1967, apples, birdsong, cabbage, carrot, character, ears, eating, eyes, face, feet, field, fight, food, garden, humanity, living, Michael J Redford, morning, mud, piglets, pigs, pink, potato, pregnancy, presence, smell, smile, snoring, speech, speed, the Boats of Vallisneria, time
“Trouble is, you can smell ‘em a mile off.” This was said not by a townsman as one would expect, but by a countryman. He was referring to pigs and his observation was indicative of the general opinion and stigma that has surrounded the pig from time immemorial. “The pig,” said Mrs Grundy, “is a disgusting creature of filthy habits who lives in a dark, odoriferous hovel and wallows in mud. It is a creature whose appetite can never be satiated and is like a dustbin on four legs that will receive almost anything into its ever-open mouth and will, without a flicker of conscience, steal the last morsel of food from its neighbour.” There is in fact a remarkable similarity between the pig and many humans. Perhaps these are strong words, but then the smell of a pig kept in such conditions is even stronger and whose fault is it but that of its keeper. The pig is essentially a clean animal. True, it loves to make a mud wallow in the corner of a field on a hot day when the gnats are biting, but one can hardly call this dirty, especially when some females of the human family pay to have it plastered all over their faces and the males of the species come home covered from head to foot after playing games all afternoon in it. Given plenty of clean straw, a sow will make a comfortable nest for herself and her offspring and will rarely foul her bed with droppings. She reserves the brightest corner of the sty for this and even the young piglets instinctively use this special corner without any training whatsoever. Because of this, it has been known for young pigs to be effectively house-trained. A pig enjoys his food, he takes no pains to disguise the fact, and is usually most grateful for any special tit-bit that comes his way, refusing the offering only when he is ill. Generally speaking, a hungry pig is a healthy pig.
Pigs are a happy and friendly people. They are never too preoccupied (except when feeding – and that goes for many humans as well) to pass the time of day, and will chatter away for as long as you care to stay. All they ask in return for the honour of their presence is a scratch behind the ear or a rub on the belly. Unlike most people I have pigs at the bottom of my garden – not fairies, and I invariably spend a couple of hours therein each day. After pottering around for some minutes there steals over me a strong feeling of a presence close at hand watching me with a purposeful eye destined to catch my attention. I turn and find myself gazing into the friendly face of old Split Ear, a black and white Essex sow who has lived at the piggery now for some six or seven years. Her name, though not very romantic, is appropriate, for her left ear had been rent asunder in her younger days from a fight with a barbed wire fence, and as the ears of this particular breed droop forward and cover the eyes, Split Ear would gaze quizzically at me through the hole in her ear, head cocked slightly to one side. In early days when I first made her acquaintance, this feeling of being watched was a little disturbing. She would stand stock still eyeing me in that cock-eyed manner of hers, noting with precision every move I made. I mistook her friendly gaze of interest for one of criticism and became so annoyed with her that, early one March morning, I hurled a cabbage stalk at her which bounced off her snout and landed at her feet. She sniffed at it, turned it over and, as she gazed up at me, I perceived that a delighted smile had spread across her face. From that moment on we became close friends, and we would pass away many a pleasant moment in each other’s company. I came to know and respect her many habits and fads and she in turn would confide in me her most intimate secrets. One fine spring morning she told me that she was twelve weeks gone and had only another three to go. We counted the days together and as she grew bigger and bigger and the great day approached, she developed a strong desire for sour apples. I would offer a selection of tasty morsels such as a cabbage leaf, a potato, a carrot and an apple. Each time she would eat the apple first and only when she realised that no more apples were forthcoming, would she set about devouring the remaining items. Eventually the great day arrived and she disappeared into the maternity ward. A week later, when he confinement was over, she proudly paraded her young ones before me for my inspection. There were fourteen in all and a very even bunch they were too. Normally a litter contains one or two piglets that are smaller and weaker than the rest, the runts, or cads as they are sometimes called, but old Split Ear’s troupe was so evenly matched, it was impossible to tell them apart.
All young animals have an innocence and a charm about them, but young piglets, to my mind, are the most endearing of all. Their character can be likened to those of mischievous little schoolboys, full of fun and pranks and as happy as the day is long. Often I would creep up on them unobserved to watch their antics, particularly on those days that invariably crop up from time to time when nothing goes right, and I am soon elevated from the doldrums by their uninhibited gaiety, it is a therapy that never fails. Approach them silently, enjoy their antics awhile, then step from your hiding place. Instantly they freeze into diminutive statues, poised on the very tips of their dainty toes and, with not a quiver of muscle between them, they peer wickedly at you from the corners of their eyes. Then suddenly, one of them will utter a staccato bark which is the signal for the tumult to continue. These little creatures are so keen to be off that despite violent activity from their legs, they make no forward progress for several seconds and in spite of their efforts, remain in the same spot kicking up clouds of dust behind them. Eventually their feet find a grip and they shoot off in all directions with the speed of bullets. Owing to the momentum of these little pink projectiles, collisions are common and these frequently lead to fights in which all and sundry take part. Noisy though it is, the melee rarely produces a serious casualty – a few scratched ears, grazed bellies and nipped tails perhaps, but seldom anything more serious and the cause of dissention is soon forgotten. The only other occasion on which a difference of opinion is likely to occur is that of the feed time scrum down. The normal pattern of events here is that one piglet is gradually squeezed off the end of the line until he finds himself out in the cold and teat-less. With unabated fury, he then hurls himself upon his fellow diners which immediately causes someone else to be pushed off the other end. This sets up a cycle of events that flags only when the energy begins to fail and the bellies begin to fill, and soon nothing is heard but the song of a bird and the satisfied snoring of pigs.
Likening them once more to schoolchildren, it is surprising how quickly they grow up, how quickly the irrepressible energy of youth is funnelled into mature and profound thoughts that mould the character. And pigs do think – of this I am convinced. One has merely to accept them and to treat them as equals to discover their thoughtful looks, their smiles of delight and to understand their many moods which are so very much like our own.
read the collected work as it is published: here
eyes & morning & time wormhole: Lapping Reflections [Deep Within Waters] – both fawn and grey
feet wormhole: THURSDAY by William Carlos Williams
field wormhole: THE DESOLATE FIELD by William Carlos Williams
garden wormhole: Sheffield Park Gardens
living wormhole: only
pink wormhole: we held cold hands
smell wormhole: BLUEFLAGS by William Carlos Williams
smile wormhole: A Solitude by Denise Levertov
speech wormhole: despite that