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Excerpt

Excerpt

The Good Good Pig

ONE

Christopher Hogwood came home on my lap in a shoe box.

On a rain-drenched April evening, so cold the frogs were silent, so gray we could hardly see our barn, my husband drove our rusting Subaru over mud roads sodden with melted snow. Pig manure caked on our boots. The smell of a sick animal hung heavy in our clothes.

It did not seem an auspicious time to make the life-changing choice of adopting a pig.

That whole spring, in fact, had been terrible. My father, an Army general, a hero I so adored that I had confessed in Sunday school that I loved him more than Jesus, was dying painfully, gruesomely of lung cancer. He had survived the Bataan Death March. He had survived three years of Japanese prison camps. In the last months of my father's life, my glamorous, slender mother --- still as crazy about him as the day they'd met forty years before --- resisted getting a chairlift, a wheelchair, a hospice nurse. She believed he could survive anything. But he could not survive this.

The only child, I had ßown back and forth from New Hampshire to Virginia to be with my parents whenever I could. I would return to New Hampshire from these wrenching trips to try to Þnish my Þrst book, a tribute to my heroines, primatologists Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and BirutŽ Galdikas. The research had been challenging: I had been charged by an angry silverback gorilla in Zaire, stood up by Jane Goodall in Tanzania, undressed by an orangutan in Borneo, and accosted for money by a gun-toting guard ten thousand feet up the side of a volcano in Rwanda. Now I was on a tight deadline, and the words wouldn't come.

My husband, who writes on American history and preservation, was in the heat of writing his second book. In the Memory Houseis about time and change in New England, set largely in our corner of the world. But it looked like it might not stay ours for long. For the past three years, ever since our marriage, we had lived, Þrst as renters and then as caretakers, in an idyllic, 110-year-old white clapboard farmhouse on eight acres in southern New Hampshire, near mountains that Thoreau had climbed. Ours was the newest house in our small neighborhood. Though our neighbors owned the two-hundred-year-old "antiques" that real estate agents praised, this place had everything I'd ever wanted: a fenced pasture, a wooded brook, a three-level barn, and forty-year-old lilacs framing the front door. But it was about to be sold out from under us. Our landlords, writer-artist friends our age whose parents had bankrolled the house, had moved to Paris and didn't plan to come back. We were desperate to buy the place.

But because we were both freelance writers, our income was deemed too erratic to merit the mortgage.

It seemed I was about to lose my father, my book, and my home.

But for Christopher Hogwood, the spring had been more terrible yet.

He had been born in mid-February, on a farm owned by

George and Mary Iselin, about a thirty-Þve-minute drive from our house. We knew George and Mary by way of my best friend, Gretchen Vogel. Gretchen knew we had a lot in common. "You'll love them," Gretchen had assured me. "They have pigs!"

In fact, George had been raising pigs longer than Mary had known him. "If you're a farmer or a hippie," George had reasoned, "you can make money raising pigs." George and Mary were quintessential hippie farmers: born, as we were, in the 1950s, they lived the ideals of the late '60s and early '70s --- peace, joy, and love --- and, both blessed with radiant blue eyes, blond hair, and good looks, always looked like they had just woken up refreshed from sleeping in a pile of leaves somewhere, perhaps with elves in attendance. They were dedicated back-to-the-landers who lived out of their garden and made their own mayonnaise out of eggs from their free-range hens. They were idealistic, but resourceful, too: it did not escape them that there are vast quantities of free pig food out there, from bakeries, school cafeterias, grocery stores, and factory outlets. George and Mary would get a call to come pick up forty pounds of potato chips or a truckload of Twinkies. To their dismay, they discovered their kids, raised on homemade, organic meals, would sometimes sneak down to the barn at 4 a.m. and eat the junk food they got for the pigs. ("We found out because in the morning we'd Þnd these chocolate rings around their mouths," Mary told me.)

On their shaggy, overgrown 165 acres, they cut their own Þrewood, hayed the Þelds, and raised not only pigs but draft horses, rabbits, ducks, chickens, goats, sheep, and children. But the pigs, I suspect, were George's favorites. And they were mine, too.

