The Birth of the Piglets Part II

Friday, September 11, 2020

Good morning everyone!

Hidden Penny Farm will not be at the farmers market this weekend! With the potential for poor air quality and also a limited amount of food to harvest, it seemed like a good weekend to take a Saturday off. I suppose this would also be a good time to say that our season is drawing to an end. We're planning tentatively to have our last market day be September 26. I hope that as I get more years of farming under my belt I will be able to plan a bounty for fall harvest, but this year we just didn't have the space, time, money, etc. to do it. This leads me to say, thank you for being with us in our nascent days and, despite being small and rag-tag, seeing and believing in our potential.

Here is the story of The Birth of the Piglets Part II:

If you've never seen an animal give birth let me just say, it is incredible. The only births I've ever witnessed were of humans, and they were on TV or in movies. From what I've seen, I just assumed there's a lot of chaos, pain, screaming, moaning, surgical masks, beds with wheels, etc. When a well-loved pig gives birth she is lying on a clean bed of straw in a small corral in a dusty barn. She is laying on her side and breathing heavily, but steadily. You can see her body clench at times, and when you put your hand on her belly you can feel her contractions.

By the time we realized Shima was giving birth and ran out to the barn to watch, she had 5-6 contractions and a very small, very slimy, and very adorably confused piglet, (excuse me if this seems indelicate) literally shot out of her! Then Shima became still and her breathing went back to normal. A few minutes went by as the firstborn piglet struggled to find its way to her teat. It teetered and tottered, barely able to walk, climbing mountains of hay and stumbling over its mama's legs. (Again, instinctual knowledge is incredible.) How did the piglet know where to go?

After a few minutes, sometimes only 5, sometimes 15, Shima's breathing would quicken, she would have a few contractions, and another piglet would shoot out of her. It was so rhythmic, so measured, and so calm. You could walk by the barn and be none the wiser that piglets were being born inside. Andy and I stood by, open mouthed, in awe. We would look at the babies and croon and gush, and then look at each other all teary eyed. We also took a lot of pictures. We were giddy.

The whole litter took about an hour to be born, and in the end we had nine piglets. We were warned that a few piglets are lost in every litter. It's easy to hear that and believe it's true before the birth, and much harder to believe after all the piglets are born and you are just sure that none of your baby pigs could ever die. It was clear right away though that there was something wrong with one piglet. He was born with a deformed mouth that seemed to be inhibiting him from nursing. He would nuzzle up and try, but it was unclear if he was able to latch. We crossed out fingers that he would be okay and left the piglets to be with their mama.

There is a lot of fretting that goes on when you have baby animals on your farm. Are they warm enough? Could Shima squish them? Is their bedding damp? Could they somehow drown in the water bucket? It felt necessary to check on them all the time. When we did our last check before bed I found a piglet had been pushed out of the corral and was laying, barely breathing in the dirt. I don't really know how to describe how I felt...honestly I was very spooked. There was something eerie about the piglet, in the glow of my headlamp, unable to move, covered in dirt. I was afraid to pick it up. Andy had to step in and we realized that it was the baby that wasn't able to nurse. We were sure that no piglets could get out of the nest area, and so we realized that Shima must have picked it up and pushed it out from above. This added to my foreboding feelings. Why would she want to get rid of her baby? Was it because she knew he would not survive?

It was a terribly sad realization, and difficult to know what to do next. Once you know that a piglet is going to die, there is a resolve that you have to adopt. We staggered for a bit over what to do, knowing that it would pass away, but not knowing in how much time and if it was in pain. We decided to lay it in a nest of straw in a safe place away from the other pigs. It was clear that it would not last the night. By morning it was still and we buried it under a madrone tree in the woods. I felt sad, but there was also a sense that I had learned a valuable lesson about the difficulty and responsibility of raising animals.

