Embrace the Pigness of the Pig

This summer, Penny and I visited Polyface Farms, the home base of Joel Salatin, beyond-organic farmer to the stars. Alright, while Salatin might not do much hobnobbing with Hollywood A-listers, he has been in a good selection of movies. I’m convinced that there’s a law prohibiting anyone from producing a food- or agriculture-related documentary without inserting at least one snippet of Joel.

After leaving the farm that day, I grieved for part of my drive back into Staunton, Virginia, the city where we were staying. You see, the farm’s shop did not have any t-shirts reading “The marvelous pigness of pigs” in my size. The shopkeeper assured us that they’d be getting those in eventually, but we were heading home before that.

Only on the way home, as we made a fourteen-hour expedition from Staunton to our house, did I realize–thanks to Penny’s handy use of Google and decent cell reception in West Virginia–that my coveted t-shirt actually reflected the title of Joel’s latest book: The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs: Respecting and Caring for All God’s Creation.

Before reaching home, I had ordered a copy of the tome. Penny followed suit, requesting it from our library. We’ve been reading through it over the past several weeks.

After writing and speaking for decades as a voice for sustainable agriculture and clean foods, Salatin with this book has “come out” as a Christian. Honestly, I don’t think many people who had encountered him were terribly surprised, but in that book’s pages, he lays out the theological underpinnings for his agricultural practices.

Although I plan to take up some, if not all, of the individual chapters in days to come, I thought it would make sense to consider my own “pigness” or the pigness of my students. Do you have “theological underpinnings” for your profession? I ask, because I’m not entirely sure that I have them for my primary work as a college English teacher. Certainly I have not worked out that theology and its implications on day-to-day, semester-to-semester life as thoroughly as Salatin has in this book.

So your homework assignment, as you wait for the book to arrive, is to consider what it means to be a Christian car mechanic, HVAC technician, lawyer, financial planner, gym employee, banker, or whatever it is that you do with your time. Whether you enjoy the pigness of some bacon at the same time is entirely your own affair.


Eat Food; Not Feed

Red wattle pigUntil fairly recently, I owned a small farm where I raised chickens and the occasional pigs. As adorable as piglets might be when you first get them and can pick them up by a hind leg, they soon become good for one purpose only: feeding them out to a size suitable to be transformed into pork chops and assorted other foods.

My pigs doubled as garbage disposals. If we had leftover dinner that wasn’t going in the fridge, we’d give it to the pigs. If some produce went bad on us, the pigs got it. When I’d stumble across a clutch of eggs that the chickens had secreted in the bushes, the pigs received a raw-egg treat. They’d also eat grass and leaves and trimmings from the garden.

But to get my pigs to 250 pounds as efficiently as possible, most of their calories came from 50-pound bags of feed, little processed pellets of who-knows-what that I bought at the local feed store. The feed I typically bought was called Muscle Pig and trumpeted 16% protein. The pigs ate it with abandon and enthusiasm.

Recently, I’ve been reflecting on Michael Pollan’s famous dictum: “Eat food, not too much.” Pollan goes on to add that most of our food should be from plants, a determination that we could question, but I’d like to focus on the “eat food” part.

We can eat food or we can eat feed. Food grows on trees or plants. It can be obtained from animals. Feed, on the other hand, comes from factories and is enhanced by the marvels of modern chemistry. The feed that I gave my pigs was extruded. That is, it was squeezed out of a press, like the old Play-Dough Pumper.

(Remember that all the best food is extruded!)

Feed, as it relates to pigs, is designed to put weight onto the animal. Even in the case of a non-meat animal–a horse, for example–feed exists to make the animal useful to someone else. Can that apply to humans? Human feed typically makes people useful to corporations by producing a profit for them.

Food, however, is more than feed. It does all the things that feed does, including making a profit for food providers, but it does more. It nourishes. It strengthens. It delights. It blesses. As much as you might enjoy Fruit by the Foot, you can’t honestly say that it is a blessing, can you?

Think about a food that says “home and happiness” to you. I’m guessing that it’s not extruded. I’m guessing that it doesn’t come from a factory. Yes, it might be processed, but it’s probably processed in a kitchen rather than in an industrial plant.

Eat food, not feed. Feed is for pigs, and pigs are food.

Sensory Deprivation

Having been so far unable to reclaim our lost pigs, I spent a good bit of the weekend traipsing–and yes, I am quite certain that I was traipsing–around the woods seeking a quick flash of red or a snort. With the exception of dozens of hoofprints and a lone sighting, I came up empty.

Yesterday, before heading down the hill to walk the length of our creek, I carefully assembled my gear: a hat to protect my scalp from briers, sunglasses to keep nasty things from my eyes, long sleeves, muck boots. Then I nearly grabbed my iPod.

Bonehead! You can’t go around the woods seeking an animal that almost always reveals itself by sound before doing so by sight with a pair of earbuds stuck in your ears. You can’t do that any more than you can effectively drive down a busy street while texting some vitally important witticism to Twitter.

Modern life, it seems, is a study in sensory deprivation. Paradoxically, the path to sensory deprivation has traveled through a great deal of sensory overindulgence. Today, my students can’t go twenty minutes without checking Facebook. I’m all for Facebook, but do we really need it the way we need breath? Those same students can be seen streaming out of classrooms, each one flipping out a phone. They plug into iPods and wear overload amounts of Axe. They so fill their visual, auditory, and other senses that they can’t see a coneflower, hear a whippoorwill, or smell much of anything.

