The Sussex Variations, or Two Boars (Ch. 2): Stress, Distress, and the Sussex Downs

By | March 5, 2023


Chapter Two:  Stress, Distress, and the Sussex Downs

Several hours before daybreak on December 26th, 1962, a heavy overnight snowfall short-circuited the electric fences that separated the two main fields of Great Crouchs Farm, and a boar from the northern field crossed the perimeter and broke into the field to the south, where he sought out a half-buried two metre-tall culvert inside which a second boar was sleeping along with twenty-five or thirty pregnant sows. When he reached the shelter’s entrance he charged, snorting and slavering with anticipation and without a sliver of hesitation, into its dark interior.

Sows quickly began to spill from the far end of the twenty yard-long culvert, squealing and grunting, their stout pink bodies steaming as the moist heat of the shelter met the cold air.  The chaos and racket crescendoed as the resident boar exited from the shelter, silently wheeled around and instinctively braced himself.  Two or three more sows chugged by him, and then the attacking boar appeared and, without slowing, charged into him, staggering him, but without knocking him down.

The two boars, following their instincts (now that contingency—the snowstorm, the electric fence malfunction and the wandering of the first boar—had created the set), battled back and forth like automatons, each trying to knock the other off his feet or gore the other’s flanks with tusks that had been removed, trying to frighten the other into running away. Neither boar had a plan beyond the one bred in the forest thickets of evolutionary antiquity, where better battle-equipped boars competed for females much less plentiful than here.

So an hour passed—possibly two—before two men advanced toward the boars across the snowy field intent on stopping their combat. One of the men was Ronald Surry, an ex-Canadian army intelligence officer, then in his mid forties. The other was me, his nephew, an eighteen year old lad from a small town in Northern British Columbia, Canada, some  six thousand miles away, as distances were then measured in the British Commonwealth.

Ronald approached the struggling boars with a plywood sheet held in front of him and angled slightly to his right side, with the intention of pushing the sheet down between the combatants. I was a few feet behind him, positioned at his left, holding another plywood sheet at an angle that would enable me to thrust it into the melee to defend his vulnerable left flank. We were positioned this way because Ronald had judged one of the boars—a middle-aged Welsh boar and the one who had been attacked—the less aggressive of the two animal—to be less likely to charge once he’d been separated from his opponent. My job was therefore the safer of the two, requiring me to reach in with my sheet of plywood and block the Welsh boar after Ronald jammed his sheet of plywood between the two animals, keeping the more dangerous and younger Landrace boar on his outside right but thereby, and of necessity, exposing his left flank to the Welsh.

Separating the boars was easier than I expected. When Ronald pushed his sheet of plywood down between the two animals, the Landrace slammed his jaw against the barrier several times in rapid succession, irritably confused that he could no longer see his enemy. But he didn’t back away a few steps in order to charge the obstructing board in front of him, as Ronald had predicted he might. An instant after Ronald separated the two animals, I’d easily slipped my plywood sheet between Ronald’s flank and the Welsh boar. The exhausted animal, once disengaged from his attacker, simply sank down into the mud.

More seconds passed. The Landrace remained close to Ronald’s sheet of plywood, chuffing and masticating, the stench of his testosterone fouling the air. He seemed to be trying to recall what it was he’d been doing, or wondering what had happened to his opponent, who Ronald now tried to take further from sensory contact by pushing the Landrace gradually away. That maneuvre put me back to back with Ronald, ready to defend him against the Welsh. But as Ronald pushed the Landrace back, I saw that the Welsh remained unresponsive to us or to the fading scent of the Landrace. And, it turned out, to everything else.

