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Letters from a Conservative Farmer: Versed in Country Things — the Test of Winter

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Letters from a Conservative Farmer: Versed in Country Things — the Test of Winter

Jigs Gardner

The late Jigs Gardner was an associate editor of The St. Croix Review. Jigs Gardner wrote from the Adirondacks. These early essays, some of which were written decades ago, are of timeless quality.

Looking back over my forty-five-year career with animals like pigs and cows and horses, I think it very unwise for anyone to undertake their care who has not been raised to it from his earliest years, because only then will he have imprinted in his brain (and deeper than that) the precautionary attitudes that will keep him from making dreadful mistakes that often bring harm to his animals. Once you are as old as I was (twenty-nine) it’s too late, then wariness is no more than muttered admonitions when they must be instinctive, not thought over but acted upon unconsciously and instantly. So, on a warmish afternoon in late November with a bit of sun, when the snow was then enough for patches of grass to show here and there, I turned Aster into the pasture behind the house at noon, thinking she’d like a break from the stable, a sentimental thought. It is an axiom that I eventually learned that you never turn an animal into a pasture without first thinking about the fencing, running over it in your mind, probing for weak spots, but then I didn’t give a thought to the leaning posts and sagging wires in front of me. I went into the house, ate lunch, did some reading, and then turned to churning butter. I forgot all about Aster. Even when the sky darkened and snow began I didn’t think of her. It was only when the boys came home from school late in the afternoon that I remembered. “Oh boys, bring in the cow, will you? She’s in the pasture.”

When they came running back to tell me she was gone, my heart sank, not because I realized how stupid I had been, but because I hardly knew what to do, never having faced such a situation. The three of us ran out to search the pasture until we found her tracks heading right through the broken fence and up into the darkening woods. A grim prospect. Running back to the stable, I got the lantern and, leaving Jesse to go back to the house, Seth and I set off, following the tracks up through the woods, down through a brushy meadow, and out into the road. She was headed away from home, over the hill toward the village. Snowflakes hissed against the lantern. We had not gone far when a pickup truck, coming towards us, stopped.

“Your cow’s over to my barn. C’mon.”

We climbed in, he turned the truck, and we started over the hill. I did not know him, nor where his farm was, and I had trouble understanding him, but I made out something about it being a bad day to leave a cow out.

I lied from shame. “I just let her out to get some exercise, and before I knew it, she was gone.”

We had driven over the hill and started down the other side before he spoke again. It sounded like a question. “What?” This time I heard the syllables clearly but couldn’t make sense of them. It sounded like “Wutchee-buln.” I just nodded, said “Yep,” and hoped for the best. He said nothing. We drove a long way down the hill toward the village, then along a side road before we stopped at a large barn beside the road. There were lights in the stable and we could hear what sounded like a lot of cows. The farmer led us around the corner of the barn and there was Aster, tied to the wheel of a manure spreader.

“Got a rope?”

“A rope?” I stared stupidly at him.

He untied the rope from the wheel and handed the end to me. “Y’can have that; it ain’t but a piece.”

I started to thank him, but I was yanked away in an instant as Aster tore off around the barn. As I was dragged along, I heard the farmer yell, “Hang on there!” and I thought I heard him laugh. When I got back to where I had started, the farmer was gone but Seth was waiting with the lantern. As we walked beside the barn, we could hear the clatter of milking machines and the sound of voices. I was relieved when we got on the road. We had not gone far when Aster tried to go back, and it was all I could do to turn her. Then she wouldn’t go at all. Seth twisted her tail, I tugged on the rope, and finally we got her moving, very reluctantly, in the right direction. It was not until we turned the corner into the main road that she gave up the struggle and walked willingly along with us. “Why did she do that?” I wondered.

“Maybe she’s lonely,” Seth said. I thought about that. I had bought her out of a herd. Would she miss her stable mates? I knew nothing.

