A Whole Hog
by Bruce Patterson, June 30, 2010
Fellahs like Lew didn’t used to be so scarce in these hills. You go back a lifetime and they were as common as Ki-oats. Back there in the old world ruled by Kings and Queens, constables, taxmen and armies, fellahs like Lew were called “yeomen.” Among other things, that meant they were so poor and lived so far out in the sticks that they weren’t worth bothering with. But here in the new world–the land of liberty and opportunity–everybody knew them as “freeholders.” Right off the bat that meant they didn’t owe a nickel to anybody. They weren’t tenant farmers or sharecroppers, field hands or harvest gypsies. No Siree. Independent owner-operators was what they were. Even if very little money ever passed through their pockets, still they were living the American Dream.
Seeing how his holdings were small, off the beaten track and stuffed high up in the hills, you could call Lew a dirt farmer if you wanted to. Like any real farmer, Lew sure enough did farm the dirt, and not the crop, and so calling him that was fine by him. About all Lew and fellahs like him relied upon was the richness of their soils, the wise use of their labor, fairly favorable weather and cooperative neighbors. Just because they never hired anybody to do something they could do for themselves, or bought anything they didn’t need or could fashion with their own hands, that didn’t mean they didn’t engage in matters of trade. Since with most tasks two people got more than twice as much done as just one did, neighbors traded labor with neighbors and everybody’s lives were easier on account of that. And if your barn got struck by lightning and burnt down, why your neighbors would come to your rescue. Because they all knew the difference between a beam and a stud, a rafter and a joist, plumb and plumb-crooked, all lickity-split they’d have you back up and running as good as new. And you owed them for that and you’d pay them back in your own way in your own time–providing another emergency didn’t pop up for somebody else first.
Even if you were extra industrious and your nearest neighbor was as lazy as a potbellied otter, most times you’d still get a fair exchange of labor out of him. It’d just take you longer was all. Yet, taking into account how even the laziest freeholder was more industrious than the common run of town clerk, feuds rarely even got started. Throw in the fact that a lazy freeholder wasn’t long for the land and there ruled around here what could properly be called Domestic Tranquility. Most of a year’s worth of violence and discord, fussing, biting and hollering happened during the 4th of July Rodeo and BBQ, and most of that weren’t nothing but blowing off steam, buckets of firewater down dry gullets no doubt helping.
The freeholders were a lot more sentimental than they’re generally given credit for, and Lew was no different. If anything, he was a wee bit more sentimental than most. A handful of dirt was alive with millions of industrious critters, no two sunrises were alike and the winds had names for good reason. At times Lew couldn’t help but see himself as no bigger than a flea on a dog, and he’d grin at how all of his industriousness weren’t nothing next to natures. If he was scratching a living out of the side of a mountain, what were the animals, fish and birds doing? Playing bingo? If by reputation Lew was known as an eager beaver, what’d that tell you about a real one? Anybody ever count all the burrows, nests, hives, holes, swarms, perches and sleeping spots on just one mountain acre? Clearly Lew’s life and labors were woven into ones far bigger than his, and far smaller, and sometimes rising out his cornfield and stretching his back, sweet and easy feelings of belonging washed over him like a cool ocean breeze blowing up out the valley. Once Lew got so sentimental that catching sight of two grey squirrels playfully chasing each other around the base of a tree brought a tear to his eye.
Given his appreciation of God’s Wondrous Creation, Lew treated his own animals kindly. He slaughtered them in the Indian way, and always with sadness. He kept the usual steers and a milking cow, some sheep, an old mule for turning the dirt, a horse for riding, some chickens, ducks and geese (on principle he wouldn’t keep no turkeys). His barn held the usual number of mice, rats, owls, barn cats and kittens, he’d befriended a raven and for protection and companionship he kept a pair of porch hounds.
