owing a pig a debt

or, learning as art - part one

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When I was in my late teens, my best friend was a boy named, “Alex”. He was wild and enthusiastic, with a great mop of jet black hair. What a thinker, he was. We could talk about all sorts of things for all sorts of time. We worked through a lot of our adolescent turmoil together, trying to figure each other and ourselves out using the blunt tools of raw, unencumbered honesty and judgment - the kind that tends to be fleeting as we get more ‘polite’ with age. It was a relationship that stung often, but each of us, unknowingly, were filling and spackling the holes in one another in a way that only the bravado of youth seems to allow. After a time, we both joined the army where that brutal refinement was taken up by shouting Sergeants and endless punishments delivered in a way only the military can.

Alex and I were both convinced that we had a little misfiring in our brains due to our insatiable interest and pursuance of one thing after another. The problem was never that we had no interest in anything but partying or hanging out with friends. The issue was that there was too much to learn! How the heck do you ever settle on one thing? I was convinced that my inability to hone in on “that thing” was evidence of failure. Other people were doing it. Why couldn’t I? My friends picked one interest and off they went to college or university to learn to be that. Well, at least I had Alex, one of the smartest people I knew, alongside. Together, we read about and talked about everything from esoteric spiritual practices to the art of watchmaking to how a mushroom comes to be.

But it was one, especially enthusiastic, conversation that we had that changed everything. Alex had read a book about people like us, that are hungry to learn, insatiably curious to try things out, but never stick around long enough for the mastery part. It’s not a failure, the author suggested, but a strength in its own right. She dubbed these people “scanners”. It’s not, she wrote, showing interest in something and then not carrying through. No, not that at all. “Scanners” show interest in something, try it out, dig into learning about it, take what they like and need and layer it onto their other life experiences, seeing what sticks and what doesn’t. After all that, a “scanner” may decide they have all they need from that experience, and it’s time to move onto the other things calling their name. Often, those “other things” are a new interest, something they had never heard of before but became aware of from pursuing the last interest. And so it goes.

At the time, it was a revelation. Keep in mind, I was young, maybe twenty years old or so, but for the first time, I remember feeling like it may just be possible that my brain wasn’t a hairy-carry whirlwind. Maybe, there might just be something beneficial to the concept of “jack of all trades, master of none”. I read the book myself with relief. I don’t think using the term “scanner” is all that useful, personally. But the observation of that framework in action was incredibly liberating. I could celebrate those gifts instead of comparing myself to a model that suggested I wasn’t doing life right.

In the three decades that have followed, I have learned so many things from so many diverse and seemingly incongruent topics that it would be impossible to list them. The pattern, though, is easy to illustrate. I read something or talk to someone or observe something and get curious about it. I explore that curiosity. That may lead to a period of study which may lead me seeking out someone with expertise in the matter or reading a book or taking a course. I stay on that path until I feel satisfied with what I have learned. But it’s almost always that while I was on one new discovery that something else presents itself. 

I will illustrate my point. Years ago, before we even found our first farm, I was working on other farms to learn and gain experience. I quickly learned that my passions were in animal husbandry, not so much the vegetable farming side of things. Still, I had to go where the farmer thought me most useful and a lot of the time that was in the mundane task of pulling weeds. But if I was in a row of lettuces, pulling weeds, I was talking to the farm workers around me about soil, their homelands, the practices of the neighbouring farmers, their opinions on how the farm we were on could be made more robust, that sort of thing. It was through those experiences that I came to understand world politics in a new light, the true and personal issues around poverty and corporate takeovers of every system of life. I learned about peasant farming which led me to Vandana Shiva which brought me to a conference called “the festival of dangerous ideas” (seriously, isn’t that name alone wonderful?). At that festival I met other people with “dangerous ideas” of their own. I heard things I had never heard and went home with sheets of notes on what to learn and do next. 

It was on one of those farms I volunteered on that I saw the practice of poor animal harvest. The farmer, a beautiful soul that I had great affection for, thought that the sound of a gun was too “violent”. She wanted to soften the death of her pig, an old pig with skin like leather and a very generous fat cover, by having a bow hunter kill it. It was a freezing cold, early December morning. I arrived not knowing how the harvest was to be done. I assumed it would be in the traditional way, with a bullet and slitting the pig’s neck arteries. They had made a straw corral to contain the pig and put in a second pig to “keep it company”. The straw, built up in a small circle, already had the pigs a little freaked out.

I didn’t know the bow hunter, perched on a straw bale above. I didn’t know his skill level. I certainly didn’t know about this technique of killing such a big, old pig. Let’s just say that the next ten to fifteen minutes is scalded into my brain forever. It did not go fast. It did not go smoothly. It was, as we used to say in the army, “a shit show” from beginning to end, including the cleaning and processing part. 

I walked away from that experience with a determination to never, ever put myself in that type of circumstance again. I spent a long while considering how something so brutal was the result of someone trying to be as gentle as possible. The farmer, as lovely a soul as ever lived, justified her discomfort by convincing herself that she could blunt death. I left that day with the awareness that humans can really fuck things up sometimes, especially when it’s their feelings they use to make decisions. The farmer, having the good intention of not wanting a big “bang” may have done well to roll that idea around in her head for a little while. Maybe consider what would have been best for the pig? Would the pig want the bang with instantaneous brain death or repeated, silent arrows piercing its flesh while it thrashed around in its little straw circle? I see that as maybe a step or two removed from the people who say “Oh, I just can’t bear to see it”. I get that impetus, but we are a lot meant to move beyond our feelings into the realm of doing what’s right. As much as on-farm harvest is profoundly better in every way than bringing a pig to the abattoir, in this situation, that pig would have been better off to go to the abattoir. By far.

I also walked away from that experience owing that pig a debt. I promised that pig, and myself, that what I witnessed, the sacrifice of that pig with unnecessary suffering, would not be in vain. And that’s where I’m going with this. We learn and experience these things in life, not for our amusement, but to sink our teeth into them, chew on the gristle for a bit, find the nourishment that we can learn from and share it with others.

“How do I learn all this?”

By sitting in the ugly, dirty, cold trenches of pain and discomfort and being present to the messages that come.

To be continued…

And may I just put a little love note in here from me to you? That last discussion thread I put up, the “how’s things” one, just blew my heart wide open. What a collection of reasonable, empathetic, critical thinking and kind human beings. I was brought to tears again and again. Such an incredible example of people from all walks of life, making different decisions and holding opposing viewpoints, so willing to find the things that unify instead of those that divide. The response was profound. I’m still making my way through all the comments and I’m glad to be. Little doses of goodness to nibble on throughout my day. You’re all just wonderful. ❤️

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