Readers, if I still have any, are advised that the purpose of this blog is unchanged, namely to provide theological reflections inspired by the real Jesus, while the method is swerving into previously unexplored territory, of understanding human beings as animals who live alongside other animals.
I am fortunate to live in Monifieth, an urban village on the Tay estuary near the city of Dundee. Even under the lockdown rules imposed for Tier 3 areas by the Scottish Government I am allowed to exercise on the beach and the nearby hills of Angus County. Until recently I went running on the beach, but now find that walking interspersed with short sprints provides the right mix of physical exercise and environmental appreciation.
Access to the stretch of beach between Monifieth and Carnoustie is controlled by MOD Barry Buddon, a training facility for army troops and reservists, who make use of a number of shooting ranges, set next to the beach, in an area of mixed heath and woodland. Refusal of access to this area, and to the adjoining beaches, is signalled by the flying of large red flags at entry points and by sentry posts facing the sea. On average, access is possible one or two days a week, more occasionally for up to a week at a time.
Surprisingly – to me at least- this area has become a haven for wildlife, both flora and fauna that find it difficult to survive on the neighbouring farmland. Heathland flowers and shrubs prosper, as do birds, including the short- eared owl and the curlew, and animals from the vole to the badger. These have adjusted to the frequent noise of shooting practice and to its attendant dangers while relishing the absence of usual human activity.
As I was pausing in this territory last year, in the autumn, examining the splendid variety of berries on the almost leafless trees, I became aware that the ground adjacent to the path on which I stood had been carefully turned over, as if deliberately, exposing some of the roots and tubers, and that this cleared swathe ran away from me in the direction of some large broom bushes, many of them still bearing their black seed pods. With a sudden jump of interest I realised that the cracking sound I had been hearing for a minute or two was that of some creature chewing the pods. Very quietly I moved towards it, circling around the left side of the bush. Peering downwards I could see nothing unusual.
Then someone said, from behind me to the right, “Noisy you were a bit!”
Turning sharply I saw a animal covered in thin red-gold hair, an elongated snout and pointed erect ears.
“From me is the speech,” it added without opening its mouth or making any sound.
I had to accept that the pig was speaking to me by some process of thought-transference. Flabbergasted, I walked past the bush and sat down on the sandy grass, where the pig joined me.
“Good morning,” I said, “Your communication skills are very unusual I think.”
“Fly,” it replied, “we can’t, but talk, yes, at least some of us. People speaking on the farm, I listened for years. Influence their behaviour I could by this without- noise speaking. Yes.”
“You were on a farm for years?” I questioned. “I thought pigs were kept for a short time, then…”
“Abattoir. Yes, “ it agreed.”But breeding boar, that was me. Bad job not, far from. But then one day. The Vet. Local anaesthetic. Wake up, balls off.”
“Balls off?” I wondered.
“Both. Off. Breeding Boar no more.”
“You must miss them a lot,” I sympathised.
“A chore it got to be,” it said philosophically. “But, why?? I asked myself. Why bother with balls off when penned by myself already? Remember then they saying balls- on boar meat has bad smell, won’t sell. Boar-taint they call it. So….
“Soon to become meat me, I concluded. Abattoir next stop for Rufus, poor old chap.”
“Rufus.” I asked
“Me! , my name! You do how?
“Pleased to meet you, my name is Mike. Are you a special kind of pig?.
It rolled its eyes at my ignorance.
“Tamworth. Best in the world. From neolithic wild boar descended.”
I looked at him openly. Yes, he was a fine pig. A large noble head, wet twin-barrelled snout, wide chest, sturdy loins, spruce tail, long legs for a pig. And rufous indeed.
“ You’re looking tip-top, Rufus,” I told him. “But how did you escape?”
“Jumped pen at night. Anytime could have, but content until then I was. Miles through woods and hedgerows I travelled by night. Ate and slept by day. Foxes told me about this place. Perfect really, except no company until you came. Glad me. Pleased to meet.”
