"So, maybe you don't want to come for the actual pig-herding itself. That could be a fiasco." Those were the words of my friend, Jim Dunlop, who'd invited me out to TLC Ranch to photograph something most people will never witness in their lives: herding a large number of pigs from one pasture to another. With only the services of only two men and himself to accomplish the task.
"Jim, everyone wants to photograph a fiasco. Would you deny me that opportunity?"
He laughed and allowed that I had a point.
The next thing to consider was whether or not I should bring Logan. Bob said yes, emphatically: Logan is smart, well-behaved, and could be trusted to a Very Good Little Boy in these circumstances.
And so it was on Friday afternoon, shortly after Logan's nap, that we arrived at the ranch, already finding Jim standing at the bottom of the big hill, uselessly shaking buckets of feed and calling, "Pigs, pigs, pigs, pigs" to a drove of pigs that had no more interest in him than if he'd been made of cardboard. Those are the pigs, at right, ignoring Jim, who is farther down the hill and out of the frame.
I parked the car immediately, at the crossroads instead of the upper lot. The pigs were already halfway down the hill, and there Jim stood, shaking his buckets like he was Desi Arnaz. I started laughing at the preposterousness of the sight: I could see only one caballero with a smallish stick, and looked around to see who in the hell else was going to get these pigs organized into the marching band Jim needed them to become, in order to get them down the dirt road into the lower pasture. There were well over twenty pigs, some small and some large; they moved as individuals and, occasionally, like a group of Italian drivers—suddenly and without warning doing lane changes right in front of you. Like a school of fish, startled by something.
Imagine you are a pig, and your days are spent in relative happiness in the confines of your movable pen. You live with your brothers and sisters, root and wallow in the grass and the mud, which is abundant this year, and you all sleep in pig piles. Your life is predictable: the farmer feeds you, gives you water, and occasionally scratches your back. Several times a day, your pen is moved, and your nose has the freedom it was intended to have: you turn up great chunks of the red muddy earth, and gobble bugs and dirt to your heart's content.
Today, however, something is different. You are liberated: you have been entrusted to upturn every single clod of dirt for a mile—you and your brothers and sisters have been charged with this sacred duty. You enter your responsibilities with abandon, and ignore the farmer with his pathetic buckets of food, as well as the guys with the sticks. Sticks? Ha! Your sticks mean nothing: this is my mud! It is my destiny! I am free!
Thus what appeared to be a photographic assignment for your correspondent quickly became instead yet another bullet on her résumé: "Tana Butler, pig herder." I got Logan onto the hood of the car to avoid any possibility that one of the pigs would knock him over, and found a big stick as quickly as I could. But until I found that stick, I found myself lunging and yelling and stomping at pigs. All but the biggest of them were deterred from further wanderings afield, and turned back in the direction they were supposed to.
There was one moment when the whole thing teetered on being a complete and utter disaster: the Mexicans couldn't be both behind the pigs and yet still contain them at the foot of the hill, and no way could I stop Mr. Biggest Pig from skedaddling towards the horse paddock, empty now of both horses and George and Weezy, the twin Jersey cows that live at TLC. Jim called to the Mexicans, "I think that whip should do the trick." The whip in question was not a menacing bullwhip, brandished à la Indiana Jones, but more of a gentle rope that Jésus flicked at the butts of the pigs who stopped moving. Somehow, impossibly, the next two or three minutes saw the whole bunch of them, galvanized and coalesced, streamlined and obediently aiming in Jim's direction.
"I think I needed thirty," was his response, a number we would soon find to be modest.
As soon as I determined that the pigs were cooperating, I got Logan and we walked behind, with Jésus and Joel.
Herding pigs is not like herding cows, who are generally eager to get where you're going because they think food and rest are involved. No. To employ the Italian analogy further, these pigs wanted to do the equivalent of hitting every rest stop on the autostrada. They wanted to sample the cucina della terra. They wanted to root and do the pig version of reading the newspaper. "Hullo! What's this? Tasty! Hey, brother, move over. You're hogging the road!"
We proceeded slowly, with Jim leading the procession like the Pied Piper of Animal Farm. From the rear, it seemed we slowly were willing the pigs to go down the road. Jim speculated later that having that shady corridor in front of them settled them down: the geometry was simple for them.
Logan found his own distractions with a couple of sticks that he wielded like a drum major's staff. (He's really into "The Music Man," what can I say?) Soon he settled into an imitation of Joel, calling, "Pigs! COME, YOU PIGS!" in a very bold little boy voice. The pigs obeyed, and Logan's stature grew by the minute.
It isn't a very long road, and most of the mud had dried or become manageable. I had to keep Logan's red boots out of pig droppings as we walked along, but otherwise things progressed easily. Jésus's rope reminded the pigs not to dawdle, and we moved a little faster than a snail's pace down the shady lane. Jim had run ahead to open the gate to the lower pasture, giving us time to catch up to him.
There is something about a fork in the road that is a particular menace when you're herding pigs. The pig, realizing that some kind of a choice is involved, intelligently considers his options. He is smart enough to detect the presence of a gate to the side, and smart enough to know that a gate can be closed. He is likewise smart enough to pretend to be whistling idly and checking out the iceplants, all the while inching farther and farther around the curve, away from the gate, and away from the farmer.