Over the next three days we watched as the other eight piglets nursed and slept. They are so soft when they are young, and it is impossible to not pet them. I am grateful that Shima is a trusting mother and let us pet her babies whenever we wanted. On the third day I went out to check on them and was delighted to see that they were up and playing! They play like puppies; wrestling, chasing each other, and making the most adorable squealing and yipping sounds. This was the first time that I had seen them moving about and with so much energy. But I noticed that one piglet was laying down as the others played all around it. Even when the others nudged it to play, it seemed like he couldn't get up. I went and lifted him and immediately realized that something was wrong. He was so, so skinny and his eyes were barely open. They others had plumped up from a few days of nursing, but this one was obviously not eating. Andy was not home, so I called him and explained what happened. Homesteading together for one season has really made us good split second decision makers, and we decided quickly over the phone that we would try to nurse the baby pig back to health. I did some quick research on my phone, and Andy picked up some Dungeness Creamery milk and a baby bottle on his way home.

Now I know that I may have made the number one mistake that you are not supposed to make when you raise animals, and I know that some of you may already know where this story is going, but as I sat in the dirty straw in that barn, cradling that baby pig in my arms and waiting for Andy to return, I vowed that I would save that little piglets life. From the deepest part of my heart I knew that I could nurse that baby back to health.

When Andy returned he ran out to the barn with the bottle of milk and I greeted him with optimism. I told him I had named the pig! The tiny baby in my arms was now Jimmy Nardello, named after an Italian heirloom sweet pepper that I just love. Little Jimmy immediately latched onto the bottle and ate hungrily. Now, let me tell you, when you've decided you are going to be the hero in a piglets story, and that baby is warm and pressed to your heart, and he is skinny and eats from the bottle you are holding, well, there's no stopping your heart from loving that pig so deeply that it hurts.

We put Jimmy into a shoebox with a hot water bottle and clean straw and a warm towel and brought him inside. The love in my heart grew to dangerous levels. Please don't shake your head or roll your eyes, but by the end of the night I had created an entire future for me and Jimmy. He was going to be my pet pig, the neighbors would think I was crazy for walking him on a leash, he would sleep with our dogs, and he would love belly scratches. I was so hopeful and so full of optimism, and while the rational part of my brain knew that hope does not save lives, I was convinced that in this case, it would.

As I went to bed that night I set my alarm for midnight. I was going to wake up every two hours and feed Jimmy, as was recommended by various Internet forums. When my alarm went off, I went into our guest bedroom where I had put him to sleep near a heat lamp. What I found was little Jimmy, taking very shallow breaths, very infrequently, and with a lot of difficulty. I knew right away that he would not make it until the morning. In hindsight, I don't know how or why, perhaps it was the middle of the night delirium, but I went back to bed and slept fairly soundly for the rest of the night.

The morning brought with it the sinking realization that Jimmy Nardello had passed away. It hit me full force in the light of day, and I was wrecked. I spent most of that day fluctuating between weeping and all out sobbing. In hindsight this feels cliche, and I feel silly, foolish even. A girl who is learning the ropes of homesteading falls in love with a sick piglet and is heartbroken when he does not survive. I feel like I have learned the lesson that all young farmers must learn, that a few from every litter will not make it. It is natural and should be expected.

But there are other lessons that I have learned, with help from the counseling of friends and contemplative hours working alone. My best friend sent a beautiful sympathy card and in it she told me, "no loss is seemingly too small to mourn." I can't help but realize that in mourning the loss of something so small and seemingly inconsequential, there is this lesson: that it is a privilege and honor to live so closely to and in harmony with the ebb and flow of life.

We have been here barely a year, and in that short time we have seen so much come to life: so many seedlings, and chickens and pigs, and hoop houses, and farmstands, and friendships. And with the death of Jimmy Nardello I can now see a little clearer that part of all of this is also the passing of all the life we love and celebrate. I'm in no way saying that accepting death is easy, nor am I "shoulding" anyone into accepting death with grace. I'm too young and lack wisdom to speak of death with much eloquence. I'm simply remarking on the power that I have found in living with our land, and that with each passing experience I learn so much more about how I can walk through life.

My favorite poem ends in this short line: "Practice resurrection". I interpret it as meaning to practice and become familiar with the inevitable pattern of death and rebirth. For me I will see Jimmy and his sibling, born again, in some form or another, in the madrone tree that they are buried under in the woods behind our home.

And if you're enjoying a libation this weekend, say a toast to Jimmy. When I had been dreaming of our future, Jimmy and I enjoyed many beers on the back porch together.

Thanks for reading, and thanks for supporting Hidden Penny Farm and our journey.

All the best,

Melissa and co.