at the snout's high side — there's flourish in that look, a sense of style, though it probably has more to do with vision, protection from dust, flies.
His belly has five little nipples on either side of his penis, what's left of it, this being a barrow, a castrated hog. The bristles are at their thinnest on the belly. This hog is speckled, and the black patches are the places where the skin is dark, rather than pale pink skin where his hair grows dirty beige.
The tail, with that curl three inches aft, skinny and short in proportion to the body, seems like an afterthought, though a longer, thicker, bristlier tail would likely interfere. It has been said — and measured — that a 110-pound pig produces a ton of manure a year, enough to grow plenty of grain.
Lovely the ears with the virile attraction of some tropical foliage. The ears, to me, are the hog's most expressive feature, the eyes being hard to see among the bristles, thick jowls and mouth. The ears flop over foreword, as if winking, when he relaxes, and they stand up in banana leaf splendor when he listens, alert, which he's doing now.
It always takes a while for Donnie to get the shot he likes — point blank between the eyes, proper angle critical — but it happens and the hog falls and kicks those stumpy, powerful legs. Quickly I hand Donnie the knife and then grab the forelegs with Pepperoni Sandwich, all of us watching not to get our heads kicked by the hind ones as Donnie sticks the hog's neck in the right spot and the blood goes gushing in that wild red way with the twisting and flailing not about to stop but soon.
I think back to early June when we drove out 43 past Saltpetre Cave nearly to Eagle Rock, eating ice cream from the Hilltop Grocery, the sun low over the long Alleghenies to the west, a recent thundershower bearing mist and smells of heat and cut hay. We're talking a little, old houses going by, green fields, green woods. We go out to Travis' and he sells us our barrow shoats and we poke around a good while, admiring his new barn, the lumber he's cut and milled, and then we take an even longer, quieter way home in the dusk and twilight than we came.
And there was all the foraging and feeding and watering as we moved the pigs from plot to plot to graze and root and plow. How they fattened by the week, growing longer and wider, summer stretching on with more and more garden trimmings, whey from goat cheese, cracked chicken eggs, table and canning scraps, old bread, fish parts, the volunteer pumpkins and corn and squash grown enough in the hog pen by September to turn the pigs out there, where they stayed nights as colder weather came and with it other foods — deer and lamb parts, corn, hay for bedding, anything, really, they being omnivores with no dilemmas, and water: water from rain barrels under the gutters and water when without rain from buckets and water when freezing warm from the tap.
It was good to see them run in the pasture with the Pyrenees pups and the goats and sheep, how the hogs kicked it up with those short legs and big ears — rough and pushy and surprisingly quick, elegant animals. We watched them but not too close because winter was always creeping from the equator with its various miracles and fates. We didn't name them either — not anymore — not Country Ham, not Pig, not Hog or Hog one or Hog two. And somehow they were closer to us for it — rooting in our sleep and in our bellies when we snacked on liver pudding or relished grilled loin those spring evenings of birds and buds and grace.
We drag the hog by the handles on the hook in its mouth. Unlike last Saturday, when this was a sloggy, messy operation, it's too cold for mud today. But friction happens. We drag him one hump at a time on the board and then up the rollers onto the truck bed where the blood will darken and coagulate in the shapes, roughly, of tongues by the time I back up to the table by the hog pot over Furnace way.
A mile down Arcadia Road from our place is the James River, and not far up the river from the bridge, there's a creek coming in from the right bank. You could follow that creek — a pretty go, not too far — scramble up the slick, metamorphic bed and scale the big falls along Bearwallow Road and continue up where the creek cuts along Route 435, under Route 435 and then under Route 436, a distance of three miles or so. You'd come out along Furnace Hollow Road.
After a tangled, grape-viney stretch of woods, Ginger, an old roan Appaloosa, roams the pasture on the left, and a small house sits in the yard adjoining. The springbox, cement, spews a steady stream from a branch before the driveway bridge; up that branch in late December but more regularly in January, there's likely to be smoke coming from a place between sheds. You might hear some guinea fowl making their fuss, a rooster or two, a dog or three, a cat snarling — all part of Donnie's outfit.
Backing the truck up to the table, I see Donnie swashing the thermometer in the scurfy, steaming liquid before taking a read. The smoke's from a fire going under a cut-in-half old water tank. The black steel tub sits up on cinderblock and is chinked with mud around the base. There's a piece of stovepipe jutting out the one end, but the smoke is emerging as steam from the water as much as from the pipe.