We visited them every spring. We didn't get to see George and Mary often --- our schedules and lives were so different --- but the baby pigs ensured we never lost touch. The last time we'd visited was the previous March, at the close of sugaring season, when George was out boiling sap from their sugar maples. March in New Hampshire is the dawn of mud season, and the place looked particularly disheveled. Rusting farm machinery sat stalled, in various states of repair and disrepair, among the mud and wire fencing and melting snow. Colorful, fraying laundry was strung across the front porch like Tibetan prayer ßags. Inside the house, an old cottage in desperate need of paint, the ßoors were coming up and the ceilings were coming down. Late that morning, in a kitchen steamy from the kettle boiling on the woodstove, we found a seemingly uncountable number of small children in ßannel pajamas --- their three kids plus a number of cousins and visiting friends --- sprawled across plates of unÞnished pancakes or crawling stickily across the ßoor. The sink was piled with dirty dishes. As Mary reached for a mug from the pile, she mentioned everyone was just getting over the ßu. Would we like a cup of tea?

No thanks, Howard and I answered hastily --- but we would like to see the pigs again.

The barn was not Norman Rockwell. It was more like Norman Rockwell meets Edward Hopper. The siding was ancient, the sills rotting, the interior cavernous and furry with cobwebs. We loved it. We would peer over the tall stall doors, our eyes adjusting to the gloom, and Þnd the stalls with piglets in residence. Once we had located a family, we would climb in and play with them.

On some farms, this would be a dangerous proposition. Sows can weigh over Þve hundred pounds and can snap if they feel their piglets are threatened. The massive jaws can effortlessly crush a peach pit --- or a kneecap. The razor-sharp canines strop each other. And for good reason: in the wild, pigs need to be strong and brave. In his hunting days in Brazil, President Theodore Roosevelt once saw a jaguar dismembered by South American native pigs. Although pigs are generally good-natured, more people are killed each year by pigs than by sharks. (Which should be no surprise --- how often do you get to see a shark?) Pigs raised on crowded factory farms, tortured into insanity, have been known to eat anything that falls into the pigpen, including the occasional child whose parents are foolish enough to let their kid wander into such a place unsupervised. Feral pigs (of which there are more than four million running around in the United States alone) can kill adult humans if they are threatened. That pigs occasionally eat people has always struck me as only fair, considering the far vaster number of pigs eaten by humans.

But George's sows were all sweethearts. When we entered a stall, the sow, lying on her side to facilitate nursing, would usually raise her giant, 150-pound head, cast us a benign glance from one intelligent, lash-fringed eye, ßex her wondrous and wet nose disk to capture our scent, and utter a grunt of greeting. The piglets were adorable miniatures of their behemoth parents --- some pink, some black, some red, some spotted, and some with handsome racing stripes, like baby wild boars, looking like very large chipmunks. At Þrst the piglets seemed unsure whether they should try to eat us or run away. They would rush at us in a herd, squealing, then race back on tiny, high-heeled hooves to their giant, supine mother for another tug on her milky teats. And then they would charge forth again, growing bold enough to chew on shoes or untie laces. Many of the folks who bought a pig from George would later make a point of telling him what a great pig it was. Even though the babies were almost all destined for the freezer, the folks who bought them seldom mentioned what these pigs tasted like as hams or chops or sausage. No, the people would always comment that George's were particularly nice pigs.

The year Chris was born was a record one for piglets. Because we were beset and frantic, we didn't visit the barn that February or March. But that year, unknown to us, George and Mary had twenty sows --- more than ever before --- and almost all of them had record litters.

"Usually a sow doesn't want to raise more than ten piglets," Mary explained to me. "Usually a sow has ten good working teats." (They actually have twelve, but only ten are usually in working order.) When a sow has more than ten piglets, somebody is going to lose out --- and that somebody is the runt.

