Notes from a Nonnative Daughter

The hunters do not trust me. Not even after I drive three hours down from northwest Georgia, offer beer from my cooler, and stow my sleeping bag in a trailer at their camp. They believe I am an undercover animal-rights activist, and no matter how much I insist on my desire to eat hunted boar, they maintain their guard. I’ve told them I want to write about the non­native hogs that ravage the southeastern United States and will rely on their expertise to do it. “We’ll see what you write,” they say. “We’ll see.”

The United States Department of Agriculture defines an “alien species” as “any species, including its seeds, spores or other biological material capable of propagating that species, that is not native to [the] ecosystem.” Within this broad category, the agency is most concerned with those species whose introduction into a biological community will “cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.” Such species—including the hogs I’ve come to look for—are labeled invasive.

On a chilly March night, sometime after midnight, I shiver in a tree stand above a Middle Georgia swamp, full of both hope and fear that I might encounter Sus scrofa. In the South, where I now live, but where I am not a native, these beasts are called by many names: feral hog, wild pig, wild Russian boar, razorback, Old World swine. Their possible origins are as varied as their names; hogs were introduced to what is now the southeastern United States by Spanish explorers in the 1500s, but today’s hogs might also be descended from wild Russian or Eurasian boar imported illegally and released for trophy hunting in the early twentieth century. During the Depression, many struggling southerners abandoned family farms, and their pigs ran wild. These swine have been rutting for decades, and all hogs are the same species, so the populations are hard to distinguish. Sportsmen take special pride in killing Eurasian boar, and hunting magazines have emphasized false differences, such as the myth that pure wild boar have solid black coats, as John J. Mayer and I. Lehr Brisbin note in a 1991 research review. They discuss morphological traits that might actually help separate the boar from the hogs, such as their “underfur coloration” and the shape of their skulls. (Mayer and Brisbin went on to write the book on this subject: Wild Pigs in the United States.)

I do not come from a family that hunts, and those tree-stand hours leave me cold and restless. Hunting meat and eating hog do not belong in the traditional Jewish experience. Our religious laws consider the wild an unholy location for slaughter. Animals such as hogs, which do not ruminate, or chew their food, will make us unclean if we consume them. More than one southerner has expressed surprise when, out to dinner, I delightedly order hog jowls or braised pork tacos. My family has never kept kosher, but the Jewish past, like any past, is more than capable of trampling on the present. When I wanted a whole-roasted hog at my wedding, my parents protested, insisting that I shouldn’t serve food that would make family feel unwelcome.

The day before the hunt, as I drove toward camp to meet my guides, the houses were small and the lots large. Only four months after the 2012 election, I expected the same assortment of NObama! signs that remain—defiant of actual results—in the North Georgia county where I live. Homeowners here too shout from their yards, but the most common signs support not Mitt Romney, but Israel.

Later, the smoke from a pine fire stinging my eyes, I ask the hunters about this. We’re waiting for a guy to bring corn so we can bait the swamp for tomorrow’s hunt, and the camp is far enough back from the paved road that his headlights, when they light up the sandy drive, will be the only vehicle we’ve seen or heard all evening. From the six thousand years of history and violence and God and belonging that I have been struggling to understand since I first competed in a Patriarch and Matriarch Bee at Hebrew school, the hunters render a simple story of good versus evil. Oh, we support your people, they tell me, over there fighting that terror.

I nod. I do not say that Jews have also used terror tactics in the Holy Land. I move to another side of the campfire, hoping to dodge the smoke, but it is all around us.

I hold my tongue because it feels rude to argue with these men who have been nothing but gracious hosts to me: sharing top-shelf whiskey, introducing me to the county sheriff, answering my questions about the hunting of wild hog, filling my cooler with enough chops and sausage to keep me in meat for a year. I want to belong in a place where strangers are treated with such courtesy, as Odysseus was welcomed with gifts when his wandering beached him on friendly shores.

The Israeli Defense Forces shoulder their TAR-21 bullpup assault rifles on the other side of the world, but kinship between my hosts and those soldiers isn’t entirely surprising. The hunters also arm themselves with heavy artillery. They stockpile food in meat lockers and grain trailers. A war is coming, they believe, because the government will run out of money for social-welfare programs, and the recipients of those programs will arrive at the boundaries of this private hunting land, armed themselves, to steal water and food. The hunters take this violent future very seriously. They are concerned that my tiny gun, a late-sixties model .22 caliber revolver that I proudly describe when they are surprised someone like me would own one, isn’t going to do me any good.

