Here is the digital portion of my winter adventure! Watch the video to get a glimpse into the lives of a homesteading family in Lincoln, Vermont. Enjoy
Here is the adventure writing portion! Read about the exciting lives of the Johnson family.
6:30 am came quickly on Saturday. Knowing I would be a witness of the slaughter of three hogs that day made my sleep brief and restless. Before first light, I rose out of bed and dressed in clothes I could get dirty just as Meredith had directed me. I picked up some coffee and a friend, and we proceeded up through Bristol just as the sky was getting pale blue-grey. We arrived to the whole household awake. Wren, the youngest daughter, was eating some homemade Potato Hill bread with slices of goat cheese. I thought it was a good thing I had some oatmeal on the car ride because I would not likely want to eat again until much later.
Fiona Johnson, the elder daughter, was wearing woolen black and red pants with large checks of plaid. They were warm enough to allow her to kneel in the snow and not feel too much of the cold. Together with Wren, the younger, cropped haired, dimpled, and cheerful daughter, we made way past the bread house, over a small wooden footbridge, past the pigpen, and to the goat house to complete the morning ritual of feeding and milking. Fiona went straight for the hay bales, grabbing sizable tufts, talking to me about the naming schemes and personalities of all the goats. Macaroni has a strange name because of the year and month he was born. Fiona opens the wooden gate to let herself in, simultaneously using her body to block the goat’s getting out, and without a backwards glance, reaches over the gate and fixes the metal latch shut.
The small and black queen bee Stardust is the only goat giving milk right now, and she produced a half-gallon. After the two minutes of milking, Fiona cleaned the udders and put the metal pail of milk in the snow to cool. Just as we had finished up, we heard the rest of the group bustling by the pigpen. Reality seemed to hit, and I knew that the lives of the three pigs I had met the previous week were about to end. What I did not know, at that point, was what the process would look like.
Ron, a burley and rugged man, has much experience with slaughtering animals for food, and therefore, was a guide to Jonathan through the whole process. Ron would, later during the butchering, free a ham from the rest of the carcass, place it down on the table, saw off a foot, and feed it to the puppy all in one quick and fluid motion. John had never before raised and slaughtered his own pigs, though “I’ve done chickens, turkeys, lambs, and goat.”
Ron and his wife and family also homestead. Ron built the entirety of their house, shed and barn. If I have ever met a self-sufficient man, Ron Hardt is he. Their home has spacious rooms with beautifully selected wooden beams ahead. I would guess he is wearing the same flannel shirts and suspenders from the time the first of their five children was born- in their living room. Ron works with a canoe adventure program for youths called Keewaydin, and spends time during the spring in the Northern wildlands in Canada with a Native American man, just the two of them, venturing out across great lakes cutting great cubes of ice to put in storehouses for refrigeration during the summer months. They use recycled sawdust from the previous years to coat and preserve the ice. This is work cut out for a person who knows his navigation and can be hands on enough to bring proper supplies and tools to haul bits of nature powerfully created in the harsh environment of Northern Canada.
Ron can effectively live in the wilderness without aid for an indeterminate amount of time. The only reason he had to come home was love for his wife and family. Being a wilderness expert, Ron knows the ways of trapping and hunting. Ron would never eat meat from the store, he told me; he only eats things he raises or kills himself. He walked me over to the barn and showed me some pelts of fisher cats that he had trapped. I had never heard of fisher cats, but they live abundantly in the Green Mountains and in Canada. After the pig slaughter, the Johnsons would bring the innards out to the black-wood where the cats would find a tasty meal laid out for them.
John and Ron released the pigs one at a time from their pen out into a snowy enclosure. The pigs had not been fed since the previous morning, so when John laid down a handful of grain, the pig got happily to work. With the pig distracted and its head down, Ron walked beside the pig and quickly cocked and fired a pistol shot into the back of the neck, base of the spinal chord. This, Ron said, “totally separates the spine,” and therefore stuns the animal, annihilating pain.