Pepper and I drag the hog from the truck bed's gate to a table flush to the pot's west edge. Pepper helps with the butchering each year. He's attentive and quiet in a tragic way, and I always feel something complicated when, working close to him, the acrid reek of vodka and cigarettes not just on his breath blends with the hog stench. He and Donnie grew up together on Furnace Hollow. If not 60, Pepper must be approaching it. His beard, it's like another country — not as white as Donnie's but longer, more frizzy. In some lights he's a ropey man, in others drawn, but in all lights he works with a kind of care and endurance I'll probably never know.
When the water's 150 degrees, the hog goes in on a length of woven wire that serves as a ladle, a four person ladle, taller folks — Pepperoni and me — on the branch side of the pot, others on the table. There's a solemn and careful kind of attention in the way we slosh the hog up and down and roll it side to side where it lays, almost floats, on the fence in the hot, nasty water. Now and then, Donnie'll yank the scruff on its haunches and ear, gauging when the coat's ready to be scraped.
It doesn't take long. We heave the fence just so while squatting, table-bound, on its west end, and the pig rolls with the wire from vat to oak boards. There's smoke and breath and steam going all over in the cold, but you hardly notice with the activity until you're coughing. Sophie's already handing me a scraper, wood and metal sort of mushroomy thing, because it's time to barber those hog bristles, which scrape in mats, some places easier than others.
We go 15 or 20 minutes on each side before the hog is shining white as a snowball, to use Donnie's words. We all step back each time Kirsten dumps five gallons from the pot to keep the hog hot and good for scraping, but we scoot back in there because this is no time for chilling — a life's been taken and there's another one yet to take. And plenty to do with both of them.
There's a cross between a possum and mole and a horse in a hog. There are the origins of squat. There is bloated tick or there is swollen. It has to do with bulk. It has to do with transport, the expansive breath of h and o versus the shrill, quick p and diminutive little i. The snout does it, maybe, or the jowls, give swine that knowing, detached look.
But they're not tragic, hogs, made for eating as they are, and they are even less heroic. People call them smart. It is strange for a thing to be smart and to be built so well, every part for being consumed. Eating just anything might make you smart in the sense of adaptable. And not providing wool and not being harnessable or cuddleable or milkable might be smart in terms of being left alone. But having an intuitive face doesn't mean you're smart. Fools often own intuitive faces, just as smart people often bear foolish, maudlin faces.
This is our fourth winter butchering with Donnie. We do it because we like it and we like it because it is satisfying, bringing us together at a time of year when a person can use that sort of thing. We enjoy raising pigs from summer through early winter. And we like having good pork throughout the year — some to sell, a bit for trade, a lot for eating. But, most of all, we do it because we feel a sweet strength being with Donnie. He's a capable, kind man who loves what he does, which in the manner of a countryman is many things a day; loving them, he does them well and treats us, terminally new to these parts, almost as though we're family.
Something, certainly, has been lost in our regard for the animals by butchering them, but as much, if not more, has been gained. We look at a hog and see meat. We look and, in seeing meat, we feel a hard kind of gratitude — it happens without us knowing, affection and remorse and gratitude and other feelings, too, a sort of automatic prayer even as we reckon on its taste, the proportion of lard to lean, the diameter of its loin, the color and volume of grease its sausage might leave in the pan.
But, in the end, we look and we thank because we have to, we can't help ourselves, and not because thanking is a more expansive way of seeing than looking the way I too often look, looking to have looked and not seen, a gesture more than a habitation.
Out here by the hog pot, there's nobody thinking about intimacy, not intimacy with nature, not intimacy with these hogs or with each other or with all the generations who've been working up hogs since way back. Nobody's pondering their carbon footprint or the price of gas or the oxymoronic possibilities of the term "sustainable development," either.
People are just trying not to do anything stupid, trying not to get hurt or hurt anyone else. A hog's as much weight as there's sharpness on these blades and slick, busy ground. There's a lot of ways to fall and some bad hot water and icy boards and frozen and blood-dark ruts. Everybody's keeping eyes out, playing it safe, looking for how to help whether how means getting in or out of or just being the way. By the time we're feeding this hog through grinder or slicer, we'll have lifted it several times, each time heavier, each time making us feel more and less human, more like lard, a way I like to feel.
