The house was tight and warm. The barns protected our growing number of animals. The crops in the field were planted, but the house was a mess. In 19th Century horticultural magazines, there are sometimes pictures representing two farms. One of the farms looks like a Gramma Moses painting, the other is a run down house with a sagging porch, tools leaning against the walls, an over-grown garden and broken fences. The pictures are captioned something like “The Good Farmer and The Bad Farmer.” And there in the Bad Farmer you pretty much have my homestead despite working from sun-up to sun-down week in and week out for two years.
We made nostalgic comparisons with America’s early pioneers. They carved farms out of the wilderness; we are trying to revive a farm gone to ruin. They had the bounty of a plentiful wilderness, now gone, its remains tightly administered by the United States Forest Service. The local Spanish called the Forest Service “Smokey Ladron” (Smokey the Bandit). Licenses to cut fence posts cost $.20 to $.40 each, piñon was a dollar a chord, for home use. Commercial permits were too expensive for all but large companies that could operate on a small profit margin. Hunting was seasonal. Only poachers skilled at evading the law could supplement their meals with wild game. There were few wild animals with hides to sell.
On the other hand, we had the material benefit of small government handouts, the poor man’s substitute for oil depletion allowances and defense contracts, USDA food stamps. We paid $0 for $150 worth of stamps, unless I earned money. One week I earned $100 and had to pay $50 for my stamps. Other than food stamps, which were given grudgingly and with as much humiliation as possible, the government did nothing to encourage the back to land movement. In fact, most government agents we met greeted us with suspicion.
We slaughtered our first pig when the weather was cold enough. I asked the most experienced homesteader in the mountains, a man named Preacher, to come by and coach me. Slaughtering a large animal requires a group of people and we invited our neighbors for a celebration. Preacher told me there were two ways I could do it. I could stun the pig with a sledge-hammer and then leap into the pit and slit its throat with a sharp knife. Or I could shoot the pig behind the ear and then jump into the pit with the knife.
I chose a twenty-two rifle. The pig was rooting around at he back of the pen. I didn’t know how to get a clean shot. Preacher told me not worry and in a few minutes the pig walked over to where I stood and put its head down for a perfect execution. After the shot, I jumped into the pen with a knife and bowl, slit the pigs throat and collected the blood. We had called her Bacon, so as not confuse her purpose, and strange as it may sound this bloody ending in a muddy pig sty seemed almost spiritual.
After collecting the blood, a frenzy of activity commenced. We stretched Bacon out on a huge, low table. We poured boiling water over her and scraped off her bristle. Under Preacher’s guidance, I gutted Bacon and sent the liver to the kitchen where onions were already simmering. The butchering took some time. People say you should let the meat cool over night before cutting it up, but it cooled quickly in the cold Llano evening and was cold by 10:00 pm when we finished. The next day we began to cure the meat for storage.
We slaughtered a Turkey for Thanksgiving, using a Chinese method that Lucy Hupp had told me about when we were videotaping her organic gardening series. Hold the turkey on your lap and stroke it’s throat. The turkey stretches out, and you can slit its throat with a sharp knife without the bird tensing up, keeping the meat tender.
By the middle of winter snow lay deep over the land. Winter storms swirled around the mountain tops and swept down over the valley, and we felt snug and safe.