But despite the demandingly precise movements we were executing, I was aware of literally everything else around me. For instance, I was able to find time, and not merely a few seconds, to gaze at the eastern horizon, and to note (to myself) that the salmon-rich dawn I had come outside to had brightened to the kind of winter morning I was used to: white foreground, hazy blue sky overhead, with long beams of thin, silvered light gradually but relentlessly shortening into ordinary daylight, although here the sunlight was touching down on the pastoral Sussex downs, and at an hour of the morning that in the wilderness of Northern British Columbia, at its higher latitude, would have been pitch dark. The air temperature was several degrees Fahrenheit below freezing, but adrenalin and the physical exertion of wrangling the plywood sheet kept the cold below the threshold of my awareness, despite the un-insulated thin leather work-gloves protecting my hands. And there was my responsibility, this Welsh boar a few yards away, his hide now taking on a distinctly hot pink hue that seemed to be deepening with alarming rapidity toward red (or was it going to be purple?), his breathing now shallow and clearly distressed.

Ronald began to herd the Landrace toward a stone-and-mortar pen that a few weeks ago had housed near-to-term sows, but with the arrival of colder weather, no longer provided sufficient warmth or shelter for them, and thus was vacant. I recognized what he was attempting to do, and, still holding my board in front of me a foot off the ground—judging this the best angle—that is, the angle at which the Welsh would have trouble seeing anything but plywood—I shuffled backward toward Ronald to help him get the Landrace into the pen.

“There’s something wrong with the Welsh,” I said, as I swung my sheet around and moved into position, again on his left and keeping my eye on the Welsh boar. “He’s not moving.”

Ronald glanced in the direction of the Welsh.  “Let’s get this one put away and we’ll deal with the other boy,” he said.  “I’ve seen this before.”

I tried to fathom what it was that Ronald had seen before, and when. The snow? The deepening skin colour of the Welsh boar? Literally everything here was new to me, as it had been for two months now. There was the snowstorm that had shorted out the electric fences; there was the violent drama of the two fighting boars, each of which might or might not have been a common event to Ronald; and there was the pale sunlight stretching across the Sussex countryside that, for all I knew, might never before have been covered to this depth with snow.

So far, I’d done pretty well in this particular adventure. For a change. I had listened to what Ronald wanted me to do to help him separate the boars and carried it out without hesitation or error, and then I’d accurately predicted what he wanted me to do without needing to be told that the object was to secure the Landrace inside the empty pen—I was to ignore the Welsh and angle up on Ronald’s left with my sheet of plywood so that once we reached the concrete pad that ran to east/west in front of the pens, the boar wouldn’t bolt past us toward the freedom of the draw at the bottom of the down, or make an end-run, either to return to the shelter the sows were now moving back toward, or to renew his attack on the Welsh boar, who Ronald had judged—because he’d seen this before?—to be no longer a threat. And there was something else: I was doing well not just because I was performing the tasks demanded of me, but because I was pursuing my own agenda at the same time, which was to gaze at the line of sunlight making its way down the snow-covered slope beyond the draw as the sun rose in the east.

Ah, wait. I was also wondering where Joan was. Could she be unconcerned enough that she was calmly preparing breakfast, or was she gazing out the window, anxious to see if we were safe? What music had she put on the record player? Over the preceding weeks she’d been teaching me to understand classical music, playing a different composer each morning and explaining to me the differences between one composer and the next. And back in the immediate present I was noticing that the Welsh boar’s hide was flushing still more deeply, and trying to think what might be causing it. It was about then I became aware that we had successfully manipulated the Landrace into the empty pen and that Ronald was latching the gate and turning, almost in the same motion, to look to the Welsh boar, who was now completely still.

“Damn it,” Ronald said, not quite to me, but not to god, either. This was interesting, because we—god and me—were the only conversational options he had.  I was fairly certain he wasn’t asking seriously for god’s judgment or help because since my arrival on the farm he’d been explicating for me, relentlessly, the not-so-recent death of god; the moral accuracy of god’s non-existence; and the complete irrelevance of god to any worthwhile understanding of human life, such as it was, which he was clear that I must learn to understand better than I did, even though in his mind human beings were worthless, and more than that, violent, stupid and cruel—except for Joan, who in his measurings of goodness was what human beings ought to be but only very intermittently were, me included.