But it's happening, a messy, smelly, nourishing intimacy. And the wood under the hog pot, it's from a dead pine that fell in high winds two weeks ago, the pine that when its dust was flying all perfumey from the Stihl, was as beautiful, its bark and rings and limbs and tensions, as any place on the Sierra Club calendar.
Under the hog pot and under the fire under it and under the table and the sheds, the roots of an oak tree hold things together, and I'm looking up the bole of that scraggly dead tree, wondering what it's going to smoosh when it falls just as Donnie says grab that ear and let's slide this hog over on the board. So I grab the bald ear at its root and reach under the jowl with my other flipper and yank and the hog doesn't move much, dead weight being what it is, but it moves enough. There's a hard little wind starting to come up from the south, hitched to a raft of quilty, undulant clouds. Donnie cuts a slit behind the tendon of each hock and threads a steel hook in those before we roll the hog down the salvaged conveyer where the three poles are laid out with bolts and swiveling so far up.
It takes some finagling and heaving but soon the hog's long snout's off the gravel and Sophie shouts, as she likes to do, "Hog on a pole," the three old locust rails nearly humming with the weight. Donnie swipes file on blade as Pepperoni plugs in the Sawzall, and Sophie asks me to hold some baling twine which she slices with her knife, the smaller one of her two, both of them gifts last Christmas from Donnie, knives she won't let a file touch, she honors them so, thus are sharpened on a diamond stone.
Everyone settles for a spell. Somebody offers Pepsi. I feel a chill from the sweat under my layers. A hawk screams from the hill across Furnace, the creek rimmed with ice. A black and white cat lingers off the side of the hog pot. Rows of fruit trees look too skinny to be alive, but are. Kirsten and I, our dirty hands — we hold them over the hole at the top of the stovepipe. There are hog bristles and dark, gummy mats of skin-stuff on our sleeves and on our pants. Behind the shed, the sudden, blunt crack of a .22 and then snorting though higher than snorting, salvation and terror being the same pitch — not pretty and not not pretty. It's Sophie, Kirsten, and me and the first hog, our hog, the hog that never called us his — the last to work up this winter — hanging on the pole, massive with stillness, a loud red staining its undersnout from the neck's spiked place, a two inch gash.
There had been 20 minutes there — where did they go but into cold dirt, cold air — when we worked sharpened knives from the hocks down, shaving what remaining scruff as well as any grime from the hanging hog. We scraped tail, hams, joints, folds, belly, nipples, chin, ear — every inch. And we dumped hot water over it. And, later, we dumped cold. It almost gleams in the low winter light, the hog, more monkish in its girthy baldness than any of us with hoodies drawn thick over wool hats.
"Let's get a hand," Donnie yells, so I hustle around the shed to his hog pen and wrap a hand on the hook's handle and help haul the hog on the conveyer and up on the table for another scalding on the woven wire, everyone real careful not to fall in the pot or take a mouthful from the frequent splashes.
Two hogs on a pole now, the second paler fleshed than the first and a little longer. "350," Donnie says. Around 300 pounds, everyone agrees, is the first.
Sophie sidles closer than any of us to watch the next part. Her excitement, I suppose, is natural for an eight-year-old who doesn't find work like this outdated or irrelevant or disgusting. She watches close because, in part, she wants to memorize the process — she's the kind of kid who looks forward to doing this herself.
First Donnie takes the long, pointy knife, thin from many bites of the bastard file, and cuts around the anus. He cinches the opening with baling twine and then scribes an incision long-ways down the center on belly- and spine-side. Next, a careful mix of knife and Sawzall work reveals a steaming mass of coiled and bulbous innards that slough into a washtub — Donnie catching the liver and heart, though all will find a use — the stomach matter, partly digested roughage a chicken's delicacy. We'll render lard, scramble brains in eggs, and boil various pieces into puddings and stocks. For other parts, there are other nourishments, not solely human, though human enough considering who the dogs, cats, and chickens are served by and serve. Those who say, "With a hog, you use everything but the squeal," are wrong — the eyeballs don't amount to much.
There is a solid way of standing now that's not just a result of a winter day spent among good woods and animals and water and people who feel closer to them by working them. Something of my head is removed when the hog's head is taken to hang by steel hook in the same distant shed where the spine and side meat are laid on butcher paper. My various aches and pains throb more perfectly. And I feel privy, as I know Kirsten and Sophie do as well, to an ancient kind of progress watching Donnie slice, carve, almost whittling at times, the spine away from the loin, the hog soon enough in halves. If the varieties of red in the meat and the equal shades of pale in the lard and flesh and bone aren't touching us way down, they will touch us all the way through as we spend the coming days chopping, slicing, grinding.