By far Lew’s favorite and most useful barnyard animal was his old Arkansas razorback hog. Contrary to what most folks thought, a hog was a whole lot smarter than a dog was. More easily trained, too, and even tempered. While a hog was nowhere near as drip-slobbery as a dog, if he took a shine to you he’d be just as anxious to please. Only bigger, stronger, faster and more calculating, seeing how dogs had a way of following their noses and emotions into all kinds of trouble. Then when a dog managed to shut down his nose and emotions, his old brain shut down right along with them. He’d lie there panting all glassy-eyed for hours on end. But you hang around with a hog long enough and you’ll see that, when he gets to lazing around in the shade, the wheels in his head keep on spinning. He’ll be thinking about his next meal, for one thing. That plus wondering how he’s going to go about getting it. In the meantime, woe to any honeybee, bumblebee or horsefly that buzzed by his snout. He was always happy for any sort of appetizer and boy was he quick.
Since his old razorback ate as much as his horse, mule, four sheep and flock of chickens combined, Lew found plenty of ways for his hog to earn his keep. That didn’t include eventually eating him, though. A razorback was way too tough for eating. If you were to bite into one of his pan fried pork chops, you’d get your jaws stuck wide open. Not to mention him being so salty he killed the grass he walked on, or counting the eye-stinging stink cooking him would put into your cabin; enough of a stink to catch your curtains on fire and make your porch hounds disappear forever.
Folks said God gave the razorback his ridge of bristles to mark him as the most useful of all the world’s kinds of hogs. You take some tin scripts to his ridge bristles and fashion your cuttings into a scrub brush, face it up against a Pittsburgh Yankee factory-made steel brush, have them go at each other all up and down and pretty quick that steel brush is gonna look like it got run over by a wagon train. Whenever your boots got caked with mud you’re old razorback will help you out there, too. You’d just have him lie down and stretch out his neck and, after a couple of swipes over them bristles, your boots were as clean as whistles. And, needless to say, ain’t no bear ever going to raid your smokehouse so long as your razorback is gallivanting around.
Lew had his razorback help with the farming, too. After a field had been turned over, disked and harrowed, the surface was covered with dirt clods and he’d use his razorback as a clodbuster. He’d have him lay down on his side, rope his front and hind legs together, loop the rope around his horse’s saddle horn, hitch his horse behind his mule and him to a borrowed yoke of oxen and, dragging that old hog around the field would pulverize every last one of them clods, leaving behind land as smooth as a baby’s cheek. And all the while that old hog would be wearing curled lips and whinnying and jiggling just like you was tickling him (hogs loved getting tickled).
Naturally Lew also took full advantage of his hog’s prodigious digging skills. Him being without claws or a beak, he did most of his digging with his nose. Whenever he needed extra muscle, he’d switch over to using his cloven hoofs. And still that old hog could out-dig his porch hounds plus all their friends, seeing how the pack of them got so excited they’d go off course and soon get themselves all tuckered out. And once them dogs realized there was nothing buried in there of interest to them, why they’d quit and start snarling and snapping at each other in disappointment. And you’d as soon get them to roll a boat as get to anymore digging out of them. Not then, or at that spot, anyway.
Whereas, with his old hog, Lew would just point his long finger at the spot and hold it at the precise angle he wanted and his hog would nod. Stretching out his arms to show him how deep to dig, he’d nod again and get started. And while it’d take him a lot longer than it would if he had claws, he wouldn’t quit until he was done and, when you inspected his work, you’d see he was genuinely done, too. So while his porch hounds were next to useless when it came to plucking out tree stumps, his hog was a natural. The hardest part of clearing forestland for crops was digging out the stumps, and that’s where his hog earned most his keep.
Or at least he did until that traveling salesman rode up the mountain on a bay mare and sold Lew on the idea of making his stump-plucking a whole lot quicker and easier by purchasing some the newfangled invention he had safely packed away in his saddlebags. If there was ever magic in a bottle, that salesman swore, it was right there aboard that old mare. And–lucky Lew–the salesman was the next day trading in the mare for a train ticket home, he had a little bit of inventory left, and he was willing to part with it for no more than a song and a prayer; his cost plus a measly 10% for his trouble. Not only that, he swore like a preacher proud to get to the point, but when he returned to this neck of the woods in a month or three, Lew would be welcome to buy all the more. ¥¥
(Next: Modernity comes with a bang.)