With the Landrace boar secured, I trailed Ronald as he hurried over to the motionless Welsh boar, again trying to predict what was expected of me.  He’d abandoned his sheet of plywood, leaning it against the outer wall of the pen inside which we’d locked the Landrace. Competent assistant that I had (suddenly) become, I held onto my sheet of plywood, in case the Welsh attacked us. Had Ronald abandoned his because he believed the boar was no longer dangerous? I had had, from the beginning of the event, the sense that the much greater danger to us was, or had been, the Landrace boar. But I also knew that any adult male pig—I had been taught this very firmly by Ronald—was inherently violent and dangerous, and so this was a question of degree. Wasn’t it?

Apparently not. The Welsh boar, who’d seemed to be watching us corral and move his attacker away from him, was now lying on his flushed-a-shade-paler-than-purple side in the churned up snow and mud, staring—if pigs can be said to stare—straight ahead as if too tired or bored to bother with us. Ronald approached within a yard or so, and stood in the frosty Sussex dawn, gazing down at the boar with an expression close to a scowl. The boar’s eyes remained fixedly open and he was breathing, but very shallowly. This animal did not seem at rest, and even I could see he wasn’t dissembling so he could launch an attack on us.  What was wrong with him? I could see no injuries beyond the several shallow gashes along his flanks, and a slightly deeper wound that ran the length of his jaw. None of the wounds were bleeding.

“He’s done for,” Ronald said.  “He’s dying.”

“Why will he die?” I asked. “He’s not that badly injured, as far as I can see.”

Ronald shrugged without the customary exasperation at my thick-headedness. “He’s dying of heart failure—having a heart attack.  The exertion was too much for him. The exertion and the humiliation.”

“Humiliation?”  That didn’t sound right. Sure, I had learned that pigs are intelligent. But this was conferring human qualities on them. Anthropomorphizing.  I’d looked up the word several weeks before when something else Ronald had told me about pigs hadn’t rung true. So what was this about?

It was, I was eventually to learn, about several things, some of which were already inside Ronald Surry’s head. So let me first clear up what wasn’t on his mind: first, porcine physiology, specifically the absence of sweat glands except at the tip of the snout, makes pigs unusually susceptible to cardio-vascular stress. Pigs do, in fact, have heart attacks if they become stressed, particularly when the stress is accompanied by physical exertion. Just like human beings do. That’s why pigs are used as test animals for human cardiovascular research, and why, when short-term organic substitutes are required during human heart transplants, pig hearts are used.

But wait a minute. Doesn’t stress presuppose the presence of more interesting and complicated tropes, like intelligence, consciousness, self-awareness, identity. Stress doesn’t, but “distress” does. The stress experienced by a tree during a drought or a leopard slug when someone takes a salt-shaker to it, is purely reactive and cause-and-effect determined as far as we know, given our assumptions about where consciousness begins. But the Welsh Boar was experiencing something more complex than stress, and Ronald clearly believed that physical exhaustion was only part of it. So this was something more: distress.

I was to see more examples of pigs in distress over the months I was on the farm: several sows that rolled on one of their newborn piglets (a distress that seemed stained with what I can only characterize as embarrassment); more than one sow’s unwillingness to mate with the Landrace boar; or the oddly subdued distress every sow exhibited when they were separated from their offspring about two weeks after they gave birth to them.

Another instance of a pig in distress—one that that required my intervention—began a few weeks later when I heard a commotion inside a pen of weaners. I looked, saw a small pig—weaned about a week earlier and no more than ten or twelve pounds—that had turned the same dull reddish-purple the Welsh boar did after Ronald and I separated him from the Landrace. I looked again, and realized that the others in the pen were nudging the poor animal, not quite violently, but vigorously enough that it was losing its balance, disappearing from view, and then reappearing as it either regained its balance or was nudged back to visibility. The little pig wasn’t noticeably smaller than the others in the pen, but I didn’t notice that until I concentrated on its relative size and not its skin colour.