The bullet has passed through the base of the neck and out the cheek, making the blood flow thick. A moment in time stood still. The first thing that happened was the bowels of the pig released. Then the pig sank to its knees and started going into convulsions. It toppled over on its side, and started moving its legs wildly, pin-wheeling around on its side, almost burrowing, sending bloody snow flying in all directions. I started to step backwards, stumbling a little, as quickly as I could. It tried to stand, but couldn’t. When the hog stopped moving quite so fast, Ron seized the moment and cut a wide lash through the neck, from ear to ear. The hog slowed still. I thought the hog was in this liminal state for about three minutes. When I returned to my audio recording, I was more than surprised to discover that the actual duration of the journey between life and death took merely 50 seconds.
Once the hog’s body was calm, John and Ron took hold of the hind legs, and dragged the body through the snow about 50 feet to the sight where we would gut the pigs. The head of the nearly headless pig snagged and dragged, leaving a disjointed, syncopated trail of crimson blood. As John and Ron passed in front of me with the pig, I thought to myself, “this is an image I’m not going to forget anytime soon.” When they deposited the pig at the gutting site, I stood still 20 feet behind for a few moments, then I walked over, taking care not to step on the blood streaked path. Before the shooting, John made a simple prayer saying, “Let this process be as humane as possible.”
There was an involuntary grimace pasted to my expression all the day. That was not the case for Wren and Fiona, who, just as soon as John and Ron laid the hog down, got on their knees, dipped their scrub brushes into the warm mixture of water, bleach, and soap, and started scrubbing the blood, dirt, and grime off of the carcasses. Neither thought twice about using their ungloved hands to manipulate the pig’s body, even though its bloody neck was hanging. They chatted with one another, and worked together to find the dirt and scrub it off. The pigs’ slaughter was just another household task that had to be done.
John, the apprentice, took hold of the ten-inch blade, and, following Ron’s steady voice, made the first incision starting by the bristly tail, working up to the lungs and heart. The pig was on his back, legs splayed, and Fiona came to steady the legs by holding down the ankles wide so the cut would pull the fat and flesh apart deep enough to expose the inner organs. In order to split the cavity wider, John used an axe on the sternum and pelvic bones. Just as John was chopping the sternum bones apart, Meredith put her hands to her own sternum. She had been crying.
The intestines, stomach, bladder, and more were all together. John did not pierce the digestive tract, keeping the insides clean. In order to disconnect the bladder, it was necessary to pinch the top of the sack in order to not let any liquid free. The kidneys, liver, and heart were harvested for later use. The Johnson family and the Hardt family were to split the meat. Meredith looked skeptically at the pile of organs, prompting Ron to say, “If I don’t eat these, I know people who will,” and so took the some livers and hearts and placed them in a garden bucket.
John was holding the lungs, and Ron was talking about how all the blood settled in the bottom of the lungs. John asked me if I wanted to feel them, and so I extended a gloved hand. The lungs were still hot with life. The latex glove made the shinny surface feel like slippery and squishy butter. A mix of blood and fluid was coating, almost dripping from the pinky organ. I could picture slicing inside to find what looked like a full sea sponge, and Ron said that in restaurants, the lungs and other organs are served under flowery names like “sweetbread” to disguise true identity. The heat of the lung surprised me, and so I glanced over to the hog, and noticed the steam that was evaporating from the open cavity of the hog on the 40-degree Vermont January morning.
After the third hog had been gutted, Ron turned the body so the excess blood would drain out of the hollowed cavity. One of the hog’s legs got caught underneath the bulk of the body, and it was getting draining blood all over it. Fiona reached under the body of the steaming pig, grabbed the leg by the hoof, and put it in a more normal anatomical position.
After all three hogs had been successfully gutted, Guthrey loaded the 160 pound (minus gut weight) bodies onto a sled, and pulled them towards a rusty red truck in the drive. Once the hogs were out of sight, we all gathered in the Johnson residence for a spot of tea and a slight rest before we drove to Ron’s house in Salisbury where we would continue to work with the pigs.