When I put on my music, that’s great. I enjoy Doc Watson and Iris Dement. I even enjoy the music Tom inflicts on me–sometimes. But by filling my ears with that sound, I can’t hear the pigs snorting in the underbrush. It’s a trade-off and not a clear one. Sometimes, I’d rather hear Doc Watson than the pigs. The important thing is that I make that trade-off consciously.

To Have or Have Not

What does it mean to “have”? I know, this sounds a bit reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s famous confusion over the definition of “is,” but I’m serious.  When I say, “I have a Toyota Corolla,” what precisely does that mean. More specifically, I question this sentence: “I have two pigs.”

Yesterday, Penny and I traveled all the way to Springfield, Missouri to pick up our two pigs. These weren’t just any old pigs. They’re Red Wattle pigs. I could have gone to the local auction house and bought Chester Whites or Yorkshires, but all the Red Wattles seem to live three hours away from Kansas City.

When we got them home, somebody (who will remain nameless but he’s typing right now) thought it would be safe to let the little guys out of their traveling cage to stretch their legs. They paused for somewhere around three seconds before heading across our front yard and disappearing into the woods. Four and a half hours later, after spending all of that time with a revolving cast of characters and two dogs traipsing about and attempting to recapture the due, I collapsed inside the house, defeated by a couple of would-be porkers.

Penny and I left the outside door to our bedroom open for a little while before going to sleep. We hadn’t been in the room more than ten minutes before I heard a very distinct grunting outside. One of the pigs decided to brave the yard and eat the corn we’d put out for him. Clad in pj’s and a robe, I tried to lure him in, but he ignored me, disappearing back into the woods and grunting along with his brother.

This morning, Penny told me that a pig–presumably the same brave one–stood beside her as she hung clothes on the line. I have hope that the boys will decide that we’re not so terrible and return to the more civilized climes.

What, then, does it mean when I say, “I have two pigs.” Do I really possess them? Quite obviously it means more than claiming I have four pigs, but such a statement doesn’t mean as much as we’d like to think it does. I could carefully feed and shelter these two pigs until they’re each tipping the scale at some 250 pounds. Then I could lose them to a disease. They could dive out of the truck as we head for the processor. Coyotes could hold a convention and eat my pork chops. They could get wind of my plans for them and decide to hoof it back to Springfield. In short, saying that “I have” something just means that I have a tentative grasp on it right now.

I’m reminded of the parable of the rich fool from Luke 12:15-21. “You fool!” God seems to be saying to me as I stumble through the briars and brush chasing a snort here and a footprint there. Or maybe I should be worried about storing up treasure here on earth where coyote and H1N1 destroy (Matthew 16:19-21).

As I contemplate this situation, I think of the other things I have: a good job, a marvelous wife, four talented kids, a paid-off car, good health. Any of those things can be plucked out from within my grasp in a moment. They can run off just as quickly as my pigs did yesterday.

Information Barriers

When I where my college-professor hat–and no, I don’t where a hat when I’m professing–my colleagues and I notice the students who seem destined to pay for a couple of semesters of school receiving virtually no benefit from the ordeal. Some of us might dismiss such students as “just not college material.” Others wag their heads at the inane things those students do–you know, like skipping four weeks of classes and then asking, “Did I miss anything?”

On reflection, we tend to recognize that these “not-college-material” students tend not to be mentally deficient but instead informationally deficient. These kids typically come from families where college and academic achievement are not family traditions.  It’s not that their brothers, sisters, parents, uncles, aunts, and so forth don’t want their family’s students to succeed. These supportive folk just don’t know where, in the great Wal-Mart of life, the keys to academic success are shelved.

There are barriers–information barriers–for people who don’t come from academically inclined families. These barriers tend to keep those students from achieving success as easily, as fast, or as flawlessly as those whose families have made them academic heirs.

I’m reminded of this information when I put on my agrarian hat–and yes, I do wear a hat most of the time in that role. Recently, Penny and I have decided to buy a couple of feeder pigs. In reading up on the matter, I’ve recognized that I don’t know a thing about raising pigs. Until recently, I didn’t know a barrow from a gilt. Most notably, I had no idea of how to procure a pig. You can’t mail order them like you do chickens. But where do you find a source.

We’ve scanned the bulletin boards at Tractor Supply and read through the items on Craigslist (where, it seems, the only pigs ever listed are potbellies). To date, we’ve encountered no likely sources. I mentioned this to a friend from church, who works at the nearest feed store, hoping she’d know where to direct us.  She suggested that I talk to her husband.

So Wednesday night, at the close of a church service, her husband, Scott, approached me. The resulting pig talk gathered Brad and Nessa around us. Joe and Kathy came in toward the end. Everybody had their input. Somebody suggested the Kingsville Auction while several mentioned local pig people. “You ought to call the Dents,” somebody said. “The Van Horns have always had a few sows,” somebody else offered. What I realized in short order was that I had come from a porcine-impaired family.  Apparently, I existed in the midst of a land of swinish plenty, but had no direct access to that information.

I strongly believe that the information necessary for academic success should be a possession coveted by everybody and bequeathed by every parent to every child. On the other hand, I’m not so sure that hog information needs to be quite so universally valued. Still, I look at the vast amount of information–about gardening, livestock, and much more–that has been lost from the knowledge stores of average American families. I see plenty of people who can work wonders on Facebook and name the last thirty winners of the NCAA basketball tournament, but who have no clue how to do simple plumbing or boil water.

Information barriers are inevitable. We can’t all know everything. We can’t bequeath an infinite store of knowledge to our progeny. This shouldn’t be our goal, but identifying and breaking through the most important information barriers we face in our lives should be a constant concern and mission.