At the beginning of September, I set off on a new adventure: I’m traveling around the country over the coming months, living and volunteering on a variety of small-scale organic farms through WWOOF. This essay is about my most recent stop: a family farm in Bulls Gap, Tennessee.
One of the pigs went into labor within the first hour of my arrival at my latest farmstay in Tennessee, which belongs to a married couple (husband J and wife W) with two sons and two daughters between the ages of three and eight. The sow laid on her side, panting, while we watched from outside the fence.
A tiny, speckled piglet slipped out and wriggled blindly in the hay, and then another. I squirmed and squealed, just like the pink-eared baby animals. This was delight. This was wonder. This was the blissful naïveté of optimistic glee that infused those days before the presidential election, when it seemed like the whole country was on the cusp of exhilarating newness — nervous, but so very hopeful.
The kids were enthused but easily distractible, already familiar with the bloody births (and deaths) of livestock after residing on the farm for a year and a half. They were interested in the process, but more inquisitive than enchanted. Children always seem so blithely curious about these things, as if still too close to their own births and too far from their own deaths to view either margin of life as loaded with formidable magic. They come riddled with pure questions, unweighted by adult anxiety.
The birthing process soon took a turn for the worse. We had predicted ten piglets based on the number of the mom’s teats and expected them to arrive about ten minutes apart, but twenty minutes passed after the second piglet, and then thirty, and then forty. As the first two attempted to nurse, the sow growled and snapped at them aggressively, shoving them away. Each time, I leapt, battling the urge to jump the fence, to nuzzle the piglets myself, to interject.
“Come on, mama,” we kept pleading from outside. “I don’t understand.” “I don’t understand.” “I don’t understand.”
“Why?” asked the kids repeatedly, losing patience. “We don’t know,” replied the adults, at a loss for answers. “No, oh, no!” we all said, over and over, losing hope.
We were wrestling for control as it slipped like sand through our fingers. Our words would change nothing, but they were, at least, expressions of emotional energy, converted and released — the jerks, tugs and yanks of empathy, worry, and unease. They were the reverberating echoes of our shared human pain, passed from one person to the next while we communally watched the natural but hideous catastrophe unfold, powerless to stop it, simply wishing the outcome were different. So quickly, delight had cracked and crumbled into defeat.
I’ll save you the gory details, but the sow ultimately bore four babies. By the following afternoon, only one tiny-hoofed tot remained alive. It was the second of the four, recognizable by its pattern. By coincidence, it was also the only one that the children had given a name.
“Let’s call that one Lucky,” they had said, almost immediately after it emerged, when things still looked good, but not long before they gave up waiting and abandoned the scene. “See, you can recognize it because of the black spot around its eye, see?”
Lucky. Yes. I saw. In the days that followed, watching was just about the only thing I could do, unsure whether to smile or cringe at the piglet’s vulnerable stumbles and sniffs around the pen. I watched and I witnessed as — by what seemed like a miracle — he survived.