A runt is distinguished not only by its small size and helpless predicament. Unless pulled from the litter and nursed by people, a runt is usually doomed, for it is a threat to the entire pig family. "A runt will make this awful sound --- Nynh! Nynh! Nynh!" Mary told me. "It's just awful. It would attract predators. So the sow's response is often to bite the runt in half, to stop the noise. But sometimes she can't tell who's doing it. She might bite a healthy one, or trample some of the others trying to get to the runt. It isn't her fault, and you can't blame her. It screws up the whole litter."

Every year on the farm, there was a runt or two. George would usually remove the little fellow and bottle-feed it goat milk in the house. With such personalized care, the runt will usually survive. But the class of 1990, with more than two hundred piglets, had no fewer than eighteen runts --- so many that George and Mary had to establish a "runt stall" in the barn.

Christopher Hogwood was a runt among runts. He was the smallest of them all --- half the size of the other runts. He is a particularly endearing piglet, Mary told us, with enormous ears and black and white spots, and a black patch over one eye like Spuds McKenzie, the bull terrier in the beer commercial. But Mary was convinced he would never survive. It would be more humane to kill him, she urged, than to let him suffer. But George said --- as he often does --- "Where there's life, there's hope." The little piglet hung on.

But he didn't grow.

Because intestinal worms are common in pigs, George and Mary dosed the piglets with medicine to kill the parasites --- and perhaps boost the runt's growth. "The wormer didn't do a thing for him," Mary told us. "He probably had a touch of every disease in the barn --- he had worms, he had erysipelas, he had rhinopneumonitis --- and yet he wouldn't die. He just wouldn't!"

They called him the Spotted Thing. Though he didn't die, it was unlikely anyone would buy him. Folks usually buy a pig in April to raise for the freezer, when the piglets typically weigh Þfty to sixty-Þve pounds. Christopher weighed about seven.

Mary kept telling George, "You've got to kill that piglet." George would take him out to the manure pile, intending to dispatch him quickly with a blow to the head from his shovel. But George would watch the little piglet --- his soulful eyes, his big ßoppy ears, his admirable will to live --- and just couldn't do it. "I must have sent him out to kill that piglet Þfteen times," Mary remembered. Finally George refused to even go out there. "Youkill the piglet!" he said to his wife.

Mary took the spotted runt out to the manure pile with the shovel. She couldn't do it, either.

That's when she called my husband, Howard. I was in Virginia.

"I can't believe I'm going to make this offer to ruin your life," Mary began. Would we take the sick piglet?

Howard was constantly battling my efforts to stock the house with various orphaned animals. He would not let me enter the local humane shelter. We had already adopted a neglected cockatiel and an about-to-be-homeless crimson rosella parrot. When our landlords moved to Paris, we adopted their loving gray and white cat, Mika, who followed Howard and me on walks like a dog and came when we called her. We also had had two peach-faced lovebirds once, but now we were down to one. When things went wrong with our animals, it usually happened when I was away. On a morning earlier that year, one of the times I was in Virginia caring for my dad, Howard found the male lovebird, Gladstone, on the bottom of the cage, which is a bad enough sign, but on closer inspection, Howard saw that his head was missing. The female, Peapack, sat unperturbed on her perch. We renamed the female Tonton Macoute.

My frequent travels --- sometimes I was gone for months, disappearing into some jungle, researching stories for newspapers and magazines and books --- were among the reasons Howard wanted no more animals. Once I had gone to Australia to live in a tent in the outback for half a year to study emus. When I'd left, we had Þve pet ferrets. When I came back, there were eighteen of them --- and the babies all bit viciously until I tamed them by carrying them around constantly next to my skin, under my shirt (giving new meaning to the term "hair shirt"). Howard, understandably, did not want to get stuck caring for an arkload of creatures who would surely choose my next absence to run amok, overpopulate, or decapitate one another.

"Normally I wouldn't even give her the message," Howard told Mary. "But her father's dying, and this might be a good idea."

