Chapter Four: Concentration, and Testicles
A heavy snowfall on Christmas night short-circuited the electric fences separating two fields at Great Crouchs Farm. A Landrace boar from the northern field crossed that perimeter and broke into the south field. Once there, the Landrace sought out and attacked an older Welsh boar that had been sleeping peacefully along with thirty pregnant sows inside the half-buried two metre-tall culvert that served as the field’s shelter.
The two boars had been fighting for too long before Ronald Surry and I separated them, and now, although I didn’t yet understand this, we were staring at the Welsh boar that was dying of exhaustion. I was wondering why the boar was behaving oddly. But my yet-to-be-diagnosed ADHD brain was also furiously processing everything else around me, as well: the quality of the morning sunlight; its refraction on the snow; porcine fighting tactics; and the abilities and inabilities of animals to injure one another. I was calculating the thickness of plywood sheets, wondering about the construction of stone and mortar walls and how wooden gates are attached to them. And I was wondering how and why animals die and what Ronald Surry was thinking.
I had no clue to what was going on in Ronald Surry’s mind. Something to do with the predictable stupidity of male violence, here and everywhere else in the world? How soon the Hunt would arrive to dispose of the Welsh boar’s four-hundred-pound carcass, and how, with the snowfall, we would get it from the field to the loading area, a distance of some two or three hundred yards? How he would replace the Welsh, with which breed, and at what cost?
Most of those were swine management questions, and I was interested in them. At first I had simply been a quick study, but now I was learning that what went on at the farm, between the behavior of the pigs and Ronald and Joan’s interventions with me, applied elsewhere, and not just as flouncy metaphors. I’d made myself a decent farm worker: I didn’t flinch at the gory details of farm life, and once I’d learned how to do something, I didn’t need instructions repeated. I liked farm life, a lot, and I liked its physical practicalities best of all.
I was, for instance, comfortable with the idea of always carrying a stick when in the fields or among the adult pigs, and that you had to be willing to use it. I was observant: usually the sticks were about thirty inches long and the thickness of a wooden broom handle, but I noticed that Joan preferred a slimmer and longer piece of doweling, and that she tended to tap the recalcitrant sows with it or use it to prod them gently out of her way. Like Ronald, I whacked the pigs to get their attention more often than I prodded them, but I made a point to hit them only on their backsides and not their heads.
Carrying the sticks wasn’t optional. Mature sows are very large animals, nearly all of them more than double my hundred and fifty pounds (the boars who’d fought were closer to triple that, as were some of the older sows). These were also animals that moved both swiftly and decisively for their size, and they could be willful and aggressive. They seemed to know that when a human didn’t have one of those sticks in its hand, it could be ignored. I learned this the hard way one morning when a sow, wanting into the field beyond the gate, trampled me the moment I put my stick down to fiddle with the gate. After that, I never entered a field or paddock without a stick, and if there was a two-handed operation to perform, I tucked it under my arm rather than put it down. I was particularly careful if one of the boars was nearby. I wasn’t interested in finding out what a boar would do if it found me undefended.
Not flinching about farm life mattered because there were routine practices at the farm to make a city person flinch. Clipping the sharp teeth of the newborn piglets so they couldn’t damage the tender udders of the sows—or, when they were older, attack one another—wasn’t difficult, but it seemed cruel to traumatize an animal that’s just been born. Overseeing the breeding of the sows was more daunting, and not just because you had to be in close proximity to a boar. Occasionally you were required to remove the boar’s twelve-to-fifteen inch long half inch thick corkscrew-shaped penis from the anus of the sow, and to reinsert it into her vagina. This had to be done with squirming and shrieking sows, who didn’t appear to find anal intercourse pleasant. It also had to be performed with the threat that the boar might notice that you were fiddling with his junk and try to trample or disembowel you.
Then there was the castration of the recently weaned male piglets, which were called, not quite surprisingly, “weaners”. This operation had to be done before they were large enough to make the procedure difficult—usually while they were under twenty pounds and still small enough to easily wrangle.
