Where are the swine of yesteryear?

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I can't think how many years it is since I bumped into a swineherd.

No. Actually, I can.

I've never bumped into one.

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Yet I suppose they were once as common as goose girls and shepherds. Come to think of it, I haven't bumped into many of them, either. These days, shepherds are usually called "sheep farmers," and a girl driving geese to market is an unknown phenomenon.

When I returned home to England from New York in 1970, I lived in a Yorkshire Dales farmhouse. Only one of the nearby cottages showed signs of pig culture. The pig had gone. But there was a small tunnel of corrugated iron in the garden where the pig had been housed.

Long gone were the days when every last country family reared its own pig. Far longer gone were the days when William Cobbett could remark, when he visited Gloucestershire in his "Rural Rides": "A pig in almost every cottage sty! That is the infallible mark of a happy people."

Cobbett's "Rural Rides" began as a newspaper serial in 1821. In the last two decades of that century, the inhabitants of the poor hamlet where Flora Thompson grew up - which she recorded in "Lark Rise to Candleford" - reared family pigs. Balancing dispassionate observation with poignant involvement, she recalls her shocked encounter with the dead pig in the pantry.

She "had known that pig all its life," she comments. Her "father had often held her over the door of its sty to scratch its back, and she had pushed lettuce and cabbage stalks through the bars for it to enjoy."

Who today has such intimate experience of the callous process of converting animal into meat? Supermarkets make it an easy issue to avoid. And pigs, even more than cows, sheep, and chickens, have somehow disappeared from the lives of a vast majority of country people.

City people are totally pig-deprived.

None of my Glasgow neighbors keeps a pig, not even as a pet, although dogs and cats abound. My own pig encounters have been few. There was a pig farm near enough to home in Surrey in the late 1950s to assault our nostrils with striking aromas when the wind was in a certain direction. Which it usually was.

A couple of years ago, we came face to face with a remarkable sow at a Scottish children's zoo. This massive beast made an art form out of sheer mountainous mass. Magnificent! While we stared at her, enchanted by her boggling bulk, she lay there brimful of the joys of nourishment and maternity, oblivious of us mere humans.

That's about it.

But pigs remain vividly alive in literature and art, in storytelling and illustration, a survival from the time when every child knew a pig by its first name. The pig remains entrenched in the childhood imagination we carry with us into adulthood: Beatrix Potter's "Pigling Bland" and "Little Pig Robinson." Edward Lear's piggywig, who gave the ring in his nose to the Owl and the Pussycat so they could make their marriage vows.

Some literary pigs are rather serious - think of the endearing Wilbur in "Charlotte's Web." Or squeakily inconsequential, like Piglet in A.A. Milne's Pooh stories.

More recently, two unforgettable pigs have shown up on TV and film: Babe and, of course, Miss Piggy.

In adult literature of vastly differing kinds, pigs gruntle and snort their way into the collective fancy. Orwell's Napoleon in "Animal Farm," for instance, and P.G. Wodehouse's prize-winning porker, the Empress of Blandings. Both are inventions of the first order.

A year or two ago, I came across a volume at a book fair in Glasgow. Published in 1961 (long out of print), it's called "The Symbolic Pig." I can't imagine any other book languishing in library storage or on dusty shelves that gives such a wealth of affectionate attention and regard to pigs. It's full of gems. Great photographs of pig wood carvings in medieval churches. Pig quotations. Pig essays.

If you feel a bit pig-starved, hunt down a copy! You'll find in it an ebullient essay on "Pigs as Pets," by G.K. Chesterton. You'll find naturalist W.H. Hudson describing his friendship with a pig. What you won't find (which is certainly an omission) is Jules Renard's neat aphoristic summation of all that's typical about "The Pig."

It includes these pig-essence phrases:

"Under ears like beetroot-leaves, you hide away those little blackcurrant eyes. You are pot-bellied as a gooseberry. You have long hairs, as it has, and, like it, a clear skin and a short curly tail. But people are unkind enough to call you 'Dirty pig!'....

"But they slander you. If they cleaned you up, you would look spick-and-span. It is their fault that you don't pay enough attention to yourself."

Now that's what I call attitude!

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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