“let this day begin again the change of hogs into people, not the other way around,
for today we celebrate again our lives’ wedding with the world,
for by our hunger, by this provisioning, we renew the bond.”
– Wendell Berry, ‘For the Hog Killing’
It’s about being human. That’s always the issue at hand.
Today especially we must be intentional, even creative. And often that means learning from the past. There is no set number of activities that human-ize. But some stand out as tried and true.
I, as many before, have found pig slaughtering to be a powerful humanizing force in my life, and that of my family and loved ones. Perhaps you could too, even if only by appreciating from afar. Maybe you will have occasion to join the work.
Berry suggests that we seek the change of hogs into people. Clearly this implies also the growth of people into people—which is the more delicate operation. And a pig slaughter, as other such good work, can be a prime instrument.
I cannot explain precisely why. A long treatise would be but a beginning. Yet I will share what most strikes me. The pig slaughter itself is characterized by a spirit of gratitude. We are grateful: for the pig, that noble beast, seemingly custom designed to nourish through its life and death the human body and spirit. For this amazing Valley, whose earth, flora and fauna give life to pig and person alike. For family and friends gathered for moments of sharing a wide range of experiences and emotions. For those willing to give of themselves by their labor—and what a labor it is.
Indeed, here I get a glimpse of an oft-missed aspect of work. It can be a gift: a precious gift given and received in a context of love and friendship. When I turn to thank a man who has given up family or leisure time to pour forth his energy in this great labor, I feel a debt that perhaps cannot be repaid. When at times I then hear, “Thank you for letting me work with you,” I know that something very special has occurred. I am in the presence of a powerful mystery, something central in human life.
I love telling old-timers that I slaughter my own pigs, because it elicits predictable though interestingly varied responses. Often a wistful look or sigh accompanies lines like, “Daddy would be up at three in the morning to start the fires,” or “All the children would fight over who got the tail…” One of my favorite responses was from Miss Jessie, who grew up in nearby Chester Gap. Hearing my comment on the enormity of the undertaking, she remembered, “Grandma always said it takes three days to slaughter a pig.” A slaughter isn’t over until all the meat is safely ‘put up,’ or preserved, and a few grandmas out there could tell us all about that.
Brandon Sheard of Farmstead Meatsmith, from whom I have learned much and need to learn more, has a beautiful approach. Of the delicate matter of killing the pig well he writes, “Leave the cowboy at home. Be the priest at the service of the sacrifice.”
Indeed. The slaughtering of a pig, when seen in its deeper richness, calls us to become our better selves. It connects us to people around us and perhaps especially to realities above us. All this, by drawing us into a special relationship with things below us. In this it is oh so human.
In the first century B.C. the Roman Marcus Varro wrote, “There is a saying that the race of pigs is expressly given by nature to set forth a banquet.” Amen. And this can begin in the banquet of the pig slaughter itself.
– Dr. John Cuddeback is a Professor of Philosophy at Christendom College. This blog original appeared on his weekly blog LifeCraft. He also serves on the Board of Directors for Catholic Rural Life.