Now that “the worst of it was over,” people took the opportunity to clean themselves and gather materials for the butchering. John, with his clothes wet from snow and dirty from blood, opted to change into a dry set of work clothes. He asked Meredith what he should wear, and went off to find some ratty woolen pants, and returned to the kitchen in Carhart overalls tied around the waist by the suspenders. Meredith started a pile of supplies by the door. There was a red cooler with pots, knives, and brine inside; there was a large pot filled with chili to enjoy for lunch (not that I touched a bite), and there were other tools for butchering.
One such tool was for scraping the hair off the scaled pig. The Johnsons had gone to the local hardware store and purchased a tool that had a metal bowl fixed to a wooden handle in the center, secured with a bolt. It was shiny and the wood was pale. Unfortunately, this store-bought tool did not appear to be as sturdy as it should be. Meredith asked Guthrey if he would go out to his blacksmithing forge and make a replica of the tool. Meredith showed me Guthrey’s homemade scraper, saying, “Now this one here, this will last us a lifetime.” This tool was more rugged, with sharp metal edges and a matte finish. Guthrey, a quiet 19 year old, frequently does the metal and woodwork for his family.
The drive to Salisbury allowed for some reflective time, allowing us to process what was happening, what would happen, and what it meant to us and to the Johnsons. I recounted that time when the pig was between life and death, but I was unable to figure out where exactly the line was. I thought of how my perception of the pigs was changed immediately after they had been shot—an animal that was happy, grunting, walking, and hungry was immediately turned to a stinking bloody carcass that needed immediate and intensive tending to. But just as soon as we arrived at the Hardt’s, Ron already had a large metal tub standing on four logs over a fire, heating water in which to scald the pigs in order to make hair removal easier.
The first pig, Spike, Stripe, or Ike, was attached to a tractor with lifting forks by a chain around the ankle. It dangled, and was lowered head first into the tub. Guthrey had to guide the pig’s body into the water after its lolling head was knocked against the side of the basin. The hog was in the near boiling water for about a minute before Ron lifted him out, and drove the tractor to a makeshift wooden table. The planks that comprised the table were white pine that Ron had in stock for his canoe-building endeavors. These wide board, light colored planks would soon be stained with blood and dirtied with enough pig hair to make multiple hairbrushes and paint brushes- which the Johnsons said they would do. I, however, can imagine scores of things I would do, like dive in icy water, get hot pepper juice in my eyeball etc., before I would ever considering manipulating that nasty pig hair into something usable. While I can see potential in the ideas for the pig hair, there is just no way. I’ve said it before, but those girls are brave and have a tolerance my dreams won’t even allow me.
The butchering was an all-hands-on-deck event. There was Heather Hardt in the kitchen who received all the chops and had the task of refining the work, cutting off excess fat, skin, or unwanted I-don’t-know-what. She then packaged the meat, putting some in the freezer, and prepared some for smoking and some for brining. The liver glistened on a stone cutting block on the kitchen counter, deep maroon like an ancient blood in a French marble floor. This three-loafed organ would be eaten separately, also made into pate. It is amazing how different the organ looked sitting on the stone cutting block from when it sat on the snow freshly out of a pig’s inner cavity. The Johnsons and Hardts are able to get so involved in the pig slaughtering process that they can put any squeamish feelings aside and properly preserve things like the liver, let alone enjoy digesting them.
I have grown up as a carnivore. For years, all I would eat was steak, pasta, and chicken fingers. A petit filet minion done medium rare with béarnaise. Enough said. As I got older and then started going to school in Vermont, I learned more about the industrial food production process, and then made more informed food choices like getting local misty knolls chicken when possible. However, I still continue to live a luxurious life-style when outside of Vermont. There is a restaurant in London called Cut that specializes in steak. You walk into a long, high-ceilinged room that resembles a modern, candle-lit hall of mirrors, and you are seated on leather couches around oval, mirrored tables. You talk to a sommelier, and with your waiter. What is unique about Cut is while trying to decide which steak you want, a waiter brings out a cart with all of the different cuts of meat. There is the Australian wagyu, the English sirloin, the USDA prime from Kansas and more. The waiter talks to you about the marbling, the flavor, the homeland of the cow, and how each cut would be best prepared.
