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Slopping the Hogs in a Technological Society

By October 16, 2006 No Comments

My maternal grandparents homesteaded in northern Minnesota, just north of Crosby, in the early 20th centur y. Grandpa’s land patent has President Taft’s signature scrawled on it. They scratched out a living for three children from the tall pine forest and poor soil with a few cows, horses, chickens, and hogs.

Grandma always kept her slop bucket next to the woodbox in the kitchen. All vegetable scraps and food waste went into it. Whenever we were all together, my cousins and I would jostle and shove each other to be the one to “slop the hogs.” What an honor to be chosen for that chore. Out we would go, hauling this heavy pail in fits and starts to the pigpen. Right on cue, the pigs would come snorting up to the fence for their dinner. We heartily obliged them. Pigs are wonderful omnivores: they will eat almost anything. (This ritual was even symbolized by the “pig spoon,” one of grandma’s prized silver spoons that had accidentally fallen into the slop bucket, chewed by a pig, and then rescued. Ever after, we fought to eat with the “pig spoon.” Alas, an older cousin now has it.) Months later those hogs would be mature and fat enough to be butchered right on the farm. Grandma’s kitchen slop had been transformed into pork and bacon.

Of course, neither of my grandparents “knew” theoretically why slopping the hogs was a good stewardship practice. A lthough both were devout Christians, they never would have seen any connection between slopping the hogs and trusting in Christ for salvation. They never would have been able to articulate their role in the food web. If someone would have praised them for their organic farming practices, he would have been met with a blank stare. They practiced “recycling” and “composting” ever y day without knowing these abstract terms. The norms and laws of the Great Economy were embodied in their life practices. A ll they–and the hundreds of generations that preceded them–knew was that what they were doing was necessar y, practical, and, above all, what worked to keep farm and family alive.

Not only didn’t my grandparents know why slopping the hogs was a good stewardship practice, but they had no choice but to slop the hogs; they were bound by necessity. Neighbors would have thought grandpa and grandma were crazy if they would have seen a large pile of food waste in the backyard while they fed store-bought feed to the pigs. Grandpa and grandma knew that their lives depended on a careful use of the available energy sources on their farm by feeding food scraps to the hogs and har vesting the meat that was produced. There were no other choices. And that’s just where a critical problem emerges.

The two subsequent generations know neither intuitively nor theoretically why slopping the hogs is good stewardship practice. Neither are they bound by necessity to do it. They have gradually broken free from that order of necessity into the world of unbounded freedom. We no longer need to slop the hogs. Why should we? Our industrialized food production system has freed us from the cycles of life and given us pork whenever we want it. All neat and clean with no worries. We are now free to live in an abstract linear world of industrial food products. What freedom!

That freedom, however, is a very heavy burden and is purchased at a steep cost to our culture and the environment. Now, for the first time in human history, we must choose to slop the hogs. We have to learn theoretically why slopping the hogs is a good stewardship practice. We must choose to maintain the elaborate ecological systems and processes that the Lord has created to maintain life. Choices are, however, heavy burdens. Since we lack both practical and theoretical understanding of why we should slop the hogs, we don’t. We wallow in our ignorance of the most basic and elemental conditions for life that would have been second-nature to my grandparents who had only a sixth grade education.

Reweaving the fabric of life once it has been ripped apart by the abstractions of industrialization is exceedingly difficult and arduous work. What my grandparents (and yours) knew about the Great Economy in their bones and obeyed unconsciously we must now learn consciously and deliberately. That is a difficult discipline to carry out consistently when the structures of our technological society make it seem increasingly foolish and implausible. But we must make the effort, in even the smallest ways, to relearn and then practice our life-giving relationship with the Great Economy. Christians, above all people, must recover the intimate connection between slopping the hogs and their salvation in Christ.

Kenneth Hermann has taught at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and currently teaches an online course on culture and technology at Kent State University. He is currently working on a book about the debate between Asa Gray and Charles Darwin.