TWO

Howard knew that if anything could soothe my soul, it

would be an animal. I always feel better in the company of animals; I am drawn to them so strongly it leaves some people alarmed. Once I leaped out of a moving truck in India in order to stroke a nine-foot-long wild python. (As my fellow travelers in the truck stared in horror, I petted the snake's tail while it turned its head to look at me benignly.)

A number of my friends have suggested, not always jokingly, I might be half animal myself. In my travels around the world, it appears that others see this too: shamans and fortune-tellers have told me again and again I am a very old soul --- but that this is my Þrst incarnation as a human.

That feels true. I've always known I am different. At times that has made me feel shy and awkward among other people, as if they were looking at me funny. (Possibly because the cockatiel who sat on my head as I worked left droppings in my hair.) But I am different inside, too. While other people are thinking about a new kitchen or a Caribbean cruise, or whether their child will win the soccer match, or what to wear to a party, I am thinking about how a possum's tail feels as it grips a branch, or whether the snapping turtle who tried to lay eggs in our yard last year will come back this fall.

Like a not-quite-human creature living among people far more comfortable in their own skins, I always felt a gap between me and more "normal" people. But, though neither Howard nor I realized it at the time, in the shoe box on my lap that gray spring day, we carried a creature who would bridge that gap in a way I'd never before dreamed possible. Because Christopher Hogwood would prove, in many ways, to be more human than I am.

What would we do with a pig? people wanted to know. He

was certainly not for the freezer, we would quickly assure them. I am a vegetarian and Howard is Jewish.

Of course we loved pigs --- but who doesn't? After all, what is more jolly and uplifting than a pig? Everything about a pig makes people want to laugh out loud with joy: the way their lardy bulk can mince along gracefully on tiptoe hooves, the way their tails curl, their unlikely, but extremely useful, ßexible nose disks, their great, greedy delight in eating. But we knew precious little about them.

When I was six, visiting my mother's mother in Arkansas, I had spent a blissful afternoon with a little boy hanging around his father's pigsty. The pigs were huge and pink and made fabulous, expressive noises. I was fascinated. I apparently classed them with horses (not a bad guess, as both are hoofed mammals --- but new DNA evidence shows horses are actually more closely related evolutionarily to dogs than to pigs) because I almost immediately got on the back of one of them as if she were a pony. The pig generously let me ride around on her. This was much talked about in the dusty little cotton-growing town of Lexa, where my glamorous mother had, improbably, grown up --- a place where nothing much more exciting than this ever happens. Later, the boy named a pig after me. I relished this honor so much that even though I never saw the boy again, I recall his name to this day --- as he surely recalls mine, more than four decades later, having said it daily over the life of his pig.

Since then, my experience with pigs was limited to visits to George and Mary's, the hog pens at local agricultural fairs, and a single meeting with our neighbor's huge brown boar, Ben. All too soon after our meeting, though, Ben disappeared into the neighbor's freezer.

But my husband seemed ready to embrace this new member of the family. Howard had already selected a new name for the Spotted Thing. He would be named in honor of an exponent of early music. The original Christopher Hogwood is a conductor and musicologist, and founder of the Academy of Ancient Music. We often used to write while listening to his conducted work on National Public Radio. So Christopher Hogwood was an apt name for several reasons. Pigs' afÞnity for classical music is well known; many an old-time hog farmer piped it into the sty to keep the pigs calm. As Howard likes to say, what earlier music is there than a pig's grunting?

But Christopher Hogwood did not grunt that Þrst night.

His breathing was wet and noisy. His eyes were runny, and so was his other end. We had no pig medicine. We didn't even have a proper sty. We didn't know how long he'd live. We didn't know how big he'd get. We didn't have a clue what we were getting into.

How long do pigs live? This was a question we would often be asked, and our answer always shocked everyone: six months. Most pigs are raised for slaughter, and this happens quite literally at a tender age, once they reach about 250 pounds. A few lucky sows and breeder boars will be allowed to live for years, but they, too, are usually dispatched when their productivity wanes. Even breeder boars seldom live past 6 or 7, because they become so heavy they would crush the young sows who produce the biggest litters.

