It happened one day when we was coming on to some holy feast or other. I was in the kitchen yard helping cut up a pig they’d slaughtered for it the day before. I’d been there for the slaughtering as well, catching the blood in a pail for black pudding when they shoved a knife in its throat and helping drag it over to the pile of straw where they got twists for singeing off the bristle. We poured water on the carcase and scraped it and singed it again and finally with a gambrel between the hind legs hoisted it up to a crossbeam. Then a monk with yellow braids sliced open its belly and groping around up to his elbows delivered it of a steaming tubful of pink slippery insides I carted off to the kitchen in my two arms. They left it hanging overnight to cool with a sack wrapped around its long snout to keep the cats from it and the next day after matins the yellow-braid monk and I set to cutting it up, Ita being at her quern across the yard from us. Hams, trotters, eyepieces, ears for making brawn with, brains, chops—we was laying it all out in the straw when Ita come over and drew me aside to where we kept a black stone on the wall for whetting. She told me with Jarlath’s leave she wanted me to go with Brendan though she didn’t so much as know my name then.
“It’s a smirchy sort of business you’re at with that pig, some would say,” she said. “There’s many a monkish boy either he’d beg out of it or turn green as a toad doing it. But it’s neither of those with you, I see. You could be laying the holy table for mass the way you set those cuttings out. That’s the deep truth of things no matter or not if you know it.”
Ita’s eyes disappeared entirely when she smiled.
“Smirchy and holy is all one, my dear,” she said. “I doubt Jarlath has taught you that. Monks think holiness is monkishness only. But somewheres you’ve learned the truth anyhow. You can squeeze into Heaven reeking of pig blood as well as clad in the whitest fair linen in the land.
From Frederick Buechner, Brendan, pages 34-35.
Smirchy and holy is all one, my dear.
I think that industrial livestock processing is, like all technology, a kind of magic. Peasant meatsmiths, on the other hand, worked miracles, not sleight of hand. Rather than turn pigs into pork at an astonishing rate and in unfathomable quantity, they multiplied fishes and loaves and this feeds more people with less and more deeply.
There’s a sweet spot on a rifle trigger where just an ounce more of pressure will fire it. There I held my finger, waiting for my shot. Twice, and then three times, the barrow paused, almost at the right angle but never quite. A fourth time, and he paced again. I grit my teeth and snorted, tense and rigid. He circled around the pen again and barely glanced at me.
Into the muddle of “dammits!” and “stand stills!” in my head, I fit a prayer for his swift death, then exhaled slowly. On his next circuit, he paused a fifth time, the spot just twelve inches from the muzzle, my eyes on it, his eyes on me. I gave the trigger that one more ounce.
In a thousandth of a second: he jerked his head as if startled by the pop; a black hole appeared on the bridge of his snout; he screamed and rammed the fence by Rusty, shoving his snout underneath the wire and lifting the entire panel.
The study was done on land owned by Iowa State University called the Marsden Farm. On 22 acres of it, beginning in 2003, researchers set up three plots: one replicated the typical Midwestern cycle of planting corn one year and then soybeans the next, along with its routine mix of chemicals. On another, they planted a three-year cycle that included oats; the third plot added a four-year cycle and alfalfa. The longer rotations also integrated the raising of livestock, whose manure was used as fertilizer.
The results were stunning: The longer rotations produced better yields of both corn and soy, reduced the need for nitrogen fertilizer and herbicides by up to 88 percent, reduced the amounts of toxins in groundwater 200-fold and didn’t reduce profits by a single cent.
In short, there was only upside — and no downside at all — associated with the longer rotations. There was an increase in labor costs, but remember that profits were stable. So this is a matter of paying people for their knowledge and smart work instead of paying chemical companies for poisons. And it’s a high-stakes game; according to the Environmental Protection Agency, about five billion pounds of pesticidesare used each year in the United States.
Let them stand still for the bullet,
and stare the shooter in the eye,
let them die while the sound of the shot is in the air,
let them die as they fall,
let the jugular blood spring hot to the knife,
let its freshet be full,
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.
“For the Hog Killing”, by Wendell Berry. Not wild about the poetry itself, but the sentiments behind it hit home for me; I’m keeping six hogs that I shall start slaughtering about seven weeks from now. From the just-posted interview, some of Berry’s commentary:
You see there was a whole system of practical acts that gathered in respect for the hog. In the culture that I grew up in, one of the firm laws of hog killing was never to make them squeal. If they squealed after you shot them, you had done a bad job. You had hurt them. Doing it well was an act of reverence—a practical, economic act—but at the same time, it was an act of reverence for the creation and for living things. You’re not going to find a big slaughterhouse with the ethical imperative, “don’t let them feel it.”
Bad emergent properties, bad surprises, on that scale are the result of cultural failure—the unwillingness, even the inability, to be a good neighbor to one’s neighbors. As I knew them, hog killings were accomplished by neighbors working together. And what those people understood perfectly—and I don’t think the religious connection was ever brought out in church—was that you knew if you loved your neighbor, you had to get out of your chair. If I sit here in my chair and I say, “neighbor, I love you,” what the hell difference does it make? You have to be able to help. And when you’re needed, you have to go.
The old ethic—our rule in work at home—was, “nobody is done till everybody is done.” And when it was tobacco harvest, you knew you were going to be there till you and all your neighbors were done. You were going to be working together; you were going to be sweating together. We didn’t go around talking piously about loving each other, but we did love each other. It’s like a football team: you’ve been through a lot together; you know each other’s motions. You look at the figure of your neighbor on the horizon at his work, and you recognize every gesture with this profound sympathy that you feel in your own flesh. You know what he’s going to do. This is as intimate as knowing how to dance together.