I can't count the mornings, after I send the kids off to carpool, where I walk over to feed the animals and work in the gardens and marvel at how lucky I am. Rather than going from a climate controlled house to a climate controlled car to a climate controlled office, I get to feel the world each day as I gather warm eggs. I listen for wildlife as I walk through my morning chores. It is quiet of people, but loud with the sounds of insects and birds and other rustling creatures. I remember to breathe. The animals greet me impatiently with grunts and clucks. The garden is more patient, but demanding of constant attention as plants miraculously grow overnight. As I put my fingers in the dirt, I understand my role as a cultivator and a caregiver. The weather determines my mood.
There is a flip side to the meaningful lifestyle homesteading provides. This week I ran straight into it. First of all, the deer knocked down the bird netting around the big garden and enjoyed a buffet of kale and swiss chard that took several days to plant. This happens from time to time. Then, there is the rooster. I don't keep roosters ever since one jumped on my daughter when she was small. This one ended up in a batch of chicks last year. He is beautiful and I know he helps protect the flock. He has shown zero interest in being aggressive toward people or his flock of hens. But he stands there and crows at me while I work. My otherwise peaceful setting has been invaded by a grating series of loud squawking. Every day I decide it is the day he goes in the freezer, and then I think, Is that right? Killing him for being exactly who he is supposed to be? I have no problem processing birds that were raised for that purpose, but somehow this accidental rooster pulls on my conscience.
Then there are the pigs. I researched and researched the kind of pigs I wanted for our family. Kune Kunes are a mid-sized, gentle heritage breed. They are docile, do not root, and can forage 80 percent of their own food in the right setting. We raised Sally, Herbert, Penny Lane, and Pip Squeak in our yard like pets. These pigs roll over and let you scratch their bellies. I trust them completely around my children and other children at the Homestead. We built three rotating paddocks for them at the Homestead, and moved the pigs over there once they grew too big for our yard.
The three paddocks were designed so that the pigs could graze each down while the other two recovered. It worked for a while, but then we had to separate the gilts from the boar. Once that happened the paddocks did not have enough recovery time and began to look like moonscapes. Then, we started breeding. Our first heartbreaking attempt ended in a dead littler for Sally because we did not know enough to understand she was close to giving birth. We did not separate her from the other pigs soon enough and the big pigs trampled her babies to death. We learned. When Penny Lane became pregnant, we knew when to separate her. She was an incredible mama pig. For a while we felt so proud!
I put it in my mind that the baby pigs were not ours and would not be staying. I tried to send them to new homes, but could not get a price worth their weight at the butcher. And so I resigned myself to the the fact that they would go to the butcher. I was really ok with this. We would give them a good life, care for them, let them live out a much longer life than they would otherwise, and then they would care for us. The time came last week to send them to a farm to finish growing out. Honestly, I was so tired of chasing escaped pigs I sent them gladly.
Understanding we were not set up to breed pigs, I called a friend to take two of my original four to a large heritage breeding farm in the country. I was sad about losing them, but happy that they would have room to do what they were meant to do. I kept the castrated male and my gentlest barrow.
I did not count on the reaction of my original four pigs. It was a gut wrenching separation as the pigs pushed their noses together through the fence as if to say good-bye. Herbert refused to get in the trailer for a long time, and there is no moving a 200lb pig who doesn't want to move. Once they were loaded and on their way the two remaining pigs began to revolt. They pushed down fences. They escaped all over the neighborhood. They dug holes through chain link. The next morning I came out and found Penny Lane in our driveway at the house where she was raised. She had not been here almost two years. She had come back to the beginning looking for her family.
I had greatly underestimated the bond between this family of pigs. My mind kept flashing to movies of slave owners separating families. I called my friend yesterday and begged him to come get the remaining two pigs so they could all be together on his farm. He did.
I don't want to go over and look at the empty paddocks where I failed animals in my charge. I don't have it in me today to try and replant the beds the deer invaded. And I do not want to hear that damned rooster this morning. This morning, I would love to go into an office and order my lunch from a restaurant where I never have to think about where it comes from. Today, I don't want to be a homesteader.