Now our way was all uphill, a steep climb for half a mile. The wind was in our faces, and snow blew down our necks as we bent our heads and plodded on. The snowfall thinned and then stopped just as we reached the top and started down the other side. I was tired, and I didn’t like to think about Seth, only seven years old, who had walked a mile and a half home from school to start with. The syllables I hadn’t comprehended — “wutchee-buln” — kept sounding in my head until I began to form them with my lips, whispering them at first, finally chanting them aloud to entertain Seth, until the two of us were shouting “wutchee-buln” at the top of our voices.

“That’s it! That’s it! That’s what he said; “What’s she, bullin?” I stopped in the road and laughed, pleased that I had solved the puzzle. But what did it mean? It didn’t take long to figure it out. Holding the lantern close, I could plainly see some clear mucus under Aster’s tail.

“Well, Seth, you were right: Aster was lonely. She’s in heat, which means she didn’t settle when she was bred, so she’s not going to have a calf next spring. Now we’ll have to see about getting her bred again.” That was a great disappointment. We had all been looking forward to our first calf.

As we turned into the side road leading to our house, the sky was suddenly, brilliantly clear. “Look at the stars!” I cried. They brightly studded the black sky. We walked on within our small circle of yellow lantern light, looking up at the stars. Aster stared ahead, her brown eyes gleaming darkly in the swaying circle of light. The Pleiades was in the center of the view, and I pointed it out to Seth and told him the story. The idea of stars having names and stories was a strange novelty, and he wanted to see Orion, but I told him he hadn’t risen yet; I would take him out after supper and he could see the constellation then. The last quarter mile seemed very long as we trudged on in silence, the only sounds our muffled steps and Aster’s breathing.

As I milked, sitting on the stool with the lantern on the floor throwing a warm, mellow light around the stable — on the looming cow, the whitewashed walls, the chickens on the roost, the yellow straw on the floor — as I gazed around at all these now familiar things, unknown three months ago, I told myself that I should be content: I had brought the cow home and all was well. But I knew that I had been unbelievably stupid and negligent. Of course, I had known of my ignorance from the beginning, but vaguely, even flatteringly, because I could see how I had learned one thing after another: How to milk a cow and churn butter, how to fell a tree, how to feed a pig, and so many other things. Now, however, my easy optimism about my capacities was disturbed. I hung up the milking stool and bent to pick up the lantern. In the act, looking down at the warm circle of light at my feet, I was aware, suddenly, of the stars above the cow, above the hayloft, the barn roof, over the hill, millions and millions of miles above the earth, whirling and burning in the night of space colder and darker than any northern winter night could be, with their human names and human stories.

There was no one to tell me how to slaughter a pig (Willie had his done for him), so I wrote to the Government Printing Office to ask if there were a publication that would tell me how to slaughter and process one pig, in other words, not a large-scale commercial operation. I promptly received a booklet, Slaughtering, Cutting, and Processing Pork on the Farm. That was just what I wanted, and it cost only twenty cents. The cover is long gone. Years ago, I made another from the heavy stock used for file folders, and that’s worn and greasy, the title nearly effaced. As I turn its tattered, stained pages, I am reminded of that seamanship book cherished by the Russian trader in The Heart of Darkness, the book of which the narrator says,

You could see there a singleness of intention, an honest concern for the right way of going to work, which made these humble pages . . . luminous with another than a professional light.

This is the epigraph:

Success in preparing meat depends on strict attention to the methods used. None of the details of these methods is difficult, but all are important.

And it is absolutely true, as is everything else in the booklet. It is a masterpiece of practical truth presented simply and directly. But there is something else going on here, as the copious illustrations reveal. The man in most of the photos in the first section, the one on slaughtering, is a paragon of neatness and cleanliness. Hair carefully combed, spotless work clothes unrumpled, everything about him shipshape, he epitomized not merely the firm, unruffled efficiency of the whole operation, but also the Platonic essence of the booklet, which represents in its pages the Type of pig slaughtering, the Ideal towards which we can and should strive, but which we can only approximate, as I know too well. Over the last nearly fifty years that I have slaughtered pigs, my own and others, with somewhere around one-hundred and fifty individuals, I can find no one, when I search the images in my memory, who is not dirty and disheveled, splashed with water and blood, stuck all over with bits of pig hair, and if, as is almost always the case, we’ve been heating the water by burning tires, smeared with soot, too. But I did not know that yet — those slaughterings lay in the future. Right now, in mid-December, Clay’s food supply was about exhausted: All the beets and carrots and turnips and cabbages scavenged from gardens, all the apple pomace, all the boxes of stale cornflakes sent up by a grocer friend in Tweedyville, all the few bags of feed we had bought, everything Clay had ingested, and now I must kill him and make him into ham, bacon, chops, spareribs, sausage, and lard.

