Lesser Beasts: The Lessons of Root Hog, or Die
book review / editorial by Paul Hunter
Until the 1950s and 60s, the history of farming was always of abiding interest, because its lessons had been hard-won, its learning curve steep and slow. By then most humans had figured how to eat what they cooked, and often as not might have grown it. Since the 70s, however, with the conscious advent of industrial-scale agriculture, with its “get big or get out” mantra and machine-the-earth monoculture approach, that history has been viewed as quaint and of limited interest, as if it were what movie-makers call the back-story, in case someone should want to know how we got where we are – though movers and shakers insist there is no going back. But as we have been learning recently, what we don’t know can hurt us. And forgotten mistakes may be exactly the ones we are doomed to repeat – providing there is still time.
Mark Essig’s new book LESSER BEASTS: A Snout-to-Tail History of the Humble Pig (Basic Books, 2015, ISBN: 978-0-465-05274-5) serves well as a review of the last 11,000 years of agriculture, using “the humble pig” as its indicator species. Which may be surprising, since indicator species are so often delicate and vulnerable, while the pig is hearty and vigorous. Taking us to the dawn of agriculture, where the domestication of animals predated domesticated plants in the middle east by hundreds, even thousands of years, Essig argues that, unlike all other domesticated species with the possible exception of the dog, the pig domesticated itself. As he says, “We might think of the pig as a judicious risk taker, open to the new but capable of assessing potential threats. In that quality, pigs are much like people.” He also points out how pigs “like to watch TV and drink beer, and, given the chance, they tend to grow fat and sedentary.” But how can we even tell the pigs in the village of Hallan Cemi 11,000 years ago were domesticated? Because nearly half of the pig bones found were from animals killed at less than a year old, nearly all of them young males, superfluous for breeding. Animals hunted to feed the village would have been of all ages. Trailing the pig trailing us through ancient then modern history, Essig’s observations have a freshness and clarity that will serve farmer and eater alike, since this “back-story” contains many heretofore unexamined assumptions and folkways along the path toward its startling conclusions.
But first, a sidebar about methods. There has been a quiet revolution in archeology over recent decades, which accounts for much of this book’s new perspective. For most of the past century and a quarter of archeology’s rise as a science, archeologists dug up the palaces and tombs of kings, and interested themselves in the doings and leavings of great civilizations. But recently the professional diggers have begun to interest themselves equally in the lives and doings of ordinary people. For instance, there is considerable effort underway to learn the identity of those workers who built the great pyramids at Giza, around 2550 BC. Archeologists now know where and how they lived, which includes what they ate, the tools they used. We know that the laborers on the pyramids along with a measure of grain received rations of beef, as well as of goats and sheep, but in the villages where the livestock came from, the suppliers ate pork in an overwhelming majority. For every four cattle bones at the supply village of Kom el-Hisn, diggers found one hundred pig bones. Part of the discrepancy is due to the fact that cattle, sheep and goats can be herded over the 75 miles of hot desert to the pyramid sites, where pigs could not. Speaking of the Egyptians and Mesopotamians, Essig explains:
…Officials developed complex food-provisioning systems that depended on the long-distance movement of cows, sheep, and goats. Pigs didn’t fit into such schemes. But despite – or perhaps because of – their lack of usefulness to bureaucrats, pigs didn’t disappear. Instead, they stuck to their original role as scavengers. People on the fringes of society with little or no access to state-supplied food embraced them as a source of meat. Priests and bureaucrats, who dined on lamb and beef, came to despise pigs. Only the poor ate pork. (p. 44-45)
This division between rich and poor lasted till modern times with a few exceptions, notably the Greeks and Romans, who both took epicurean delight in the pig’s varied and subtle offerings. Their pork preference was passed along to many early Christians. A thousand years further on, with the rise of mercantilism and the age of exploration, there were circumstances where pork had a decided edge, since it could be salted, smoked and stored safely for long periods, and permitted the crossing of oceans in explorers’ extended voyages. The pig would then become a pioneer partner settling island and wooded habitats worldwide.
The other early division involved religious and ethnic differences. Jews and Muslims met with pronouncements from leaders and scriptures that labeled the pig unclean, and their prohibition of pork had some basis in fact, since for most of recorded history the pig had been the most efficient and dependable processor of urban garbage.
But apart from these religions the poor needed and tended their pork, particularly in the American colonies. In the infant United States the pig came into its own, turned loose to fend for itself in swamps and forests, where in the words of the song dating back to the 1820s, it was “root hog, or die.” Essig terms pigs “the weediest domestic animal – opportunistic, tough and fecund.” All along the frontier, the hearty pig foraged for itself until late fall, eating mast, roots and tubers until the weather got cool enough for slaughter. Then families got their larders stocked for the winter, and on a mounting scale herds of pigs were driven to market, often hundreds of miles. But there is also a dark side: the story of the pig in America is intertwined with the displacement of native peoples on the expanding western frontier, the ascendance of corn and soybean and feedlot, the automation of slaughterhouses as a primary source of meat before refrigeration became common after WWII.
But Essig offers us an astonishing and balanced portrait of the pig over time. Since the Roman Empire there have been two basic breeds of pigs, a plumper pale-skinned city pig kept in pens, and its smaller shaggy country cousin who roamed the forests. But both share many human characteristics – physique and digestion, an omnivorous palate, powers of observation and intelligence, a legendary affinity for muck and filth (without sweat glands, hog wallows offer cooling in hot weather), and an astonishing fecundity, down to its lusty emotional vocabulary of grunts and squeals. The pig may be an excellent indicator species for us humans, dealing muddy lessons in what we mean by quality of life. Its fecundity and heartiness all along made it vastly superior to cattle, sheep and goats, and even chickens as a meat animal. A sow’s gestation time is four months; she can have nearly three litters a year, of 10 to 20 piglets each. And each piglet will grow to marketable weight in six months.
The last four chapters bring Essig’s story of the pig up to the present, with caged and sanitized industrial pig operations perfected over the past 40 years. These operations have settled in states with lax laws and a stomach for toxic lagoons of manure. And the large-scale political fix is in, as Essig reports: “Experts suggested that American taxpayers gave hog producers a subsidy of about $24 on every hog.”
The reader can’t help but sense beneath the details a process that in its genetics and artificial insemination, its rampant use of antibiotics, its tail-docking and teeth cutting, its bare concrete and steel prison architecture a process of heartless efficiency. In the name of cheap corn and soy-fed pork the pig’s life is made a torture.
At this point Essig recounts an alternative, a pig study done in the late 1970s by University of Edinburgh scientists who built a “pig park” in Scotland with plenty of shade, water, bedding, room to root and explore, which should make urban readers marvel at how clean and neat and sociable pigs can be. Left alone in this approach to an ideal natural habitat they are playful and curious, rarely aggressive. They build nests to sleep and rear their young, and never foul them. There are strong social bonds across generations.
But in the grip of industrial pork-making is there a way back or forward? Essig’s historical portrait of the pig is sane, understated and thorough. In his telling there are no easy villains or heroes. The one thing I missed by the end was a direct evaluation of the pig’s savage and playful intelligence, although that might have tipped the scales against the historian’s not-so-secret purpose to have his pig and eat it too. We know which side he is on. The prospect of giving the pig a good life, an easy death and a tasty afterlife may be all the burden one book can safely bear.