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Monday, December 31, 2007

Of Swine and Men

A big white boar trudged mindlessly along the roadside in one of Baguio City’s busiest crossings, tailing its skinny master who is equally unmindful of the fumes and roars of cars as she led the animal by a thick, frayed abaca rope. The small lady was dressed in a faded white blouse matched with an equally faded and stained blue skirt. Her flip-flops went plak-plak-plak as she neared the crossing. The jeep I was in suddenly lurched forward as the traffic cleared and the two figures rapidly faded from view.

It was then that my thoughts turned to my mom’s piggery back home. The familiar dung scent slowly dispelled the sickening car fumes engulfing the seemingly World War II vintage vehicle. The coolness I felt was no longer that of the City of Pines, but that of a rural residential area in the lowlands shielded from the searing gaze of the sun by several old and leafy mango, caimito (star apple) and guava trees.

And there I was climbing over the padlocked iron gate of a pig sty with my oversized rubber boots, rusty dust pan and stick broom. As I crashed onto the slippery floor, the white piglets froze momentarily before scampering into all directions squeaking all the way. Some found refuge in the cemented feeding trough, the others behind me unsuccessfully tried to wiggle themselves out of the spaces between the iron bars of the locked gate, and still others cowered in the shallow canal where their dung was being swept into.

Naturally, cleaning their house meant being plastered with green ordure and, yes, at times being made to taste it as well when a wiggling piglet would make a flying kick at a mound of fresh dung followed by a back kick that can send bits of the tasty pie to your lips. It also meant having to smell like a pigpen when you go to school, even after scrubbing and soaping your body with Mr. Clean. Back then, we had not yet adopted the “new and natural” technology of hog-raising (or hog-feeding, more accurately) now being advocated by some of my neighbors in my province. Introduced by Japan to the Philippines in the ‘70s, it is gaining popularity among hog-raisers in our place only recently. According to friends, with this system there is no need to bathe the pigs, to do the usual messy janitorial job, and – best of all – to worry of the animals’ odor adhering to your skin. The secret is to feed the pigs with the usual darak (rice bran) mixed with pulverized banana stalks and a liquefied mix of microorganisms (whatever that is, I haven’t figured out yet). The result? No ordure odor. You can even make money out of waste matter, for in three months’ time, the pigs’ dung can be sold as feeds for – you guessed it – pigs!

But let’s go back to my previous line of thought. Even after getting off that dilapidated passenger jeepney, the images of the old lady and the boar as well as the piggery back home kept coming back. Days after that, my thoughts eventually found themselves inked on paper.

Let me then invite you to a “piggyback riding” and regale you with these pigsty musings…

Pigs can make your blood run high – for mirth or wrath. Mirth frequently for the litter trying to nibble at your rubber boots after getting more familiar with your scent, and wrath often for the hogs wanting to take a piece of your leg or butt presumably for trophy or souvenir. Anyway, you’d always have the last laugh at the latter when the partidor (butcher) comes.

But mirth or wrath, spending some time in the piggery is not simply a moronic exercise of bathing the animals and cleaning their dung. Mind you, the piggery is a fine school in itself not only for the pigs but for humans as well.

Having grown up watching my mom raise pigs (not a reference to my siblings in any way), I have come to learn that a piggery can teach us a similarity between pigs and people that goes beyond mere physical features or vital statistics; pigpens can showcase the different shades of human personality and social circumstance.

Even Mr. Webster himself must have grown up with pigs, for he calls, for example, the stubborn as “pigheaded” or the glutton and slovenly as “piggish.” And perhaps, one can brand the paranoid “piggish” too, for pigs are said to be very suspicious of humans especially during the Christmas season.

But to continue, in the pigsty you will readily see the Slob in the pig that can’t firmly decide whether its ordure is for the canal or for the feeding trough.

Or our society’s Snob and the Apathetic in that hog that would just drop on its wide belly, rest its chin on its front legs, stare ahead and wouldn’t budge even as you start your janitorial work.

Or maybe, the Self-Important Ones in society can be best pictured in those native “self-supporting” pigs roaming somewhere in the Cordilleras. Most of my fellow Igorots can readily picture those short, pot-bellied and long-snouted black creatures gingerly crossing the road unmindful of travellers’ shouts and honks. Although these can arguably be tastier than their commercialized and denaturalized kins who appear on TV, they can be quite a pest not only to travellers but to gardeners as well.

So I’d say that if the carabao is the undisputed “King of the Road,” those little kins of his must rightly be called “Regents of the Road.” In the human world, I believe the closest comparison to such relation is that of the patron and the bootlicker who may be found in our oh-so-august Congress or in a hallowed Church.

Then this school teaches you a bit on the art of diplomacy or interpersonal relations. It makes you aware that the “different strokes for different folks” principle applies to the swine quite well. Take the pigpen Bully, for instance. Usually, a gentle rub at the back of the ear or along the snout would assure you of its good behavior. Sometimes though, it may need a slap to the face. Or, a kick to the body.

You would also learn about Law(lessness) and Order. For they seem to calculate exactly when the arasaw (kitchen slops) is ready for serving, at which they would just burst into piercing chorus usually with all the four voices complete: bass for the boar, tenor for the litter, and alto or soprano for the sow. They usually vocalize in this manner in the wee hours of the morning, so you can imagine the havoc they create in the neighborhood.

