By some miracle, there is a meeting of miracles this year. The first day of Chanukah, built on the foundation of one miracle, falls this year on Christmas, built on another. Immaculate conception, meet the long burning oil. These are miracles that only particular groups have made the leap of faith to believe in, but there are good reasons that we as a species seem to have the instinct to take such leaps of faith.
Life itself is just about the biggest miracle you can imagine. That from some primordial soup a bunch of minerals and chemicals could mix together to form proteins, which in turn became amino acids, which in their turn combined in all sorts of divergent ways to become the species, animal and plant, that inhabit the earth, is surely a sort of miracle.
And then consider each individual life within that universe of living creatures. Miracle upon miracle. Just because two beings share a mutual moment of ecstasy, the component proteins and amino acids in sperm and egg mix, and a sort of chemical reaction triggers their development into a whole living creature. The ram curls back his upper lip, the ewe squats and pees, the ram mounts the ewe and deposits his sperm in a burst of ecstasy, and presto, 155 days later out pops a whole new lamb, just like the one I was thrilled to find upon entering the barn last Saturday morning. Surely a miracle.
Even more astonishing is that the beings produced through this process are not just isolated inert end products. The hours-old lamb I found last Saturday was already standing up, already eating, already processing more proteins and amino acids in the chain of energy exchange that constitutes life. Such beings are born into an inherently social milieu in which they acquire and process information, base strategies on that information, and communicate the information to each other. It’s true of human babies, true of lambs and other livestock, and indeed seems to be true of all living things. That’s right, highly credible scientists who have formed organizations like the Society for Plant Neurobiology (http://ds9.botanik.uni-bonn.de/zellbio/AG-Baluska-Volkmann/spn/join.php) and the Society of Plant Signalling and Behavior (http://www.plantbehavior.org) have established that plants, too, gather and process information and communicate, particularly with other members of their species in furtherance of the group’s existence. So universal among living beings is the processing of information that communication can occur not only within, but also across species. As we have well learned, when a human locks eyes with a member of another species, a form of communication takes place. Messages like “don’t you dare charge me” or “I will not harm you,” for instance, somehow get conveyed. Don’t tell me this is not a miracle.
You may chalk this miracle of life up to an “amazing series of coincidences” if you’re an irreligious sort, or, if you’re religious, to an “intelligent creator.” Either way, I think one would be hard-pressed to deny that these phenomena are so unlikely, and so darn amazing, as to qualify as miracles.
So here let me tell you the story of another miracle, albeit a minor one. A Turkana Farms miracle, the Miracle of the Change of Heart. A miracle I experienced myself.
You may recall over the last several years the intense debate Peter and I have had over the breeding of pigs. I insisted we get out of that business because I viewed the pigs as inherently chaotic and uneconomical. Peter felt the farm would be incomplete without them and saw perpetuating the Ossabaw breed as part of our raison d’être. I was so committed to giving them up that I gave Peter the ultimatum, that either they went or I would. And he said “let me think about it.” And so he did, for almost two years, without being able to make up his mind. He says he still hasn’t.
But when we had over 30 pigs running around, the young ones sometimes traveling the neighborhood, we had to at least reduce our operation. We sold our younger male, Nils Boar, as a breeder to a farm in New Jersey. We sold pregnant sows to a farm in Vermont. We sent off several dozen younger pigs, some to start Ossabaw herds at other farms and some to market. In the course of two years we went from over thirty pigs to just two, our old boar Vernon and one of his offspring.
The younger one got sold off in November for charcuterie, and that left only Vernon. We had interest from some folks who wanted an Ossabaw breeding boar in both the Spring and Fall, and considered sending him off to a new career, but neither sale worked out. There was no way, we both agreed, we were going to send Vernon to market. We had gotten him as a piglet from the Mt. Vernon Ladies’ Association, whose preservation activity for George Washington’s Virginia estate extends to raising many of the livestock species that were popular in his time. We not only raised Vernon but also two summers ago nursed him back to health, sitting in his pen and picking off by hand the maggots festering in his bloody wounds, when he was badly injured in a battle with Nils Boar. Vernon may look like an ugly tusked creature, but he has nevertheless endeared himself to all who meet him.
Realizing that Vernon would be with us for the rest of his days, we also realized very quickly that living alone, with only our brief visits at feeding time for company, would be no way for such a social being to live. By coincidence, Peter had recently arranged to sell half of the last litter Vernon sired to a farm nearby in Tivoli. And on that farm, it turned out, there was a sow named Possum, a cross between a Yorkshire and an Old Spot, who was having a difficult time in a supremacy battle with another sow. Despite being even a bit larger than Vernon, Possum is a personable charmer and seemed a suitable mate for Vernon. She was as beloved on her farm as Vernon is on ours. Her owners wanted very much to find a good home for her. Peter, who never gives up, proposed a deal in which she would come to our farm to live with Vernon at no cost, and that we would in exchange divide their litter of piglets with the other farm.
I don’t want to get all mushy about this. You can call it the power of love and fellow feeling that melted my resolve (“what resolve?” Peter interjects here, not seeing that as part of my character). Or maybe it was a moment of temporary insanity. But I accepted the deal in a heartbeat.
Possum arrived just before Thanksgiving. And after some caution on both sides, she and Vernon are cohabiting on these cold nights, keeping each other steamingly warm in the deep straw. We’ve heard on some days the anguished squeals and vigorous grunts pigs make when canoodling. We anticipate that as spring begins this March so again will the miracle of life spring forth from the farrowing hut. It seems right that this is happening. We are back, at least on a limited scale, in the pig breeding business, and I am absolutely happy about it. What is this if not a miracle? “Maybe Chekhovian indecision,” suggests Peter. Oh, well. There is still the fundamental miracle of life.