Despite their fear that I might expose them for animal cruelty, they seem to see me as one of their own—it’s my whiteness, probably, or my old-time religion. As they tell me about this future, they do not refrain from calling it a race war, from dropping slurs that they clearly know better than to use in public. They weren’t talking this way earlier, not when they cheerfully swapped details of recent hog sightings with African American hunters at a nearby gas station. The men tell me that they choose to live rural lives because in the country an older order of things, a “good old” order, as it is often coded, can be conserved. The first and easiest thought I have in this moment is that I am not like these men, that their prejudice offends me. I am uncomfortable with fierce senses of belonging—Zionist, country boy—that depend on exclusion and violence, yet if I’m honest, a part of me feels pleased to be included. As we leave the campfire and head for the swamp, the pickup founders in deep gullies hewn by recent rains. I scan the soy fields for the shine of hog eyes, but see no creature glaring at me across the furrows.

The fields give way to the water oak thickets of the swamp, and we pull over to admire the coyote that another guide has killed, its eyes still moist. The hunters speak of coyote as they do hogs, an invading force against which their land must be protected. I want to belong to a place enough that I would be willing to take up a gun in its defense. In the past five years, I have listed my address in three different states, all far from my family. On first dates, when chatting about the places that have cradled my life, I am often asked if I come from a military family, even though my grandfather was the last to serve, as an army flight instructor during World War II. Though New York–born and stationed in Florida, he often snuck out in his plane to visit the places he loved most: New Orleans, Havana. He told me that even in the sticky Louisiana heat, he wore a long raincoat to hide his army threads in the smoky and mysterious corners of whatever club hosted the wildest sax-man.

Like my pilot grandfather, I sometimes act like the self is a uniform that can be concealed or flown away from. My ancestors wandered for forty years in the desert. For better or worse, I am stuck with a restless heart. I fear the instability of not knowing where I belong more than I fear the mental deterioration that might also lurk in my blood. Decades after his Havana days, when the dementia of Lewy body disease ravaged my grandfather’s sharp mind, he spent the early morning hours pounding on neighbor’s doors, speaking to the elderly women who lived in his Albany cul-de-sac as if they were Cuban prostitutes.

In his memoir A Childhood, Georgia native Harry Crews writes of the crucial link between place and identity in the South:

I come from people who believe the home place is as vital and necessary as the beating of your own heart . . . It is your anchor in the world, that place, along with the memory of your kinsmen at the long supper table every night and the knowledge that it would always exist, if nowhere but in memory. . . . If I think of where I come from, I think of the entire county. I think of all its people and all its customs and all its loveliness and all its ugliness.

In A Childhood, Crews baldly and unapologetically details the racism and violence of the white rural South, and this tough honesty distinguishes his memoir. The trouble of the place combines with his troubles about belonging and not belonging to it. These contradictions—the pride in being from somewhere, and the degree to which that pride is linked to the degradation and exclusion of others—are questions that often haunt writing about the South. Crews belongs to the place, and can speak about it in a way I can’t.

During the next morning’s hunt, I sit in a tree stand with one hunter who designs military planes for Lockheed Martin. As he describes his work, talking quietly to avoid scaring off the hogs, I think about my grandfather. I think about how I am drawn to southerners such as Crews and these hunters, as much for their rough edges as for their knowledge about how to hunt hogs, because they keep me from considering myself above the fray when it comes to race—as so many of us white Yankees have a tendency to do.

The hunter doesn’t really expect to shoot hogs, not until later in the day, and he seems to enjoy the morning spent listening for warblers and thrushes. Waiting in silence gives me plenty of time to realize that the piece I’m researching will be too short, and its focus too specific, to allow an extended discussion of the differences and similarities between my hosts and me. The sun is directly above us now, gentle, and it lights up patches of water between the bottomland hardwoods. This part of hunting brings a contemplative peace I didn’t expect, and I’m already deciding to edit out the casual but persistent racism in which these men have included me.

Months after the hog hunt, I am still curious about my impulse not to tell on the hunters. As someone who is not a native of the South, it doesn’t seem like my place to reveal unsweet things. As if my words could protect these men from the unbalanced scrutiny northerners often inflict on the South, I don’t want to show them as the racist crackers the rest of the country thinks they already know. But protecting them like this also allows me to avoid admitting that part of me wants to belong to their South, troubled though it may be, as if I were a native.

