Wednesday, 16 December 2015 11:34

Letters from a Conservative Farmer - Sow Walk

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Letters from a Conservative Farmer - Sow Walk

Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner is an Associate Editor of the St. Croix Review. Jigs Gardner writes on literature from the Adirondacks, where he may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
From long experience in the world this female [sow] was grown very sagacious and artful. When she found occasion to converse with a boar she used to open all the intervening gates, and march, by herself, up to a distant farm where one was kept; and when her purpose was served would return by the same means. -Gilbert White, The Natural History of Selborne, Letter XXXIII, May 1776.

When I missed the big sow leaning over the wall of her pen, barking for her breakfast, a suspicion stirred in my mind, but suspicion became certainty when I looked in the pen and saw Mrs. Pig sitting back on her haunches, looking at me fondly; her last breeding had not been successful. Just to be sure, I gave her the definitive test. Climbing into the pen, I bent over in front of the sow for just the wink of a moment. Even as I straightened up and scrambled for the wall, she was trying to mount me - all 500 pounds of her.

Jo Ann looked up from the milking stool.

"Sow's in heat."

"Oh, no!"

"Don't worry, I'll manage it some way."

We talked it over at breakfast when we got back from the barn. It was a two-mile drive through the woods to the boar, but before I even got started I would have to spread the manure that was on the wagon, remove the wagon body and replace it with a bigger one, and finally, inveigle Mrs. Pig into her traveling crate and hoist that on the wagon. Ordinarily, this would not present a problem, but Jo Ann was coming down with something and was feeling rottener by the minute, so I would have to do everything alone - not an impossible job, but not a desirable one, either.

By the time the dishes were done, nothing had been decided, but I said again, as I went out the door, "Don't worry, I'll take care of it." I added jokingly, "Maybe I'll lead her on a rope." Jo Ann laughed.

The truth was, the passage from White's Natural History had lain in the back of my mind for years, waiting for this moment. I knew very well what I was going to do; I was going to walk the sow to the boar.

I got Mrs. Pig out the door and into the barnyard all right, but then my troubles began. The hardest part of the whole journey was getting the sow away from the vicinity of the barn. Walking behind her, I used a long, slender stick as a guide: if she started a left deviation, I reached over and tapped her on the left jowl, and so on. Guiding her near the barn, however, was difficult, because there was no road, no path, just an expanse of barnyard and then pasture before we reached the woods. In the middle of the pasture, I almost gave up and turned back. Mrs. Pig would not go forward, only sideways, with a strong inclination for backwards. I gained new appreciation for the term "pig-headed." So I kept myself always between her and the barn. I leaned against her, I halted her left and right deviations, I uttered soft sounds of encouragement, and eventually, grudgingly, Mrs. Pig allowed herself to be pushed through the gate and into the woods road.

The narrow road did not offer the sow the invitation to wander sideways but, of course, she wanted to root around in the mossy duff underfoot, so our progress was leisurely: amble and root, amble and root.

Walking behind her, urging her on from time to time, I thought about the road ahead. In a half mile, the woods road would strike a power line, and there we would be at a crossroad. I wanted to turn left, following the power line for about a half mile until it reached the old abandoned portion of Robinson Road, which we could follow almost to the boar. The other way, straight across the power line, offered us more open fields and a longer walk on a main graveled road.

The problem, of course, was whether the sow could be turned out of her straight road, and there I had doubts. For one thing, I had never transported her that way in the wagon; we had always gone straight ahead. For another thing, it seemed to me that Mrs. Pig was using her nose as a guide, and I had been over the straight road with another sow in a wagon just a few days before. There'd be no such scent the other way. Well, we would see.

Meanwhile, I enjoyed the sights and sounds of the woods in early May in a way - a slow walk - that is unusual for me in the spring when I'm so busy with fencing and cultivating and the myriad tasks the farm cries out for me to do. Lately, I had traveled in these woods only with the team, and the navigational hazards of a narrow woods road - low branches, boggy spots, projecting roots, sharp turns, and so on - have held my attention. For instance, just before we reached the power line, noticing some chickdees in a spruce beside the road, I stopped to watch them and was rewarded with a sight, not of the common black-caps, but of the rarer brown-caps. I should not have seen them at all if I had not been just ambling along behind Mrs. Pig.

When we reached the power line, my forebodings were borne out; the sow would not turn left, insisting instead on sniffing her way straight across the power line. Knowing the futility of arguing with a sow that size, I followed her along the road until it ended in a field above my neighbors' farmhouse. Here I anticipated more backing and filling and sideways wandering, but Mrs. Pig fooled me by heading right for the farmhouse and then on down the long lane.

Even the main road didn't faze her; as directed, she turned left and stepped right along. I began to think we might make it, and I considered how to reveal, with maximum effect, my exploit to Jo Ann. Running through, in my mind, some different approaches, I finally settled on the cool, casual act: "Where were you?" "Oh, just strolling over to the Lewises' with Mrs. Pig." Something like that.

My daydream was disturbed by the sound of a car behind me. Great Heavens! What will the sow do? Whiz! And the car was past us, and lo! Mrs. Pig immediately chased it at a fast trot, ears flopping and tail wagging, until the car was out of sight. One other car passed us, and she chased that one, too. A kind Providence did not send us any cars from the opposite direction.

When we came in sight of our destination, Lewis, the boar's owner and manager, was walking toward the barn. He stopped and stared at us for a long moment before he hustled to the barn and let out the boar. Mrs. Pig trotted straight into the barnyard, there to cavort and gambol with the boar while Lewis and I went in the kitchen for tea and cookies.

Lewis told me that he had never seen such a feat, though his father used to lead a sow 400 yards down the road to a boar at the next farm. But two miles! It was a triumphant moment for me, and I was so pleased with Mrs. Pig's performance that I left her there to enjoy the boar's company overnight.

But it was the triumph at home I looked forward to, though the scenario was not quite what I had envisioned. My casual act never had a chance because Jo Ann had figured out what I had done, but she did not disappoint me:

After a long while, seeing that the wagon was still parked in front of the barn, I went up to see what was going on, and when I saw the empty pen, my mouth just fell open!

And she gave me a kiss. *

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