While this is a very in depth and focused specialty, going to Cut glorifies the international meat trade. All of these flavors come from around the world- and the consumer feels as though they have a grasp on the exotic life, imagining these cows grazing in their different, foreign pastures, being taken care of by people with different skin and accents. Seeing all of these amazing steaks makes a person excited about the variety, and appreciative of the specialty, but because of the abundance of choices, one is disconnected from what it really means to have such a supply. One sees the possibility of access, and chooses to neglect to see the process of butchering and fossil fuel consuming transportation.
There are two different kinds of luxury here: there is the global advantage, and the personal connection. The Johnson’s are lucky enough to be personally connected with their food- that way they can assure that it is clean and of good quality. They ensured that their pigs were part of the family. Meredith said killing them was difficult because Spike, Stripe, and Ike were “more like friends.” More than once, Meredith teared up and her voice became rough when she talked about her family. I think it is because of the strong love and gratitude she feels for them. Butchering at home gives evidence as to what meat really is.
Raising the pigs brings one “closer to the environment,” and I now understand what it means to slaughter an animal. While I had seen video footage of animal slaughter, there is something different when one is actually present. I can still feel the steam from the carcass blowing directly into my face and body with the wind. My red North Face fleece jacket, still unwashed, holds onto the stench of freshly dead bodies. I smelled this jacket as I was packing up my room, and I thought about all of the meat that America as a nation consumes every day. Attending the pig slaughter was a profound experience for me. I stopped eating meat for a few weeks after it happened, and I have only been consuming it when it exists in front of me at home because otherwise I would feel guilty that the meat went to waste. My rate of vegetarianism at restaurants and sandwich shops has greatly increased, and I have not ordered my favorite wrap at the Co-op since the pig slaughter. I simply do not want meat as much since I have seen the work that goes into getting the meat. When I imagine turkey slices, I see in my mind a real bird with breasts only so large.
Yes, killing friends for food is sad, but the awareness that comes with home slaughtering and meat processing is invaluable. I can’t imagine a cleaner way of slaughtering than I saw with the Hardts and Johnsons, and so I do not even want to picture meat production on a larger scale. I feel as though I am part of a small percentage of people who actually knows what is going on. I am very fortunate that I met the Johnson family, especially at a time when their upcoming weekend activity was slaughtering their three hogs. Sometimes, one is in the right place at the right time. I drove up to Lincoln with no expectations, and this vivid event was then seared onto my memory. Having a digital recording of my interactions with the Johnsons will keep my memories with me for a long time to come.
It is important for people to still be homesteading. This world needs people who are self-sufficient. Our country has had homesteaders for generations—since 1862, in fact, when Abraham Lincoln passed the Homestead Act, which gave 160 acres of land to any head of household or person over 21 years of age who applied to a local land office. The Homestead Act inspired many active, rugged, and brave individuals to take an opportunity to go West and try their chances at the American Dream. Under the Homestead Act, 10 percent of America’s landmass, or 270 million acres, was settled. It only cost $18 to apply to receive a plot of land. Once the family moved onto the land, it was their task to construct a house, but mainly to improve the land. After five years, their work was evaluated, and if they made the land productive, to the point where those inhabiting had a foundation built for success, they would be granted the land to own.
Early American homesteaders were pioneers, immigrants, former slaves—even women, from every walk of life. What homesteaders have in common is that that they are hard workers. A difference between homesteading today and homesteading in the 1800’s is the degree of popularity. Today, there is no (gold)rush to become a homesteader. The Homestead Act was officially discontinued in 1986, though there are still families that have taken it upon themselves to homestead, such as the Johnsons and Hardts.