If the hunters could hear me now, I’m sure they would snort with laughter at my desire to protect them. I doubt that Yankee disdain concerns them much. If anyone wants to challenge who they are or how they live in the world, well, they’ll likely be ready and waiting. With lots of guns.

Even when we return to the swamp at twilight, a better hour for hogs, the hunters I sit with are unable to sight a single hog through their rifle scopes. We wait until after midnight. The hogs splash in the wallows below us, but we do not get a shot. Other hogs, at other places, are killed. I see them later, bloody and splayed in the beds of pickup trucks. They weigh more than I do. “Don’t come smelling like a girl,” the hunters have said, and I have dutifully sprayed myself with deer urine and left all beauty products at home. Still, I can’t help thinking that, somehow, the hogs are able to sniff me out.

The terms native species and alien species were first used by British botanists in the 1840s, in order to distinguish, according to ecologist Mark Davis, “those plants that composed a ‘true’ British flora” from imposters. It’s not surprising that a preoccupation with true Britishness was prevalent at this time, when the country’s imperial status put it constantly in brutal and contested contact with other peoples. (Alien species is still a commonly used term, although its less-charged equivalent, introduced species, is gaining ground.) The inherent goodness of that which is native has been assumed by biologists for a long time, and Davis, along with eighteen fellow ecologists, expresses the fear that such superimposed xenophobia can do real ecological harm. “Classifying biota according to their adherence to cultural standards of belonging, citizenship, fair play and morality,” he writes in the June 9, 2011, issue of Nature, “does not advance our understanding of ecology.”

Davis tells the story of the tamarisk shrub, an ornamental plant introduced into the American Southwest in the nineteenth century because it could survive on little water. During the 1930s, when resources of all kinds were in short supply, the plants came to be called “water thieves,” in reference to the irrigation they purportedly stole from crops and more-deserving native plants. They are still the target of eradication campaigns, despite the fact that recent research has shown that they do not consume any more water than comparable native plants. The shrub also provides a necessary habitat for the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher. The Irish were once blamed for infecting New York City with cholera; we like to pin our problems on the outsider in this country. Davis believes that such anti-alien instincts have clouded our ability to understand ecology, that one should not automatically spend time and resources trying to restore ecosystems to some “rightful historical state.” Fittingly, the article is titled “Don’t Judge Species on Their Origins.” Davis challenges his colleagues to accept what he calls “novel ecosystems,” containing both natives and migrants—and he and his coauthors are not the only ecologists to have done so.

No one debates the invasive nature of wild hogs, and Davis would probably agree that the damage they cause justifies their eradication. One study, by David Pimental and others, estimates that hogs cause at least $800 million in losses each year in the United States. The damage results from activities that may sound, at first, comic: rooting and wallowing. But hogs can dig holes up to a meter deep in their search for food, as Tyler Campbell and David Long report in a review of research for the journal Forest Ecology and Management. Because hogs lack sweat glands, they create wallows—mud holes, essentially—in which they cool off by, as Campbell and Long put it, “loafing, rolling, and rooting.” All this can hurt forest ecosystems, preventing the growth of both new trees and understory plants. Hogs compete with native wildlife for food, and they carry diseases, most notably brucellosis and pseudorabies. The authors report that hogs’ rooting activities also harm agricultural crops—and not only that, they “repeatedly damage farm equipment and vehicles, and injure livestock.”

Such damage and destruction are all too familiar to the residents of hog-­infested lands in Middle Georgia. When I follow the hunters to the meat processor, I see fliers that local farmers have posted, offering cash bounties for any hogs killed on their land.

Though not native, hogs sometimes do show their snouts in southern folk culture. Field collector John Avery Lomax recorded a version of the British folk song “Bangum and the Boar” in Harlan County, Kentucky, in 1933, and folklorists have found references to the song, attributing it to earlier African American sources, as far west as Kansas City. In Elizabeth Madox Roberts’s novel The Great Meadow, published in 1930, a character sings the song’s refrain: “There’s a wild boar in these woods.” That this English song would appear in southern and midwestern folkways shows how both objects of culture and cultivated animals can be transplanted from one landscape to another, and come to belong.

