Monday, February 21, 2011

Made For a Man...

...but are they strong enough for a woman?

Since September I have worn out 4 pairs of heavy-duty cowhide gloves and I noticed a few days ago that my 5th pair has started to tear.  At least half a dozen pairs of thick wool socks, and my favorite pair of work jeans, have also met their demise.  The first pair of muck boots I owned lasted over 5 years, during which time I wore them to the barn, walking my dog year-round, and to class in the winters.  My current pair is just over a year old and I've noticed the constant muddy mix has begun to eat away at some of the waterproof stitching.

Consider this a challenge, Carhartt!  I work harder than your gloves do, and it's nearly official.  The ones pictured above lasted about a month, and the "heavy duty" boot socks I've been wearing under my muck boots gave out after about, oh, 5 or 6 weeks.

Every day on the farm brought new challenges but it brings a peaceful balance with it, too.  With a lot of hard work and interminable senses of humor, things are looking good.  In other words, the work I came here to do is nearing its end.  I'm headed home.  What an incredible journey it has been— I will never forget this place, the pigs, or the people I came to love here.  I hope to be back soon, maybe when there are a few less pigs and a little less mud.  I hope my girls remember me, because I know I will never forget them.  At times I was pushed to the utter limits of my physical strength, my mental capacity for multitasking and problem-solving, and the depths of my humanity.  I never thought I would get into an automatic vehicle and reach my foot blindly for the clutch, but... here I am, some weird college/city/farmgirl hybrid who misses the contents of her closet but also loves to drive the tractor.  Wah not?

Derive happiness in oneself from a good day's work,
from illuminating the fog that surrounds us.
                — Henri Matisse (1869 - 1954)

Friday, February 11, 2011

Eating Well

Yesterday I watched the HBO film Temple Grandin.  She's arguably the world's most famous autistic person, and a foremost expert on animal behavior and slaughterhouse design.  Grandin thinks and sees the world in pictures, she has a difficult time understanding what death means.  [Just watch the movie, I can't do it justice.]

In one scene that particularly moved me, she questions what happens to a cow after it is slaughtered:

"Where does it go?  It  was here, now it's meat.  Where does it go?"

Being here on the farm for nearly 6 months has brought that question to my mind as well.  Once as we were loading a group of hogs to send to the processing plant, I wryly remarked that "today is the first day of the rest of your lives."  [The pigs didn't seem terribly impressed by my sense of humor, but they don't get impressed by much except straw and grain.]  These pigs, like millions of other livestock around the world, are born and raised for slaughter.  Our market hogs spend about a year on the farm, rooting around for delicious woodlands treats.  Then they spend 2 years curing, becoming Woodlands Pork.

In the months since I first arrived at the farm, I've gotten to know the pigs pretty well, not only individually but collectively in their respective groups.  I see their day-to-day interactions, and they see a lot of me.  When they're hungry they follow me around, even if I'm nowhere near their pasture.  They'll walk their fenceline, eyes trained on me, and whine in my general direction.  Some of them like to nibble on my boots, others like to rub on the tractor tires.  A few seemed to watch for me to set down a bucket or a grain bag— as soon as I did they would snatch it and run away [can someone tell me— why do pigs LOVE plastic so much?].

Our last harvest was on Monday.  This one was personal, different from the others— previous harvest-loads came out of one large group who lived their final months in the woods.  There were too many to know them individually.  We loaded them onto the trailer or sent them back into the woods based on size, the biggest first.  You look at them one last time with the knowledge that you've taken care of them every day but... beyond that there's only so much emotional rollercoasting going on.  It's exciting to have a successful day of loading, and it means out-of-this-world [to-die-for?] pork is in your future.

I knew the ones we sent on Monday.  They have been living at the front of the farm with their piglets for the last few months.  I interacted with them every day and came to know their personalities.  The spotty one who is obsessed with plastic.  The Hereford with her ever-alert ears and that square, puffed-up way she would stand and snort if you surprised her in a field.  The two who stood watch over each other while they gave birth to piglets.  Miss Cracklins.  We sent a pig with a name.

I asked Chuck last week if I could have the day off so that I could drive up to Nelson's Processing Plant.  I felt it was a necessary part of the experience for me— as a carnivore, as a farmer, as a student, as a human— to confront the fate of "my" pigs.  Even as I discussed my reasons for wanting to go with him I could feel a tightness in my throat, the sometimes-choking knowledge that when I watched them take their last breath it wouldn't be like the cows I saw before.  These aren't pets, of course, but they're more than just dinner, too.  My sows, my charges, my Big Mamas, my girls.  It was me who walked through all of the fields and decided which ones would live and which would die, who we'd keep and who we'd eat.  Cracklins, who used to walk up to people and roll over for tummy rubs, was a lackluster sow [she had 8 piglets and only 2 survived] and she had become increasingly aggressive.  She was also difficult to work with, obstinate as hell.  So she went on the trailer along with 12 others.

Meat-eating has been getting both more and less complicated for me in the last few years.  More complicated because of what I have learned about production and what I know about the animals themselves.  But far, far less complicated because I see a clear way of eating that is good and right.  Because I personally saw to it that each of the pigs we slaughtered had a good life, to the best of my abilities.  They have forever changed the way I think about food, and not in the way I expected.  It's not what you eat, but how you eat.  As they say in West Virginia... I eat pretty damn good.

Next up, Miss Cracklins' story.  Coming soon.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Your Questions

Writing is a lot like working out— the more you go the gym, the more you feel like going back again and again.  It can be a little painful and awkward at first but then you get into a rhythm and it becomes a release.

That said— do you, faithful and occasional readers alike, have any questions for me?  I spend a lot of time in my own head here and sometimes I think of things I'd like to write about but they are lost in the mix of daily routines and the unexpected.  Or I'll start on something and then realize [or tell myself] that it may be ridiculously boring or overly technical and not something anyone wants to hear about, let alone read about.

Let's hear them!  It's February, the worst month of the year, and I'm going to need something to keep me occupied when it's just above freezing and raining and I need time away from the mud.  Reply with a comment, send me a facebook message, email, whatever!  [You can be anonymous if you'd like.]