“Foxes can talk too?”
“To me and each other.”
“Rufus,” I said, “I’m sure we got a lot to tell each other. When the flags are down I’ll meet you here. About this time in the morning. If I can’t see you I’ll whistle a tune called “All things bright and beautiful…”
All creatures great and small,” he responded. “The farmer’s missus, she sang hymns at the piano. Here I’ll be. Forget don’t please.”
So ended our first encounter.
A few days later the flags were again down, meaning that I could run on the beach and visit Rufus, which I was impatient to do, as ever since our first meeting I had wondered if perhaps I’d flipped and imagined the whole thing. Yes, and even when I set out on the beach I thought that searching for a pig with a hymn tune, seemed the most improbable thing I’d ever done.
When I arrived at the spot in the dunes where we had sat, there was no sign of Rufus, so after a few minutes I began whistling the hymn. Almost immediately I was answered with a squeal from the direction of the sea. It was a calm day, with just a gentle swell on the water, the tide almost high, and there trotting in from waves, shaking water from his pelt was my new friend.
“Next to godliness is cleanliness,” he chuckled in my head.
“Pigs can swim??”
“All animals can swim,” he said, spraying me with brine. “Enjoy swimming, just some of us. Pigs very much. Most never do. Fenced in fields or sheds all of life. Hot summer, sun burns pigs, so cool in water, roll in mud or sand.”
Suiting the action to his word, he rolled for some ecstatic moments in the sand dune. When he shook off the excess he was covered in a thin layer of sand.
“Mike, hello. Glad me,” he said.
“Good morning my friend, I hope all is well with you. When it rained the other night, I thought of you out here. Do you have shelter?”
“Installations and buildings everywhere here that give shelter. Stuck never me. How to keep warm expert.”
“How about food?”
“Autumn best time. Nuts, fruits berries from trees. Root I can also, nobody minds. A special beetle very tasty.”
“So tell me,” I said, “Is there really any evidence of pigs swimming or is it just you? I certainly never heard of it.”
“City kid you are,” Rufus replied scornfully. “Country kids would know. For me, TV programme once I saw. Story of pigs it was. I can tell you if you want.”
I decided that nothing would be more pleasant than being told a story by Rufus in his silent voice. “Please do,” I said.
In the islands of Bahamas, few years back, peasant moving from his island to another, pay man with boat to take his twelve pigs to their new home. Pigs load on board. Nice boatman is roaring, “Come on, boys and girls and you grandpa, today you’re going a sail with old captain Bapu, that’s me!” And apples he’s brought for each one of them. Nice boat, nice man, nice day. Pigs watch the traffic on the river, islands sliding by, engine splutters quietly.
Then it stops. Bapu swears at it, fetches starter handle, turns it. Nothing. Swears more, turns more. Nothing. Hot sun. Sweating, grabs handle, turns, turns and suddenly gives bad shout, puts hand on chest, drops to ground. At first, pigs do nothing. Then the old sow goes to Bapu, gently nudges his body. He makes no movement. She rolls him on his back, sniffs his face, licks it. Squeals softly, so pigs gather round, lie beside him, giving their heat to Bapu. Time passes, she gives a long low squeal, that all pigs understand. This animal is dead. Spirit gone to Mother. Pigs show respect by moving quietly away.
Dark is coming soon, and the channel will be full of large fishing vessels. Animals feel uneasy, sensing danger. The boar sees an island not too far, less than a mile, with a sandy beach. His plan he tells the others. Scared, they are, but follow as he mounts the gunwail and drops into the water. Only he has done this before. He makes sure they all are comfortable, then begins to paddle towards the shore. Relaxed they are soon, like walking only easier. They keep together, looking after the piglets, who think it’s fun. Sun drops out of sky, darkness comes, but now its is near, the island, they can smell it. Then sand is under their feet and they walk ashore.