But there is Law amidst Disorder too. It is an unwritten decree that the firstborn takes preeminence over its siblings in terms of food share – whether corn feeds or milk. Or, if the mother wants to have all the food for herself, the piglets will have to stand aside and wait for the leftover, if there is any.

So you see, if among some Kalingas who spill over their murderous adventures to a Matagoan Zone (Zone of Life) like Baguio lex talionis (Law of the Jungle or Law of Retaliation) still prevails, in the piggery the Law of the Snout (Greed) reigns forever.

Which reminds me of some of my provincemates using the bodong as a pretext for land-grabbing, leaving several hapless Ilocano or Igorot migrant farmers to the mercy of uncertainty. These unscrupulous binodngan (tribal members covered by the bodong) were reported to have spat on those they dispossessed: “Kukuayo ti titulo, bagimi ti daga” (you may own the land titles, but the land is still ours). They were said to have claimed that the land they grabbed in the flatlands of Tabuk City were simply portions of their lands in upper stream Kalinga swept down by the mighty Chico River during storms. Now, that’s piggy brain logic.

You can’t help seeing a variant of this greed among market vendors insisting to buy a porker at a live weight price cheaper than the regular price, but later selling the meat at a price higher than what the law of the market permits.

That is also true to small-time rice and vegetable farmers in these highlands whose labors are not well-compensated by the outrageously low price exacted on their produce by some middlemen.

Or better still, you see in this animalistic behavior a Politician filling first his belly and pockets with bills from the people’s treasury before flinging the coins to community projects. In the petty kingdoms they built, they have made themselves masters of their subjects’ economic destiny, and the captains of the community’s tiny royal treasure ships. And no doubt, it has become their custom to lull themselves to sleep by counting a hundred pigs while their pudgy fingers caress their bloated tummies. I guess it was fitting that “pork barrel” was added to our legislators’ vocabulary for quite a number of them have become greasy from head to toe.

The Bhagavad Gita tells us that Indra himself, king of the Hindu gods, was turned into a pig by a guru he disrespected. Hah! Would we love seeing the despicable pigs in the government acting like kings by divine right go through such a life-changing experience!

It need not be as long as seven years just as Odysseus’ friends suffered. I guess a few days would do. Why Mighty Nebuchadnezzar’s experience was short and quite different, but quite humbling for him.

Really, you’d get touched watching the altruistic and cultured hog in the heart-warming movie, BABE: Pig in the City. And despite my Chinese friends telling me the pig is the embodiment of selflessness, honor, abundance and so on, I would have to say, you still have to find a BABE in the pigsty. Even Chinese tradition says pigs are embodiments of our basic, animal nature.

On second thought, I would have to concede that the pigsty indeed depicts some very positive qualities. Fertility can be one (no explanations needed, except to note that some believe that the many “breasts” of Diana, goddess of the Ephesians, were actually representations of the boar’s testicles, in which case this patroness’ fertility would have been well-illustrated).

And intelligence too. Like the litter developing crazy maneuvers in outsmarting each other for their mother’s milk.

In passing, I would have to note that other cultures do have a high regard for the pig. The Nepalese have four swine-gods guarding the Kathmandu Valley, and Celts regarded pork as the most fitting meal for the gods (and their literature also tells of a sea god who had magic pigs which can be eaten in one day only to be resurrected for the following day’s meal.! Umm… that would have solved our economic woes, though perhaps multiplied our cholesterol troubles).

But again, let me continue. Maybe these and many other observations one might have on pigs and people could serve as proof that there is an unacknowledged kinship between swine and men which is far deeper than the simple likeness of the mice’s scurrying existence in the life of some farm workers poignantly described by Steinbeck.

For all you know, the pig stands somewhere in the supposed evolutionary development of the amoeba into modern man. Planet of the Apes was a fine start, but I suggest filmmakers should begin thinking of doing a Teenage Mutant Ninja Pigs. To this, famed cartoonist Pol Medina might say, “Hasta la vista, Baboy!”

But by far, the greatest insight from the pigpen is the value of labor. I have seen it in some Bay-yo women in Baguio City whose leathery, wrinkled faces dramatically reflect the harsh realities of life; whose daily routine of balancing on their heads cans of restaurant leftovers down Session Road wonderfully pictures out one’s grim yet graceful determination to survive; whose concrete houses and Lippad jeeps in Maria Basa or Tiptop sweetly signify or sound off the rich fruits of honest toil.

I had also learned this insight from my late father who, amidst the excruciating pains of old age, spent countless hours hauling off the arasaw from the restaurant, separating the food scraps from the cigarette butts and tissue papers, and enduring the heat and acrid smoke as he cooked the mixture in a large metal pot. I have seen it in my mother as she continues, way into her retirement days, to plant camote or ipil by the street or at a neighbor’s vacant lot for her pigs’ sake; as she extraordinarily musters the remaining strength of her frail frame (shrunk by two strokes) to feed her beloved animals túyo (rice bran) or some food scraps; as she limps towards the piggery and stand outside the gates one at a time and silently savor the satisfaction of seeing her pigs munch and squeal and sleep… and grow.

Yes, there is much to be learned from these show windows of life we call pigpens. And I am compelled to say, with Babe’s pals, “Thank the pig.”

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