Tuesday, September 07, 2010
Nothing like a pig
So we’re standing up against a short barbed-wire fence. I’m baffled. It’s sunny, but we’re shaded by sweet chestnut leaves. Woods are quiet in autumn: just the sifting hush of a small wind above and a robin making dripping-water noises from a holly bush.
I’m not quite sure what to expect, because I’m not sure why I’m here. The boy said he’d show me something cool in the woods, which could of course be any number of things, ha. But here we are. He whistles and calls, whistles again. Nothing happens. Then it happens.
I’ve seen pictures of boars all my life. Slipware razor-backed beasts on greek pottery, sixteenth-century woodcuts, trophy photos of twenty-first century men with rifles. Ink drawings of the Erymanthian boar in my Roger Lancelyn Green. Like the various kinds of dinosaurs, I know their shape intimately. Like dinosaurs, I’ve never seen an actual one.
After the boy whistles, there’s a short, collapsing moment as sixty or seventy yards away a sow walks fast between trees, and then the boar. The boar. The boar.
When I went to see Jurassic Park back in the early 1990s something odd happened when the first dinosaur came on screen. An huge, hopeful pressure in my chest and my eyes spilling water. It was miraculous. The thing I’d seen representations of all my life was, magically, alive.
And the same thing happened when I saw the boar. It was greatly affecting, because I’d seen this animal in ink all my life, and here it was, called into the real world.
And it was not what I expected, despite this slap of familiarity. For boar are not — I repeat — not like pigs. As the boar trotted up to us, a miracle of muscle and bristle and heft, I turned to the boy and said: They’re not like pigs. He replied, with great satisfaction, ‘no. They’re not like pigs”.
My brain did flips trying to place the parts of the beast. First I thought it was a little like a bear. Then like a big male baboon. There was the same forward-menacing shoulders, the brute strength and black hide of a bear. But there was a thing that was neither pig nor bear nor baboon. It struck me that what was most strong about this encounter wasn’t just the calling-forth of an animal icon into flesh, but the realisation that there in the world is a particular form of intelligence that is boar-intelligence; boar-sentience.
The boy waxed lyrical about the things that boars impress upon boys. The self-whetting, cutlass-curved, razor-sharp tusks. The small legs and hindquarters that work to steer the huge muscular bulk of the front end of the beast. As he did this, the boar pressed itself up against the fence and sniffed loudly through his wet boar nostrils, ‘ffff. ‘fffff. ‘fffff’. I rashly put my hand towards him. He looked up at it, flat-faced, with red boar eyes, considering. More sniffing.
I drew my hand back, because it seemed boar wasn’t quite sure. Then, after a while, both boar and I considering, I lowered it again. The boar stood. He allowed me to push my fingers into the bristles of his arched black back. And yes, it was like feeling a hairbrush, only a hairbrush with too, too many bristles, and a backed with thick muscle, rather than beech. There was wool underneath.
“He’ll be getting his winter coat soon” said the boy. “Six-inch guard hairs.” I scratched the beast’s broad hump and felt, as the seconds passed, that some tiny skein of aggression in his heart was starting to thrum. I have learned not to distrust intuitions like this. Suddenly we both decided that this was enough, my heart skipping, he grunting and feinting.
Wandering off, he sank onto his knees, nose to the ground, then with infinite luxury, sat and rolled onto his side, snuffling the humus. Ripples ran down his hide. I was entranced.
There are animals which are mythological by virtue of being imaginary. Basilisks, dragons, unicorns. There are animals which were once just as mythologically rich, have had so much exposure to us now that their earlier meanings are swamped with new ones: lions, tigers, cheetahs, leopards, bears, la. They’ve been given new stories.
I don’t think boars have new stories. Boars are familiar to me only from older stories, and their meaning has carried through intact. Boars are still emblematic. These are beasts of venery and woods. They are impressive not only in their boarishness, but in their resolute refusal of modern stories about animals.
Here is a boar. But beware: it is nothing like a pig, and it is much more than this picture pretends.