I called Ronald over to have a look.  He stared at the piglet for a moment.

“You’ve seen this before,” I said. The look on his face, disappointed and satisfied at once, told me I’d guessed right.

“Yes,” he said. “It happens several times a year. It’s the crowding, and the boredom. They’ll pick one of their number—usually a runt—and do this. Or they’ll start biting one another’s tails off. There’s a recent agriculture ministry advisory to sever the tails at farrow, but I don’t want to cause the little ones any more trauma than I have to. The bigger farms already do it, but…”

“This one isn’t a runt,” I pointed out.

“No,” he said.  “It isn’t. Not a rational bunch, these. But then no human mob is, either. And they generally behave the same way. Come with me.”

I followed him to the small office at the end of the shed. He rummaged around in a drawer and pulled what appeared to be a sawed-off .22 rifle from it. He handed it to me and opened another drawer. “You do it,” he said.

“Do what?”

“Use the humane killer,” he said, handing me a single cartridge. “This animal will die in the next hour of heart failure.”  He didn’t draw a parallel with the Welsh boar because he didn’t have to.

“Why kill it if it’s doomed anyway?” I asked. “Why don’t we just pull it out of there and  let it die in peace?”

“It won’t be edible if we don’t. You’ve never eaten suckling pig, I gather.  It’s quite delicious.”

There was now a hint of playful malice in Ronald’s voice. Without saying so, he was invoking a rule I’d adopted within a week of arriving, and he knew I understood it. The rule required me to do whatever Ronald and Joan did and—after the ridiculous mushroom incident—to eat whatever they ate. Now that rule was about to have me kill and then eat a very small pig.

I won’t go into the gory details, except to say that I killed the little pig with the humane killer, which used a .22 long rifle cartridge charge to propel a steel rod about four inches long into the brain of its target. It didn’t strike me as particularly humane and it really wasn’t much different from a gun except that the rod remained attached to the gun and that therefore there was no possibility that a bullet would ricochet off something and injure the user or a bystander. I guessed that this explained the “humane” part: no danger to humans. Was that all that word was supposed to mean?

That evening I ate suckling pig. I didn’t enjoy it, but I ate a normal-sized portion without grimacing or flinching because that was the deal I’d made. We didn’t discuss the moral ambiguity of having “killed the victim” over dinner, and no, it wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy suckling pig because the distressed weaner had gazed beseechingly into my eyes just before I pulled the humane killer’s trigger, although that’s pretty much what the little purple piglet did. It’s that I didn’t like the flavour of the meat, which had the faint taste of iodine in it—not that I had any experience of drinking iodine. [1]

Of course, all these varieties of distress I’ve mentioned were as common at any small British piggery of the era as they were at Great Crouchs Farm, and I’ve quite possibly overplayed them to a degree of drama that neither Ronald, Joan, nor the pigs themselves would have acknowledged as germane. But equally important, and for me more compelling, was the stage, and the way that it affected—and effected—the action: fed, and then edited the vocabulary of this bumbling young playwright.

That stage was the East Sussex countryside around Warbleton, which is near the northern edge of the high Weald of Sussex, the remnant of the primordial forest of Southern England that has been gradually hacked into small and smaller portions by human settlements. “My Sussex Downs” is not that of the tourist bureau, which prefers the conventionally scenic landscapes to the south and which, whenever I ventured into it struck me as so heath-like I expected characters straight out of the Bronte sisters to show up in costume to genuflect and expire in some sort of picturesquely consumptive fashion. “My Sussex Downs” were the gentle, less spectacular slopes and draws to the north. These are the ones treed by oaks and livestock-feeding chestnuts, dotted by small farms like Great Crouchs Farm, and cut through by hedgerows that mask the narrow byways along which cars speed at lethal velocities on the wrong side of the road while sheep and cattle graze and pigs forage in a manner that isn’t exactly peaceful but is resourceful and reasonably calm, something, I was learning from Ronald, was the best you could hope for from organic life.

