“Sometimes I think I am going to hell,” a pig farmer once confided to Ellyn Gaydos. He went on to inquire, “What do you think of raising animals for money?” Gaydos’s reply was quick and succinct: “They have to come from somewhere.”
Pig Years, Gaydos’s memoir of her time as a farmhand on small farms in the rural Northeast of the U.S., is similarly unapologetic and sure-footed. Here is an author who can transport readers into the lush fecundity of raising and tending to pigs, but without the omission of the brutality of their ultimate slaughter. Pigs, even those so lovingly bred as Gaydos’s animals (at one point she even bakes them special cakes with peanut butter in the place of frosting), are part of the unrelenting cycle of nature, whose very circularity depends on death. The rhythm and inevitability of it, so lyrically rendered by Gaydos, form the music of this book.
Gaydos, who was born in Vermont and grew up in the Northeast, became a farmhand because she wanted to be in nature. It’s where she is for most of the book—besides tending to her own pigs or those of her friends, she also helps with sowing and harvesting, processing even the meat that she eats. Here is “farm to table” without the pretensions, its regularity a form of measuring the passage of years.
Gaydos’s immersion is complete. “I sickened, turned and ran,” wrote the renowned poet Seamus Heaney after observing the lustful intensity of mating frogs. Gaydos stays and confronts all the bloody mayhem of the natural world. After one slaughter, she watches the sawing off of a dead pig’s spine and writes, “When this happens a drip of bluish gray spinal fluid slowly pours out from the incision. As the saw reaches the open neck, the two sides heave apart dangling one from each trotter.”
In Pig Years, Gaydos tells a story of the farm as a living entity—pulsing, breathing, growing, and dying in repetitive loops. The inevitability of death does not make natural life any less beautiful, or the excitement of the harvest less joyous.
There are more pleasant encounters, too. In early spring, she heads out to collect baby fiddlehead ferns from deep in the Vermont woods. “It is like going snow-blind” she writes. “A maze of green-white curls (every color by now a hyphenated green) nearly all the unfurled fronds at an ideal eatable stage.” She collects 60 pounds of the fiddleheads and stows them in grain sacks, all while dodging the game warden who is looking to catch just her kind of interloper.
It is an inconsequential encounter for Gaydos, this brief brush with the law, but one that is central to the business of farming in much of the country. In most of the agricultural operations in America, it is people that the law is after—the same people who sow and harvest and are intimately entangled with the food that we eat but do not have the privilege of American citizenship. Even in Vermont, the local police department cooperates with border patrol when they suspect that a farmworker may be an undocumented migrant. Farmworkers who are white and documented are spared this dehumanization.
Pig Years presents a compelling argument for a radical mindfulness. Anyone who reads Gaydos’s arduous account of planting potatoes will not eat them with entitled abandon again. And in laying bare the details of a woman’s labor, Gaydos seems to be prodding her readers to both acknowledge its inherent dignity and the respect that is owed it. The work of generating life from the earth is done in many different ways, and Gaydos’s illustration of the repetitive rhythms of farming is an homage to it.
Pig Years is no Thoreauvian ode to live off the land and grow your own food. It is a call to consider where the food we eat comes from and the toil it takes to produce it. Human beings are extractive creatures—even the buildings on Barre, Vermont’s single road are made of granite, taken from a nearby quarry. This frenzied quest to take and take drowns out the omniscient soundtrack of nature’s own rhythm, of which we are all a part.
The book is a vivid indictment of this human drive to consume, but it is also a reprieve in its recognition of our inevitable interconnectedness with what we seek to subjugate. “The tie between us is very fine,” writes Gaydos, quoting Emily Dickinson in the first few pages of Pig Years, “but a hair never dissolves.”
Rafia Zakaria is a journalist and author