Relatively few people keep pigs as pets. Those who do usually keep Vietnamese potbellied pigs. Vietnam, with a porcine population of about 11.6 million (winning top honors for most pigs in Southeast Asia), manages to cram so many pigs into such a small area by breeding extraordinarily small pigs --- but smallis a relative term when it comes to swine. Vietnamese potbellied pigs, if allowed to live to maturity at about age Þve, typically grow to about 150 pounds. From Vietnamese potbellied stock, scientists have bred even smaller pigs for research purposes --- "micropigs" who might weigh as little as thirty pounds and stand only fourteen inches tall, and who can make Þne pets. But many pigs touted as tiny turn out to be of mixed porcine parentage and, to their owners' horror, quickly outgrow their miniature dimensions, necessitating potbelly rescue groups such as Pigs Without Partners (Los Angeles) or L'il Orphan Hammies (in Solvang, California). Even the ones who stay small can mean big problems. One woman we know had to give away her Vietnamese potbelly because he would bite whenever he thought that she or her husband were taking up too much space in their communal bed.

Christopher Hogwood was no Vietnamese potbelly, but there was a decent chance, Mary promised us, that he would stay small. That Þrst night, we couldn't picture him growing much bigger than the shoe box in which we carried his shivering, emaciated form. We couldn't see that far ahead --- and I didn't want to. That spring, it seemed I woke every day to sorrow, as every day carried me closer to my father's death.

I could barely allow myself to hope Christopher would survive the night.

THREE

For so long, each morning had felt the same. From sleep, consciousness came on like a slow sickness. For a moment I would wonder vaguely what was wrong. Then it would hit me --- my father's cancer, the looming deadline for the book, the home we were going to lose --- and I would lie still as if pinned by its weight. "Now what?" I would think. I didn't want to get up.

Until the morning I woke up and remembered a baby pig was in the barn.

Originally I had envisioned him sleeping with us, in the bed. Howard, possibly inßuenced by the leaky state of the sick pig's rear end, had vetoed the idea. Chris should not be raised as a house pig, he insisted. My housekeeping was bad enough as it was.

So that Þrst night, Christopher Hogwood was exiled to the ground ßoor of the barn. We had prepared a cozy nest. There were no stalls in the barn, but no matter: among the charms of an old barn is a vast archive of farm and garden implements as well as leftover building materials and fencing supplies, the inherited riches of a century of previous owners and their animals. Our landlord's three-level barn, for instance, contained, among other things, a trove of New Hampshire license plates from different eras, an ancient wagon wheel, a granite millstone, a lead-lined grain bin, windows, doors, and screens of various sizes, rolls of chicken and turkey wire, a pile of wooden loading pallets, a jumble of metal fence stakes, a 1980s Gone with the Wind poster parody (Margaret Thatcher in the arms of Ronald Reagan), a framed print of the Mona Lisa, and a boat toilet. From such a collection you can usually Þnd, if not the very thing you want, at least something that will do.

Gretchen had come over to help us with the pig nursery. Raising organic vegetables, Siamese cats, and Connemara ponies on a hardscrabble farm in the next town over, she was an expert at making do: she had obtained the foam mattress for her bed from the dump ("before it had been rained on," she boasted). The stone foundation of the barn would serve as one outside wall, and two old doors, set on their sides and propped up with concrete blocks, created temporary back and side walls. Although the lower level of the barn had a huge sliding door on rollers, the bottom had rotted out, and a piglet could easily crawl beneath it to escape. But Gretchen saw instantly how to proceed. In front of our temporary pen, she placed a two-by-four on its long side, into which, incredibly, precisely Þtted the slats of one of the wooden pallets. Voilˆ: half a fence-like wall, about three feet high. Another pallet, tied with string to one of the barn's wooden beams, created the other half, forming a gate we could swing open.