That year was the first time I understood that there is a difference between “Autumn” and “Fall”. Where I grew up there had only been “Fall”: a season one week long during which the leaves of the few deciduous species—aspen and birch—yellowed and dropped as the night temperatures plunged below freezing. Soon thereafter, Fall ended, it became Winter, and you stayed inside and watched the snow pile up and crush your spirit. England’s “Autumn”, in the Sussex countryside, had that “mn” at the end of the word that Joan enunciated by drawing out the word so that the “m” ever so subtly blended into the “n” without a hint of friction or collision—a trick I’m still trying to master.

Autumn was a season that could last almost three months in Sussex. It was gradual—a riot of gold and crimson, and interrupted by warm reprieves each more poignant than the last. It seemed that autumn might go on forever that year, and there might be no winter at all.

The snowstorm on the evening of Christmas day ended that, and England’s winter began with a death, and another of the lessons I was learning to live for, not just with.

*   *   *



[1] People should feel sympathy for domestic pigs. They are omnivores without any effective ways of obtaining the protein they want and need on their own. They don’t live very long—few feral pigs reach the age of eight years, and while domestic pigs can live 15-20 years, few make it through five years, because their optimum (read “productive”) breeding years are from their second through fourth years, and pigs bred for slaughter rarely get six months to live. In summary, the vast majority of pigs, past or present, have lives that are short and miserable, and they end violently. If we were talking about chickens or even sheep and cattle this might be a lesser matter. But pigs are extremely intelligent, possessing cognitive capacities greater than dogs and all but the higher primates, roughly equivalent to that of a human three-year-old. They are among the few animals of high intelligence that aren’t predators, and so, in a state of nature they live lives of acute and unrelieved anxiety, sort of like our ancestors before they climbed down from the trees and learned to sharpen sticks. As domestic livestock they are generally treated no more humanely by corporate agriculture than chickens. A pig doesn’t have a body that’s particularly effective for eluding predators nor is it designed for manipulating its environments, which is what keeps us primates from going mad from boredom. The eyesight of pigs is weaker than that of humans, and their hearing is only a little more acute. They can’t run swiftly, possess no natural camouflage, can’t withstand excessive cold, and given that their only sweat glands are on the end of their snouts, are worse still at dealing with heat. They do have an extremely acute sense of smell, said to be more sensitive even than that of dogs. About the only good thing that happens to domestic pigs in the world as it currently is (aside from the occasional adoption of miniaturized pigs as pets) is that a select few are used to hunt truffles, and they get to eat the truffles if the truffling farmer working them is slow afoot. It’s possible that truffle flavour, to a pig, is a thousand times more delicious than it is for us.

*   *   *

Dooney’s is serializing, on a weekly basis, Brian Fawcett’s manuscript The Sussex Variations, and a companion piece, The Martian Invasion. Edited by Karl Siegler, this is one of the last books Fawcett completed before his death, from pulmonary fibrosis, on February 27, 2022. Fawcett is a founding co-editor of since its inception in 2001.



  • Brian Fawcett

    Brian Fawcett (1944-2022) is a founding co-editor of He's the author of many books, including "Cambodia: A book for people who find television too slow" (1986), "Gender Wars" (1994), "Virtual Clearcut, or The Way Things Are in My Hometown" (2003), "Local Matters: A Defence of Dooney's Cafe and other Non-Globalized People, Places, and Ideas" (2003) and "Human Happiness" (2011).

Dooney’s is serializing, on a weekly basis, Brian Fawcett’s manuscript The Sussex Variations, and a companion piece, The Martian Invasion. Edited by Karl Siegler, this is one of the last books Fawcett completed before his death, from pulmonary fibrosis, on February 27, 2022. Fawcett is a founding co-editor of since its inception in 2001.

You can find the full list of posted chapters here