There are hours to go cutting the halves in threes, removing the leaf lard, ribs, loin, shoulder, side meat, ham — hauling them to the sheds where it all hangs overnight to cool; and then a day tomorrow, a ten hour day of bacon, loin, jowl — hauling and slicing and grinding and spicing, keeping it all tidy while working two masses of sausage meat, 136 pounds from one hog, 123 from the other, the masses worked by hand, many clean, chilly hands, one mass at a time on a table in Donnie's basement, a down home and lovely little butcher shop. As you might figure, that's a lot of meat on a table and a lot of sage and other spices and handwork to get right, and plenty of tasting to make sure.
The third day, we pack sausage. We pack one pound per quart bag, all the air out, a thin brick, the meat pressed with care to fill each corner of the bag, the kind Donnie likes best — because they work best — the kind with the zipper seal. And, later, we rub salt and brown sugar and then more salt on and into the hams, sprinkling them with black and red pepper to keep the mice off as the hams cure on the rough poplar shelves in the shed. Later, they'll spend the summer hanging in a double wrap of pillow case and feedsack, cinched up tight, a sprinkling of Borax for critter control where it's cinched with baling twine.
Hours to go and days, but first there's another hog on a pole, and Donnie's already working what isn't magic so much as experience and love and care and intention — and, also, I think, a kind of rebellion — the spark of any true artisan. There's a need in him deeper than heritage, deeper even than love. It's good to be around that.
There is a lull now as Donnie does his thing. We watch him in the cold. Though I haven't mastered the art of standing around while others work, especially when chilly, I've come to accept that Donnie won't let anybody else do the dirtiest, most intricate deeds — the killing and sticking and disemboweling. Donnie runs the show with an intense kind of cheer. It is a pleasure to see. You can see it from a mile off in the way he stands there, in his hunkered, earthen gait; in the sparkle of his eyes, the curve and heft of his fingers. He's been doing this longer than Kirsten, Sophie, and I have been breathing, and it's become as necessary to him and as hard to explain as any very serious passion.
Once again, the guts go where they go. The head goes, and the spine. When we look between the three locust poles now, we no longer see a hog — we see parts, we see tasks, we see use. It is wealth we see.
And if we see and feel something of ourselves, too, and something outside ourselves, it's because work like this at the end of the day has a climax, and in that stage, on some level deeper than awareness, we start seeing what we've seen and haven't seen all day: each other and all the others — every drover and dirt farmer and homesteader from Bavaria to China to Botetourt to New Guinea to the lands between, every hog hunted, raised, sacrificed throughout the ages, all the hogs and habitats and foraging of everyone and everything now and then and to come. Contact is like that. Far reaching. Hopeful. Scary. And a part of me, it happens every year — for a minute, maybe more — never wants to eat pork again.
"Here," Donnie says as he steps back from the table, knife in one hand, strip of leaf lard in the other. Beyond him, the wind carries a weak plume of steam from the hog pot. He's finished cutting another side.
Sophie hefts the tapestry of ribs. Kirsten shoulders the shoulder. Pepper opens his arms to the square of side meat, which folds as he cradles it. The last slice of sun is beneath the clouds now and pouring some wild juice through the woods. Ham slung over my good shoulder, I follow the procession to the meat shed, thinking of waterfalls and ice, but mostly of home, a crackling cookstove.
Pepper is strolling back to the table when I catch up with Kirsten and give her a peck. Her cheek is red and tastes of cold. There are hog quarters on our shoulders. There's a world of grime and stench and germs in our clothes and hands. It isn't unromantic. "What do you want for dinner," I ask.
Her right eye squinches as she thinks. It is a serious question for my wife, what to have for dinner — holy even. I watch as she watches a laying hen, a lustrous Australorp, scratch in the leaves next to the meat shed. Meanwhile, Sophie, banging around that little room of steel hooks, of pinks and reds and pales, still does not want our help hooking up the bulky web of ribs.
"Fresh greens," Kirsten says at last. "A little salad," she continues. "A white bowl. Arugula, goat cheese, lots of herbs."
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