Castrating the weaners was a two-person operation. One person’s job was to catch the weaner by a hind leg, flip it upside down to trap it between his (or her) thighs, thus exposing the victim’s hindquarters and scrotum to the second person, who was wielding the scalpel. This surgeon sliced a finger-length opening in the weaner’s scrotum, reached in with his/her fingers and yanked out the testicles, swabbed the incision with disinfectant, and that was that. From the start of this operation—from the moment when the catcher/holder’s fingers closed around the hind leg of the weaner—to its end, when the testicle-free weaner was released, it did what every pig does when restrained: it shrieked loudly and without restraint. But once released, every weaner quietly trotted away, not quite in a hurry, as if nothing untoward had happened. They didn’t, in other words, appear to notice that their testicles were gone, a reaction that, at that point in my pecker-centred consciousness, made me question how intelligent pigs could possibly be.
The first time Ronald made me his assistant in the castrations, we removed the testicles of about thirty weaners in under an hour. The second time, I handled the scalpel for the last fifteen or twenty, and things went more slowly until I was able to forget that I was cutting into living flesh and pulling testicles from scrotums that didn’t look all that different from my own. Since this was an operation during which it wasn’t safe to close your eyes while performing it, I had to get the hang of it quickly if I wanted to keep all my fingers attached and avoid any tearful anthropomorphizing on how the weaners felt about their permanently lost virility. I did what was required, and in succeeding castrations, I became only a little slower than my teacher with the scalpel, and noticeably more youthfully adept at catching the weaners. What sticks most firmly in my memory about these events, though, were the buckets of testicles at the end of the operation, which Ronald fed to the farrowing sows.
It was about as close as he’d come to flinching. “Excellent protein,” he’d point out as he gingerly dropped a handful of them into a farrowing stall without stopping to watch the sow gobble them up. “Pigs are omnivores like you and I, and there’s no point in wasting these.”
If Ronald nearly flinched at feeding the weaner testicles which were about the size and shape of adult human testicles, to his sows, he didn’t use euphemisms like “field oysters” for them, and he was cheerfully articulate about why castration wasn’t optional.
“Testosterone doesn’t just poison the disposition of an animal and channel its behavior toward aggression,” he told me. “The barest trace of it coarsens the flavour of flesh. If you were to roast an adult boar, the stink would make a room the size of a movie theatre uninhabitable for weeks.”
That metaphor instantly lodged itself inside my brain, which had already registered the vaguely disturbing resemblance in the size and shape of the three-week-old testicles in the bucket to my own. The testicles of the adult boars, I calculated, were roughly the size of grapefruits.
The disparity in the size of human and porcine testicles puzzled me slightly, but I soon recognized that it confirmed Ronald’s view that the more male testosterone, the more aggression, stupidity and violence was likely to be inflicted on the innocent—or at least, on the non-compliant bystanders. Domestic boars, like all males of domesticated cattle, have been genetically rejigged to be breeding machines, and the exaggerated size of their testicles is related to the degree of testosterone in their bodies and its effects on their brains and volume of semen produced by them. Among wild boars, which are the closest feral relative of domestic swine, I note that testicle size is significantly smaller. Wild boars are barely less ferocious when cornered, but their aggression is situational and defensive rather than the morning-till-night aggression psychosis domestic boars exhibit. It’s not clear if this testicle size/violence ratio works exactly the same way among human beings, despite what the World Wrestling Federation propagandizes, or the Canadian poet Al Purdy seemed to believe.
I mention Purdy here because he was, after a few drinks, fond of comparing testicle size with whatever younger male writers happened to be in his vicinity. This customarily occurred in bars while he was drinking them under the table, another practice he was fond of. I can testify from experience to this because Purdy showed me his balls one night. It was in a bar where he’d been trying to outdrink me, and though I was pissed out of my lips, I hadn’t let it show. And his balls were, I suppose, impressive enough as human testicles go. But when he pulled them out I just shrugged and said, not even close to slurring my words, something to the effect that yeah, fine, but I’ve seen bigger.
Since I’d seen much larger testicles at Great Crouchs Farm, I wasn’t lying. But that wasn’t the only reason for my studied disinterest. The part of my brain rewired by Ronald Surry and Great Crouchs Farm was thinking that Al Purdy’s large balls weren’t very relevant on a planet inhabited by about four billion members of the same species with the same equipment, larger or smaller, including my own balls, which I didn’t show to Al Purdy.
And in the here and now, I remind myself not just that another several billion or so human testicles have been added since then, but that Al Purdy’s testicles were actually only a little bigger than, well, I dunno, apricots? Golf balls?
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 dooneyscafe.com since its inception in 2001.
You can find the full list of posted chapters here.