There is another type of walk that a pig adopts. It's a kind of a hunched-over "I'm just leaving work. I'm just going to go get in my car. See you Monday!" posture. Don't be fooled: these pigs aren't meandering. They're showing each other the way out.
As you can see in the photo immediately above and to the right, a few of the pigs in that contented chorus line have started around the corner, and that this corner leads away from the gate. It was then that Jésus, realizing the prospect of running down a road in pursuit of a dozen or more escapees from the pork platoon, leapt into action, bolting up the hill of ice plants, whip at the ready. Before the pigs knew what had happened, Jésus had planted himself in front of them like a superhero, ending whatever brief delusions they'd had of a prison break.
Chastened but apparently not scarred by the experience, most of the pigs headed off to the gate, while a few went backwards to commisserate with the other stragglers. One by one, with temperaments that ranged from eager to docile and even cheerful—to what could only be called reluctant, obstinate, and obstreperous, the pigs filed into the gate, with Jim having cleared the second entrance to their new home. That would be the huge pasture with the gigantic electric fence around it. The pasture appeared to be at least ten acres in size, though I admit I didn't walk its circumference. I had other duties (little did I know).
As the last of the pigs entered the sloping road down to the pasture, one pig apparently snapped. "You'll never take me alive, copper!" He bolted past Joel and he bolted past me: I barely had time to scoop up Logan and get him to safety behind the open gate. The few pigs who had not yet entered the pasture instantly started contemplating their own freedom, and we were a split-second from having a porcine Attica on our hands.
Jim and Jésus went into an insane and comical high-speed chase with the pig: Jésus's rope whip noosed the neck, and the pig reared up on his hind legs, slipped out, and made another mad dash for freedom. Let me state that a pig's squeal is not only ear-piercing, it's armor-piercing. It is loud.
Amazingly, in the middle of it, I took the photo at the top of the page: ultimately it was Jim's stick that convinced the pig that maybe another day or two on the chain gang wasn't the worst fate in the world.
I'm kidding, of course—he whapped the pig with it, but not hard enough to hurt. I'm surmising that, with the level of adrenalin in the pig at that point, very little pain would register. I'm also hoping that this particular pig has a great many tranquil days and nights to let that adrenalin drain out of his system, otherwise Jim will have to sell the meat as caffeinated. At any rate, let us believe that the pig—that all the pigs—are remembering the Tiny Pasture on Top of the Hill as nothing more than a cramped apartment they're glad to be out of.
In the free-for-all, Jim's video camera dropped—or jumped—to the ground. My own pockets had been divested of Logan's binky, my cell phone, and my car keys. The binky may never be the same, but it's been boiled and sterilized within an inch of its life.
Thus we brought the pigs to the pasture, and thus began Phase II of the operation. The men led the pigs into the electrified fence, and Logan called out greetings to George and Weezy, who gazed wide-eyed at the proceedings. They were keeping a safe distance, no doubt wondering if their new neighbors were going to be the often-screaming kind.(Or maybe I'm just projecting: I have an often-screaming neighbor.)
Jésus and Joel returned to the upper pasture, and Jim and I watched as the pigs started rooting in the cover crops. "It's the darnedest thing, because they have this entire open space, and what do they do every single time but go straight for the fence. I hope they learn really quickly how strong that fence is, though."
He nodded. "One of the dogs got on it a couple of days ago. Screams from hell for a few seconds."
We walked a few feet and he noticed something. Something that was decidedly Not Good. If you are clever, you can spot the evidence* in this picture, which is the last I was able to take that day because of The Problem with the Fence. It seems that the rooting so close to the fence had turned dirt up, which piled on the wire, shorting the fence out. Instead of a frighteningly strong current, the pigs were no more than tickled by the wire, and it failed as a deterrent to any kind of escape.
Jim ran ahead, moving the mud off the wires—that in itself was a trick worthy of Houdini, because you can't touch the wires if there is the remotest chance they're live. He couldn't touch them with a stick, nor even with his very thick, knee-high rubber boots. Really?! "I tried that once. Believe me, you don't want to do that."
Logan and I had to pace this portion of the fence, and I chunked short logs at the pigs who looked like they had visions of "Papillon" on their minds.
Finally Jim returned, and the fence was functional again. The proof? The air was punctuated with the occasional indignant scream as one pig after another learned their most important lesson for the day. That lesson will conclude this post. Meanwhile, despite the strength of the electrical current, it's not like we smelled bacon. (Darn.)
We walked with Jim back up the road, where he had to hurry to get some water for the pigs—they had worked hard themselves, making the move to their new home. On the way, farmer Jerry Thomas—an investor in the pig business at TLC Ranch—telephoned to hear how it had gone, but Jim said he'd have to call him back: the pigs were thirsty. "He's going to be mad he missed the fun."
I said, "I know. I'll show him the pictures." Which I did at the farmers market yesterday. Yep, he missed the fun. I'm glad I didn't.
THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: "Good fences make good neighbors." — Robert Frost
That's all for now, and thanks so much for visiting.
* Um, the pig is outside the fence.