On the barn's dirt ßoor we had scattered two bales of clean, fragrant wood shavings. We made a bed from a couple of ßakes of sweet hay. Here, on that Þrst night, as I knelt beside him stroking and kissing his stunted, spotted form, Christopher Hogwood pushed his nose disk beneath the hay, tucked his hooves beneath him, and went almost immediately to sleep.

Still, I had worried about him all night. What if he got sicker? Could we pay extensive vet bills on top of the airfares to Virginia? Or worse --- what if I found his little body lifeless in the hay? I rushed out of the house still in my nightshirt to see him. Already, I realized, I loved him so much it scared me.

Animals have always been my refuge, my avatars, my spirit

twins. As soon as I learned to talk, I began to inform people I was actually a dog. Next, for an entire year, I insisted I was a horse. My father obliged by calling me "Pony," taking me on endless pony rides, and patiently staring with me for hours at every animal in the zoo. The hippo, whose pen I toddled into at the zoo in Frankfurt, Germany, before I was two, failed to trample or bite me, instead behaving like most of the animals I met --- as if I belonged with them. Dragonßies, butterßies, and wild birds would light on my shoulders. Beetles and spiders were welcome to crawl on my skin. I preferred their company to that of other children, whom I found noisy and erratic.

When I was old enough to think about it, I realized I understood animals in a different way than other people, probably because I had the patience to watch them and see how interesting and compelling they really are. Perhaps animals revealed themselves to me because I didn't wiggle and scream like other kids. Other parents were astonished to Þnd I had sat still long enough for artists to complete two portraits of me before I was three --- paintings showing an infant, and then a toddler, with an unusually intense, focused gaze. Motionless and silent for hours, I was watching the ßame of a lit candle.

My father was proud of my concentration. My mother feared I was retarded. Her worries deepened when I was sent home on my Þrst day of kindergarten for biting a little boy after he tore the legs off a daddy longlegs. Even then I knew: the daddy longlegs and his kin were my tribe; the cruel little boy was not.

It was not that I disliked people; some of them were interesting and kind. But even the nice ones were no more compelling or important to me than other creatures. Then, as now, to me humans are but one species among billions of other equally vivid and thrilling lives. I was never drawn to other children simply because they were human. Humans seemed to me a rather bullying species, and I was on the side of the underdog.

Still, my mother cherished hopes I would turn out like a normal child. She bought me baby dolls. I ßung them aside. But Þrst I would strip off their clothes and use them to lovingly dress the stuffed baby caimans my father had brought back from South America. I would sometimes emerge from my room pushing a doll's pram, displaying the toothy, dressed-up reptiles to the horriÞed wives of colonels and generals gathered for my mother's bridge and cocktail parties.

This wasn't the sort of daughter my poor mother had in mind. On her Singer Featherweight, she sewed elaborate, frilly dresses to go with the lacy little girls' socks and patent leather shoes she bought at the PX. For her husband's promotion to brigadier general, a ceremony at which he also took command of the Brooklyn Army Terminal, she dressed up her blond six-year-old like those baby dolls I had ßung aside, complete with bonnet and little white gloves. I remember wishing I were wearing fatigues and combat boots like the other soldiers.

After all, hadn't I helped my father get his general's stars? Every night, before his promotion, we had a ritual: I would ride on his shoulders as he walked the green border of the oriental rug, pretending I was a circus girl and he was a giant gorilla walking a tightrope over a pit of snakes. He was teaching me to be brave, to fear nothing, to hunger for wild experiences. We were practicing, I believed, for adventures we would one day have together. We would explore the world --- Africa, where the real gorillas were, and Australia, where strange and alluring pouched mammals such as kangaroos and koalas lived. But Þrst, I would need to grow up, and he would need to trade the eagles on his shoulders for a brigadier's stars. So each night, before bed, I would seize the moon and the stars from the sky and put them in the pocket of my father's uniform, and kiss him goodnight.

Excerpted from THE GOOD GOOD PIG © Copyright 2011 by Sy Montgomery. Reprinted with permission by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Good Good Pig
by by Sy Montgomery

  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • paperback: 245 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0345496094
  • ISBN-13: 9780345496096