Press "Enter" to skip to content

A Farmer Far Afield: A Lesson From Ernie, A Pig

By John Mattingly

Pigs get a mixed rap for being both cute and crude, smart and boorish, sweet and sour, and in the kitchen as bacon. Though pigs are, after all, earthy by nature, they are actually quite neat, when given the opportunity.

Pigs will go to unexpected extremes to concentrate their metabolic wastes in one place, even if it means disturbing other pigs to do it. I know this because I ended up with fifty piglets in a transaction involving ducks and goats, encouraged by the trader’s warranty: “These pigs are guaranteed to eat as long as they’re alive.”

We contained the piglets in a pen with a loafing shed, into which they tightly packed themselves at night like sardines in a can, quite literally. There was no dead air space between or among the fractal organism of piglets.

At about twenty pounds, piglets are adorable and we often went out to the loafing shed at night with headlamps to observe them snorting and groaning as they slept. If a piglet needed to urinate, or cleanse him or herself more deeply, that pig would rise, stretch extravagantly, point its snout toward the shed opening, and nudge (or bite if necessary) any piglets in the path to the swine latrine. There they relieved themselves in the designated waste area, then returned to the shed, where they insisted on returning to the exact spot from which they had first arisen.

This insistence meant disturbing piglets in the path to that spot, because each pig also had to return to the exact spot they were in before one of their members broke away. This sometimes required that all the pigs stand, stretch, take a brief walk in the night, perhaps drink and use the latrine, and then agree to put the puzzle of piglets back together again.

The same year of our adventure with pigs, was also a year when we inherited a huge volume of partially frozen pumpkins – a story with its own credentials – and we tried feeding them to the piglets, along with corn and triticale. Not only did the piglets like pumpkins, they became pesky, impatient, and even pernicious when a load of pumpkins did not appear in their pen by sunrise, and another before sunset.

[InContentAdTwo] On this diet, the piglets grew faster than seemed possible, maturing into a pack of piggy banks, with one small problem along the way. One day I noticed the pigs doing a peculiar dance step, like a “Teaberry Shuffle.” By the third day of this, I wondered what was happening. All the pigs were doing this dance. After soliciting the counsel of several neighbors known to understand pigs, we realized that the pigs were so hungry for the pumpkins that they weren’t chewing the seeds sufficiently, if at all, and the sharp edges of the seed hulls caused a slight spasm near the tail of their intestines.

To test this theory meant holding the pigs off pumpkins for long enough to see if the dancing would stop. But keeping pigs away from pumpkins after pigs have tasted pumpkins, is not advised. By the second pumpkin-free day, they had started a major excavation under the fence, aimed at the pumpkin pile. If they escaped, there was well-warranted concern that they would eat themselves to death, and make a mess in the process, because pigs are far more discreet with their exudates than they are with their feeding manners.

Consequently, we continued to feed pumpkins to the pigs and they danced all the way to market, with one exception. One piglet, named Ernie, failed to grow. His ears, however, grew to full size, providing him with shade in summer and cover in winter. A friend observed that Ernie was probably the smartest pig in the bunch. He knew that if he grew, it would be fatal.

Ernie was with us for many years and he never grew. Perhaps he was a pygmy pig, the result of some long recessive gene making a surprise comeback. Maybe he was a living example of the virtue of sustaining versus growing, if you are in the presence of a large number of pigs.

In either case, the immortal words of Milne often came to mind when I spoke with Ernie. Piglet asks Pooh, “We’ll be friends forever, right?”

“Even longer,” Pooh said.

John Mattingly cultivates prose, among other things, and was most recently seen near Moffat.