Modern homesteaders live as independently as possible, for whatever reasons. The Johnsons like to give their children a selected education and allow ample time for household projects. The girls love the goats and chickens; the son Johnny operates the family bread baking business called Potato Hill Bread. I’ve seen their bread at the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op, as well as in their hand-build bread house, and the next time I need a loaf I will be sure to buy it. John, the husband and father, does not work at his outside job on Fridays, because “on Friday I like to spend my day doing work at home. It’s my home work day.” John engages in tasks such as repairing their roof, building a barn with his son Guthrey, fixing windows and so much more.
The Johnson family is a modern homesteading family. Yes, they are connected to the electrical grid unlike their predecessors, but they definitely utilize their handy skills and their land more than the average American. When the Johnsons came upon the plot of land in Lincoln they live on now, it was wild. They cleared the land and laboriously built their home, in what John and Meredith agree were dark days. Much emotional pain and effort was put into building a home for themselves and their soon-to-be-born children. They gathered the timber and assembled the beams by hand.
The Johnsons were attracted by the idea of life in the country. John had grown up in the city of Burlington, while Meredith had grown up in rural Ferrisburg, Vermont near Mount Philo. Meredith had grown up along a dirt road with her six siblings, and wanted to create a life for herself and John in the countryside still. They had not intended to be homesteaders, and this is a title I have donned upon them as I have quested on an adventure to shadow modern homesteaders. The Johnson family and the Hardt family comprise of my knowledge database of what it means to homestead in 2013.
The Johnson parents moved to the land they still reside on, and began clearing and construction. In the beginning, they did not have any livestock or developed farmland. They started growing their own fruits and vegetables that they eat fresh in the summer and can and preserve for the winter. They first started raising animals when a neighbor gave them a few chickens, and they got goats when their elder daughter Fiona expressed interest. The Johnsons are natural animal keepers, and sincerely consider their animals as part of the family. At one time, they even nursed a wounded chicken back to health within the comfort of their home.
Working with the goats keeps all of the Johnson women busy. Fiona and Wren tend the six females and two males every morning, and feed them homegrown bales of hay and milk them. Meredith is becoming a cheese maker. She has been kind enough to give me some homemade feta, in a jar with herbs and oil, also some goat cheddar, and some of what she called “fresh cheese,” which was similar in taste to chevre. She makes more than enough fresh and aged cheese to supply their family’s needs, and she also sells cheese to her friends and her husband’s colleagues.
I see the difference between homesteading under the Act and modern homesteading as the attitude by which individuals approach the lifestyle. Today, homesteading goes against the cultural norms of consumption and rapid transportation. The Johnsons aim to be self-sufficient in a world that tends towards dependence. Back in the early 1900’s, during the peak of homesteading’s popularity, people were forced to be self-sufficient in order to survive. Today, it is more of a lifestyle choice and belief system. Of course, all family units have their own justification for living in their particular manner, but the Johnson’s approach their modern homesteading with an air of wanting to work together as a cohesive family unit, bolstering their overall productivity with the collaboration of the skills of each individual member.
Homesteading is a great option for a family who wants to be in tune with their actions and wants to understand the rewards and consequences on a deep level. The Johnsons have come into homesteading through time and consistent effort, and as they further establish their homestead, the Johnsons will work towards fine-tuning their skills and abilities. Guthrey is only 19, and is already an accomplished blacksmith. Because the Johnson family relies on itself for overall functionality, there is an emphasis on a job done well. The members inspire one another to good work. As a result of their lifestyle, Johnsons have a certain awareness that many families tune out. They are connected to their food, their land, and most importantly to one another. I asked the girls if they think they want to homestead when they start their families, and they immediately responded with head nodding and a “yes of course.” I feel enlightened to now know the Johnsons, and I admire them for their ability to supply for and sustain themselves.