20 March 2016

A pig tale

Having not read anything new from Helen Macdonald recently, I searched Google for her name and 'NY Times', because I know she writes regularly there, and I restricted the search to the last month. Sure enough, up came the first of several pages of results, and among them was a new article. I suppressed the despondency I felt when I realised she was publishing more frequently in the NY Times, with its enormous readership, than I was on my blog, with its  list  of readers barely longer than the Planck-length, and I clicked the link. The article appeared, headed by a striking photograph of a pig.

The article meditated on the reintroduction of wild boar to Britain, but the pig in the photograph didn't look like a true wild boar. To be fair, though, it didn't claim to be a photograph of a wild boar. In fact, it didn't claim to be anything: the caption simply said 'Andrew Zuckerman'. I assumed this meant the photograph was by Andrew Zuckerman, not of Andrew Zuckerman, although I suppose that might be possible if the photographer didn't like Andrew Zuckerman. But the intention seemed clear to me, and clarity in writing can be taken to extremes: clear enough is good enough.

The photograph itself was certainly clear enough—so clear it couldn't be mistaken for anything but a pig; so detailed it looked as if some old Chinese hermit had devoted forty years of his life to painting it molecule by molecule. The detail was so sharp I felt uncomfortable using my finger to scroll the article, as if the razor-sharp detail might slice my finger open. It was the perfect photograph of a pig—so perfect it looked like a hyperrealist painting. I liked the irony: a photograph that looked like a painting trying to look like a photograph.

That was all I liked about it, though. The photograph disconcerted me.

I read Helen Macdonald's article, which I thought competent and interesting but which had only occasional glimpses of the brilliance she's demonstrated elsewhere, notably in the book that made her famous: 'H is for hawk'. But I kept thinking about that pig photograph and wondering why I felt so uneasy about it.

Technically, it's perfect. Perfectly lit, perfectly presented. Someone must have spent a long time grooming that pig: washing it, brushing its bristles, possibly even polishing its hoofs and wiping its snout. If its tusks had been visible, someone would have spent an hour scrubbing them with tuskpaste. The lighting looked like professional studio lighting, and I later discovered it was.RedStagKinvigMarch2016[400px]

Despite its hyperrealism, though, the photograph didn't look real, and I finally realised the reason: the pig had no context. Not even a shadow. The pure white background provided no clue to what pigs are like, no hint of the essence of pig-ness. Where was the wildness, the character — and where was the muck?

More was missing than just context, too. Where was the story? I'm not one of those who insist every photograph must tell a story, but if a photograph doesn't tell a story it should do something else, like point to something: a point made persuasively by photographer David duChemin. The Zuckerman pig told me no story, nor did it point to anything other than a pig manicured to dismal perfection.

That's how the photograph struck me, but I'm probably part of the minority, as indicated by the success of his book Creature, a collection of photographs in this animals-as-exhibits style. But, when it comes to matters of taste, I'm indifferent about belonging to any particular group (unless, maybe, it comprises those with good taste, or, to put it another way, those who agree with me).


What the photograph had done, though, was get me thinking about pigs. I like pigs; I find them full of personality and character, and Zuckerman's photograph seemed like an injustice; like an overprocessed, excessively retouched photograph of a person with its implied judgement that the real person isn't good enough.

Ironically, I've seen a true wild pig in the wild only once. Strictly, it was a feral pig, but its most recent domesticated ancestor could probably be traced back a hundred years, possibly more, and if you had the bad luck to bump into it unexpectedly you'd think 'wild' perfectly fitting, maybe more so than 'feral'. We watched it from a far mountainside as it made its way downhill, through patches of scrub, in the shimmering heat, towards the stream. Being large and black in the mid-summer heat of North Canterbury must make life uncomfortable, but this pig clearly knew what to do. The sight thrilled me.

I've seen several captive wild pigs, though, and for several months during the summer of 2012 I even lived with one: a small, black, bristly wild pig who arrived after being caught in the Tararua Range. He was one of a large litter; his brothers and sisters stayed at their captor's property but he was one too many, so he travelled north to be re-homed in the small woolshed paddock not far from my back door. He settled in well and adapted to his new home, and I quickly grew to enjoy his personality.

Sometimes he'd run at high speed around the edge of the paddock — and high speed for a pig is far, far faster than most people imagine. If you're ever chased by a wild pig, running's a bad idea. Climb something if you can (despite their intelligence and accomplished physical abilities, pigs not only can't fly, they haven't learned to climb trees, either).

Having run a lap or two around the paddock, he'd stop, panting happily; then, after a second or two, he'd sprint around the paddock again in the opposite direction. His acceleration from a standing start was astonishing. That's something else to remember if you encounter a wild pig. Helen Macdonald was lucky the one she met was on the opposite side of a fence.

My little wild pig also lived on the opposite side of a fence, but eventually we both learned neither was a danger to the other. He'd listen for the sound of my back door opening, and, when he heard it, he'd sprint to the fence and stand there waiting. I'd walk over and scratch his back and the base of his hairy ears, and he'd stand transfixed, sometimes drooling slightly. He loved those back-scratches.

Sometimes he'd grunt a little as he ran to the fence, as if signalling to me that he was there and available to be back-scratched, but during the scratching he mostly remained silent. He seemed to understand that the great pleasures of life are transitory, and, being not only intelligent but wiser than most humans, he accepted this and never objected when I'd finally apologise and walk away. He'd just stand there for a while, meditating on non-attachment, the negation of desire, and impermanence, and then he'd wander off to snuffle around in the shade of the big silver birch.

I learned a lot from that little wild pig.

I said 'my' wild pig, but he was never mine in any sense. I don't know whether he thought of me as his, although I suspect he believed he had me well trained, and he was right.

I went away one weekend, and when I returned I saw the drip tray lying in the sun, swarmed by flies. In the tray a pool of blood was turning black, and on the edge of the pool lay a small, black, bristly tail.


I never ate anything of him, and I'm glad, although if anyone had to eat him it should have been someone who appreciated him for more than his flavour. And it had to happen, of course: he would soon have turned into a mature wild boar, difficult and dangerous, and at that stage he'd not have been fit for much other than rank sausages or dog tucker.  Even if he'd been allowed to live indefinitely, he'd have died sooner or later: every living thing does. It's just a matter of when and how. Maybe that was his final lesson for me.

But this sounds like rationalising, and it probably is. What I really want to say is that he was a true wild pig, and that means he was complex, capable (both physically and mentally), and possessed of a delightful personality. He had a story — one in which I figure — and that story and his personality make up the pig he was. The pig Andrew Zuckerman photographed no doubt had a personality, too, and it must have had some kind of story. Of those things, though, the photograph tells us nothing.

1. Zuckerman describes his technique as ... recontextualiz[ing his subjects] in the clarifying white space to distill each animal to its most essential qualities'. By now, you might realise I think he didn't distill those essential qualities: he destroyed them.

1 and 3. This was him.
2. Another wild/ feral inhabitant of New Zealand’s mountain lands: red deer. I photographed this stag late in the evening on a steep slip in the headwaters of the Pohangina river a few weeks ago.

Photos and original text © 2015 Pete McGregor