Wednesday: heading into the city through a landscape bright with new growth. The lilacs are out, big time. It's the one time of the year when this landscape looks as pretty as a hopeful child in a brand-new dress.

The new highways sweeps over the river in a pair of bridges. I'm particularly fond of the river; it's the boundary between us and the regional municipality, thanks be to God; and it's also a handsome river in its own right: not one of the Great Rivers of the World, but substantial, reasonably important, like (say) the mayor of a small city. I almost always acknowledge it as I cross the bridge, either way.

But not this time; because just as I got to the bridge, I found myself passing a transport truck, a 16-wheeler--it was pass him or crawl up his tailpipe, so I passed. The truck's trailer was unusual: plain unpainted metal (stainless steel, it looked like), perforated all up and down the sides, like metallic eyelet lace. Only one kind of truck needs that kind of ventilation: an animal transport. As I passed, I glanced sideways at the trailer and saw a pale rounded form, not large, not small--probably butt-high on me if I'd been standing next to it. A full-grown pig.

Now: I spent 20-odd years married into a farming family, and I am not sentimental about livestock. I am a cook, and I'm practical, and I am not in the least squeamish. My former uncles- and cousins-in-law raised livestock, mostly shorthorns but also pigs, chickens and turkeys. I've been in the meat shed working with them as they took beef carcasses apart swiftly and neatly with knives of a frightening sharpness. I have--I don't blush to say it--slaughtered trout and carp in my fishmongering days, and I have dropped more than one lobster headfirst into boiling salted water. I can pluck and gut a chicken, clean, scale and fillet a flounder, bone out a leg of lamb, and trim a beef tongue for salting. And none of this bothers me in the least. I can even take a green garbage bag full of warm, disgusting beef kidney fat, chill it down, pick it over, and reduce it into clean, mild pinkish-white beef suet. Life hasn't thus far called upon me to flense a seal, but no doubt I could do it, if someone showed me how.

But the pig bothered me. I'm not sentimental about farm animals, but I do have cats, and I do know how much they hate being transported in the car. Okay, being in the car means going to the vet, but I know they hate simply being in the car. The ground moves under them. They're tossed around however gently I start and stop; they can't see what's about to happen when I'm turning a corner and brace themselves for the turn. They are out of control and unsure of their footing, and my cats HATE that. Yes, I know that other animals love going for a drive, but they have to have practice --to become used to the rhythm of being transported. And I somehow doubted that this pig had been taken for joy rides during its all-too-short lifetime.

It was different at my in-laws' farm: there the animal to be slaughtered was led to a truck, transported only a few minutes, and killed with more dispatch and humaneness than most of us get when we're dying. But this pig, like the other pigs in the truck, was being taken long distances in circumstances that it (no, he or she; pigs aren't its) was apt find frightening, disconcerting, noisy, distressful.

This new awareness bothered me. It led my imagination to the abattoir, the smell of fear, the squeals of terror, the stench of blood and guts. Yes, I've killed trout and lobster, but at least they didn't have to hang around, bellowing disconsolately, with that instinctive knowledge that something was terribly wrong. I have been helpless in the face of terror, and yes, I am smarter than the pig, and yes, my well-developed cerebral cortices were at play in dances that the pig's brain cannot begin to follow--but fear is a hind-brain thing, and my hind-brain really isn't so much bigger or more sophisticated than the pig's. We're different; but we're not entirely dissimilar.

I drew ahead of the truck a little at a time, further and further distant, until I rounded a curve and lost sight of it; by the time the curve straightened out, the truck with the pig was so far behind me that it was toy-like. My pig-consciousness might have dwindled correspondingly, into a mild sort of regret: isn't it too bad that pigs have to suffer if we're to have delicious pork. But in fact, my pig-consciousness stayed full-size for a while longer--probably (she says cynically) because as usual, I have a piece to write this week.

Pig-consciousness or not, I bought a lovely little pork loin roast on Friday, and we had it for supper with potatoes and corn, and it was truly delicious. But enough of my pig-consciousness was still lurking that I knew what a hypocrite I was being. If you're properly pig-conscious, the only real ethical choice is vegetarianism, which has all sort of other good ethical, financial and environmental underpinnings--so much so that I have to agree with animal liberation organizations like PETA, even if I don't admire their attitudes. Pretty much the only argument that I can think of against vegetarianism is that the pig whose flesh we ate on Friday would never have existed at all if there weren't a demand for roast pork. And that we all have to die, pigs, cats and people, and for many, people and animals, death is much crueller than what this pig is facing. And that a law is afoot in Canada to make cruelty to animals a criminal offence with really hefty penalties. Which is something, but not nearly enough.

So: I stand once again a sinner: my pig-consciousness talk accusing my roast-pork-eating walk, and the two of them really can't be matched up. You can call this hypocrisy, if you see things in simple black-and-white. Or, if your mindset is somewhat less either-or, you can find (as Native peoples often did) a way of weaving consciousness of the pig and need of the pig-meat together in a single prayer: a prayer that honours the pig and asks its forgiveness for being turned into pork, and thanks the Creator "for what we are about to eat." On a practical level, the best thing, other than vegetarianism, would be to copy Eumaios the swineherd's example. You take a shoat from a well-tended and cared-for herd of pigs; you brain it with a split of firewood, so that it never knew what hit it; you slaughter it giving thanks to the Divine for it and for the gift of life; and you share and eat of it most gratefully. While our Lord, as an observant Jew, didn't eat pork, he probably did eat lamb, mutton, and kid, and he certainly ate fish, and gave thanks.

Still, though, my conscience says that the best thing of all would be to be conscious of the pig as one of God's beloved critters, as my cats are my beloved furpersons, and to abstain from pork. Given that I've already flunked that particular test, which is better/worse: that I knowingly consume the pig while being aware that it's God's beloved critter? or that I consume without being pig-conscious at all? I'm not sure I have an answer to that one. We tend to think that innocence is better, or at least nicer, than the alternatives. But I'm not so sure of that either.

The best thing, of course, is to love and honour Creation and to do it no harm. The second-best thing, the thing we probably have to live with realistically, is to love and honour Creation and do it as little harm as possible--to be aware of how our actions affect Creation, to live with that discomfort, and to make our Creation-awareness a major factor in how we make decisions. You may choose to buy a SUV, but you can't do that and care about the environment unless you have damned good reasons for needing a gas-guzzling greenhouse-gas-spewing vehicle (other than the current fad for SUVs). In that sense, I guess I've answered my own question: it's better to be conscious that our choices are much less than perfect than it is to believe that our choices are perfect when they aren't. Cf. Meyer's Law: in an emotionally difficult situation, the more difficult choice is probably the right one.

I may go on choosing to eat pork; but I should give some serious thought to finding a pig-breeding operation that treats its animals humanely and to buy direct from the farm, as I can get eggs from free-range chickens. But then again, I live out in the country, and I can afford to spend a little extra.

And then there's the Problem of Chicken.....

Copyright © 2001 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sat, 19 May 2001
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