In Roberts’s novel, the characters are Revolutionary-era pioneers, leaving the comforts of the Virginia piedmont and the wealth of the tidewater region for the Kentucky frontier. As I reread it, rooting for more references to wild boar (the heroine uses hog bristles for fortune-telling), this novel of migration reminds me why any discussion of race and the South, or the southern wild, or northern women living in the South, can only take you so far: the South, though people on both sides of the Mason-­Dixon line love to claim otherwise, isn’t one consistent place. “Texas?” the hunters say, when I mention an article I read about hunting wild hog. “That’s a whole different game.”

In my first, earlier essay about hogs, there isn’t room to catalog the varieties of wild boar folklore, but I can’t resist reporting on the violence of the hunt. When the swamp thickets are too dense for tree stands and feeders, hunters use bay dogs to find hogs. A pit bull, or some other aggressive breed, is used to catch and hold the hog, until the hunters can finish the kill with a knife. I don’t write of how I ask one of the hunters about coming along. “I’d have to know you better,” he says, “to bring you on a dog hunt. Leaves you up to your elbows in hog blood.” Maybe my mind has been too much addled by a weekend in a tree stand, but I want to be ready for that kind of thing. I want to be steady and strong enough, rooted enough, that I can walk between the hog and the catch dog, and plunge in my blade. This is not something I dreamed of doing as a child.

The hunters are quick to tell me about the violence of a hog, how chilling it is to catch one’s eyes glaring back at you across a darkened field. They brag about the scars of their friends, men whose kneecaps and thighbones have been busted by charging boar. I am the only woman in the swamp the weekend I hunt, but women are not unwelcome, and a few hunt on a regular basis. Anyone level enough to take out a hog would win respect here. The hunters are also concerned with the scars these invasive beasts leave on the landscape. One man’s sunflower fields have been rooted up again. He shows me the damage using Google Earth.

I publish my essay, a simpler, shorter story than this, focused more on the problems caused by invasive hogs than my own problems about feeling native, or the problems easy distinctions between native and alien have caused for ecologists. I write about the rising popularity of hog meat and the legal restrictions on selling it. I mention the diseases hogs carry; speculate briefly about the connection between hog hunting and preparing for the end times; linger over the taste of the meat. I write “cultivation.” I write “wildness.” Some of the hunters read the piece. They do not feel betrayed. I am on my way to earning their trust, an invitation back to camp, maybe, or to go on a dog hunt some day—but I’m also, I realize, not done writing about this subject.

If the hunters read these words, I suspect the gates to their land will swing closed against me. My mistake, though, may be not that I have betrayed their trust, but that I have been thinking of them as the only gatekeepers. I don’t know what the black hog hunters said in private, after the white hunters and the white girl writer left the gas station, but those stories are just as native to this landscape. If I return to the swamp, I want to hunt with dogs and speak more with black hunters, but these actions alone would not make me a native. Georgia might become my home only if I keep living here, keep combing the pine-straw floors of these woods for sun-bleached hog skulls, and for other, less portable things, like the fervor with which these hunters guard their land, that might one day mark me as someone who belongs.

Scars—those marks left by great or small acts of violence—are often the means by which a person or place is known. When Odysseus returns to his homeland, he has been gone for so long that no one, not his wife, not his son, recognizes his face. The self, the Greek poem reminds us, is a tricky and changeable creature, one that leaves and rarely returns home the same. Only his nurse Eurycleia recognizes Odysseus, and she does so when she sees the scar on his thigh, a mark he earned during a childhood encounter with a wild hog. In Robert Fagles’s translation, Homer writes of that animal in terms the hunters might find familiar:

. . . then and therea great boar lay in wait, in a thicket lair so densethat the sodden gusty winds could never pierce it,nor could the sun’s sharp rays invade its depthsnor a downpour drench it through and through,so dense, so dark, and piled with fallen leaves.Here as the hunters closed in for the kill,crowding the hounds, the tramp of men and dogscame drumming round the boar—he crashed from his lair,his razor back bristling, his eyes flashing fire.

Back home in North Georgia, far from the swampy lair of the hogs we hunted, a friend tells me to soak the chops in buttermilk, to “take the wild out of it.” Still, I can taste the woods in which this animal once lived. When I first started writing about Georgia swine, I did not know when to say “feral” and when to say “wild.” Chefs prefer the drama of wild boar, while government documents call for the management of feral hog or pig. Neither name is wrong. The boundaries have been blurred for a long time.