We had a reunion of some of the friends who had helped us move in September, Walt and Mary and two or three others, and the night before the job I wrote an abstract of the slaughtering and butchering sections of the booklet. Sitting at the table by the lamp, so intent on the task that I was oblivious to the festive goings on about me, I wrote a precis of each step on little pieces of paper that I could carry in my pocket next day, testimony to my anxiety as well as to the value of book learning: Without any experience (I had never killed any farm animal, not even a chicken) I was able to read a description of the technique, understand it well enough to make an abstract, and finally reduce that to notes of instruction. When Jo Ann and I did the job on Cape Breton years later — slaughtering, removing the hair, gutting, splitting the carcass — it took about an hour, and next day, having hung the carcass overnight to cool, I would butcher it alone in another hour. That day four of us took the whole day to do the job.

My only blunder occurred at the start when I failed to stun Clay with the .22. It is never easy to hit the precise spot between and above the eyes, and I was so nervous I’m surprised I didn’t shoot one of the helpers. There was nothing for it but to catch him and hold him down while I stuck the knife in to sever the carotid artery. It was ten below and getting colder all the time so it took forever to get the water hot enough to remove the hair. Unfamiliarity with what we were doing was the main problem. It is one thing to make an abstract of words on paper, but quite another to make one’s muscles work quickly and deftly in obedience to those words. Book learning is brought to completion by experience. And I was such a perfectionist, determined to follow the directions exactly, to produce a sleek, clean carcass like the one in the booklet! It was, I think, the best pig job I ever did. But picture me standing in the snow, peering at those little slips of paper, trying to decide if Step Twenty-Nine is done properly so we can move on to Step Thirty! Because it was so cold — twenty-five below by the end of the afternoon — the carcass was firm enough to butcher in the mudroom after lunch. While we were cutting up the carcass, Jo Ann and Mary were rendering the suet into lard and cracklings, that wonderful byproduct hitherto unknown to us. We even ground the sausage then, and I would have mixed the cure for bacons and hams, too, but the simple calculations eluded my tired mind. Working the entire day in extreme cold while concentrating intently on a strange task would be tiring enough, but there was something else, as I eventually learned from other slaughtering jobs: The killing of an animal is never a trivial act, and it sends a shock all though your mind and body.

Walt and Mary stayed on into January, after everyone else went home for Christmas, helping to give us another lesson in the arts of the Simple Life when, going upstairs one night in the dark, Mary tripped and crashed into the stovepipe, which ran from the kitchen range across the living room ceiling and up into the bedroom above, where it finally entered the chimney. I was sitting at the table, reading; in an instant, even as the lengths of pipe were tumbling about me, the page darkened, covered with a film of soot. The air was filled with a fine black dust. I picked up a piece of pipe and looked inside — it was stiff with soot, almost entirely closed. Now I knew why we were having so much trouble with the smoky range. What a horror faced us next morning! The entire room, the most important one in the house, was covered in soot, whose chief characteristic, from the point of view of cleaning it up, is its greasiness. No casual dusting works; that just smears it. Everything must be thoroughly cleaned. It took us all day. After that, when I cleaned the chimney every month I also took down all the stovepipe and cleaned that, too.

