The ground was just enough frost-hardened to make things uncomfortable on my still-gimpy ankle as we trundled out just before dawn to check on the pigs. Geese overhead continued their journey southward and barn and truck windows were coated in the crystalline evidence that winter is fast approaching. But the enormous woodpile, a north-south wall running long and deep from the carriage barn down toward the pigs, bolstered the spirits some. Six or seven cords of well-seasoned oak and hickory – enough for a full year of heat – will do that on a cold morning. It represents a small victory in man’s primal fight against the elements. But it is a decidedly temporary victory. It’s never too early to start thinking about 2018 or 2019 wood. For now anyway the woodpile, neatly split and stacked, proudly declares: Bring. It. On.
It had been a couple days since we backed the trailer up to the pigs and the boys designed a crude yet elegant ramp out of a horse mat, a pallet and some fire-pit bound ends of a 4×4 beam. The key is to get the pigs accustomed to moving in and out of the trailer before it’s time to load them for good.
You learn these things from experience of course. Because stuff goes wrong. Our first time hauling pigs to the butcher ended in a sweaty, exhausting battle with a 400-pound Hampshire hog the kids had named “Chorizo.” The big fella just would not go into the trailer until my friend John lassoed his hind leg with a ratchet strap and the both of us – nearly 600 pounds of combined man – slowly reeled him in, the beast screaming like a wild Irish banshee, inching backwards on his belly the whole way. Once you hear the anguished squeal of a hog in those types of circumstances you never again complain about the equivalent noise from a cranky toddler. I’ve now had more than my fair share of both, and there is just no comparison. I tell anyone who will listen that raising pigs has made me a better, more tolerant parent and I’m not even kidding.
I have no intention of getting into one of those tug-o-war matches ever again, so we parked the trailer with the pigs for days, feeding out inside the trailer with generous dollops of an all-time pig favorite: skim milk. Two of the hogs – Washington and Lincoln – became adept at scurrying up and into the trailer to eat, but Jefferson was an apprehensive holdout. Cautious and reluctant, someone joked that he was “Declaring his Independence.” Can’t blame him really for heeding the survival instinct. Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered and all that.
By early Monday morning Jefferson still had not self-loaded into the trailer. Instead of joining the mainstream happily gorging on fresh table trimmings, grain, and milk he, like some kind of tortured iconoclast genius, sniffed around the fringes of the pen-society, anxiously rooting at the much-less-palatable days-old pumpkin shards already picked clean, trampled, and well on their way to becoming compost.
Despite my concern – real enough that I carried a ratchet strap in my pocket and assured the boys I would call the school office to excuse their absence from 1st and possibly 2nd hour – we kept our calm, gently hemming Jefferson in as we gradually reeled in his portable electric fencing, leaving him progressively fewer and fewer options until eventually he went right up and into the trailer without fanfare or eardrum-splitting dramatics. I quickly closed the door, locked it down, checked the hitch one last time, and pointed the truck toward the butcher where we had an 8:00 a.m. appointment with fate. I stopped up at the house to briefly refill my Yeti with hot chocolate and nab a Clif Bar to go.
The mood inside at breakfast was playful, and there were a few items of semi-urgent family business to discuss, but I put the conversations on ice as I quickly made my way back out to the truck. When animals are loaded and ready there isn’t a lot of time for chit-chat, merry-making, or back-patting. Instead I’ve learned you hightail it out of there before anything else can go wrong.