Now the snow was over a foot deep, and since the road up and over the hill from the village was only plowed as far as our place, the boys could no longer make the trek down the hill to the bus. The school board’s decision was for the boys to walk two and a half miles over the hill to the village, a route already ruled out for a bus as being too dangerous in winter. After a brief struggle, the board relented to the extent that a smaller bus now going partway up the hill, would continue to the top but no farther, three quarters of a mile from Corbin’s, and there the boys would meet it until spring, when we would revert to the initial arrangement. The board was determined not to send a bus to our door. We did not know it, but our children were the only ones in town who did any walking at all.

For years I had been making all our jams and jellies, jar after jar of wild grape, apple, chokecherry, elderberry, raspberry, blackberry, cranberry, red currant, strawberry, mint, enough to give plenty to our friends, and now I conceived what I thought was a brilliant idea: I would suggest to our friends that they buy those wonderful preserves as Christmas gifts for their friends. A friend who had a home printing press made up postcards with our price list, and early in November I mailed them to twenty-five people. What was the result? One couple, needy graduate students, ordered two jars, and another couple generously ordered jam for a number of friends. I must have expected more than that, but probably not much more, because I remember clearly how pleased I was as I wrapped and addressed the packages. What was disappointing was the lack of response, the utter silence from twenty-three out of twenty-five. In time I realized that the jelly card, seemingly so insignificant, had been that last straw and I was never going to hear from most of my friends again. There had been indications for some time that they were not pleased with our move, as a few had not been shy about telling us, but this was too much, a brazen act of effrontery, trying to exploit my friends for money. Keep in mind that this was some years before the pose of the Simple Life, first enacted by the herd of hippie homesteaders, would be applauded by all right-thinking citizens.

With our academic friends, things were a little less straightforward. From the beginning, from the previous spring when our plans became known, I was made to feel, not that I was doing something stupid (a wholly justified criticism), but that it was momentous: “You’re quitting Civilization,” “You can’t run away from Life,” and there was a resentful tone to their accusations, as if I were challenging them in some way. It took a long time and many ruminative sessions on the milking stool before I put enough distance between myself and my old life, with all its mental habits and associations, to enable me to understand their reaction. Most of the instructors (and a good many of the higher-ups) at a pretentious second-rate college like Tweedy were insecure toadies, men who could actually and unashamedly say, “Wait until I get tenure, then I’ll take off the mask.” They might be pleasant, sometimes even intelligent, but they were fearful conformists of shallow culture and narrow interests. I am not sure of the exact notion that formed in their minds when I said we were going to live on a small farm on a remote hillside in northern Vermont, but I think they imagined that I was escaping the clutches of their world to do something that, despite its drawbacks (no New York Times on Sundays, no endless coffee drinking in the Student Union), was mythically masculine, earthy, and independent. Their resentment had its source in a sort of sneaking envy. They hoped that I would fail, that the whole thing would turn out to be a humiliating fiasco, proving to their relief and satisfaction that the choices they had made, the demeaning expedients of the careers they were anxiously pursuing were indeed good and just and correct. The jelly cards, evidence of my degradation, were their vindication. I had dropped out of their caste, and now out of their class — and good riddance. From a worldly point of view, they were quite right, and I say that without sarcasm.

But let us not end this Christmas account on such a solemn note. With my propensity for tactlessness, my talent for simultaneously amusing myself and offending everyone else, there was the matter of the greeting cards. A former student, knowing my wayward sense of humor, had sent me a magazine devoted to photos of effete-looking young men in studied poses wearing suntan oil and jock straps: “Mark and Peter take time out to folic at the beach.” Mark was also selling greeting cards featuring pictures of himself in various attitudes, and I, having thoughtfully selected my favorite, squandered a few of our dwindling dollars on a couple of dozen. Mark, simpering suggestively, is pictured leaping gracefully out of a large gift box, his outstretched arms holding a banner that doubles as a fig leaf and a proclamation: “Seasons’s Greetings!” Mark’s appearance among the Christmas mail of my friends must have been the QED of my erratic course, an appalling example of bad taste at a time when shame, if nothing else, should have dictated a mien of sobriety and humility.     *

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Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner is an associate editor of the St. Croix Review.

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