Friends and Larders: The Farmer's Dilemma*

by Elizabeth Thompsow


In their generally perceptive “Introduction” to the Canardian Poetry Press edition of Mary Buchanan’s Piggy (c.1915), Susan Bailey and D.M.R. Bentley note Buchanan’s influence on succeeding poets like H. Isabel Graham and acknowledge her artistic connection with such major recent writers as Margaret Atwood, Aritha van Herk, and Margaret Laurence. What Bailey and Bentley fail to point out, however, is Mary Buchanan’s relationship with preceding writers. To be sure, Buchanan provides a fresh and innovative look at the pig, but she is also derivative, owing a debt to such writers as Susanna Moodie (Roughing It in the Bush [1852]) and Catharine Parr Traill (The Backwoods of Canada [1836] and The Canadian Settler’s Guide [1854]). Buchanan’s work is important in its resolution of a dichotomy evident in the pioneer writing of Traill and Moodie—namely, is the pig a valued and much-loved friend or merely a commodity?1 In her resolution, or perhaps her balancing of two points of view, Buchanan anticipates van Herk’s Judith [1981] and Robert Krouch’s “An Erotics of Pork”2 later in the present century.
     Traill’s writing suffers, becoming flat and one dimensional, because of her reluctance to acknowledge the pig as companion. The Backwoods of Canada, in fact, entirely ignores the pig (as either companion or commodity), and while The Canadian Settler’s Guide mentions the pig, all comments are impersonal and detached. The focus is on meat and meat by-products, not on the pig as a living, sentient creature:

Much of the goodness of pork, ham, and bacon depends upon the meat itself—the breed of hogs—and their treatment in fattening.
     A great deal of the barrels of pork sold in the stores, is coarse, loose, flabby pork—distillery-fed, or else nut-fed; the swine having nearly fattened themselves in the woods on beech-mast, acorns, and such food. This pork is known by its soft, oily fat; the meat running away to oil, in the act of frying. Of course, meat like this is not profitable to the buyer. (153-4)

Traill deals with facts and figures: price, measure, weight. She talks about ham, bacon, and lard—pork, rather than pigs. Her voice is coldly impersonal as she describes curing meat (150-154), making lard (154), boiling soap (167-171), cooking with lard (99, 103), and removing “paint, pitch, cart grease” (171) with lard. Although in one instance she advises her reader, “Rub your ham. . . with fine salt” (152), this should not be seen as an invitation to intimacy, or even to friendly contact. Instead, for Traill, the only good pig is a dead (albeit well-fed) pig. It is difficult to say why Traill avoids the importance of the pig as companion. Perhaps she had her hands full taking care of her chronically depressed husband. Or perhaps an admission of either friendship or the need of friendship would undercut her assumption of the role of the ideal, capable pioneer woman.
     Susanna Moodie, however, enjoys—indeed, wallows in—ambivalence. As has frequently been observed, Roughing It in the Bush is rife with contrasts and contradictions in narrative voice, for example, and a tension between forestry and eroticism inheres even in the book’s title.3 But oddly enough, no-one has examined such ambivalence as it relates to Moodie’s treatment of the pig. For one thing, as a pioneer, Moodie bows to the inevitable, accepting the importance of necessity—whether planting corn, baking bread, or eating a pet pig. Yet, unlike the more pragmatic Traill, she shows another side as well; to Moodie, there are other values, a life beyond the merely practical.
     With animals in general, like men, Moodie displays divergent points of view. In “Disappointed Hopes,” a key chapter in Roughing It in the Bush, she sees a “noble buck” (356) chased by Indian hunters. Rather than cheering for the hunters, she says that her heart “leaped for joy” (357) when the deer escapes. Here the deer is romanticized, and Moodie ignores the probable need of the hunters for food. Later in the chapter, when she and her family are hungry, the tone changes, and Moodie is delighted when her servant, Jacob, shoots and kills a “fine buck” (358) which will feed them for some time. Note the change in diction: the deer seen in the distance when she herself is not hungry, is “noble” and picturesque; the deer seen at close hand when she is starving is evaluated in terms of meat—“fine” and nourishing. (Similar contrasts are found in the descriptions of Mr. Moodie; for example, when he leaves to fight in the rebellion, he becomes a romantic figure, and when he comes home . . . .)
     But the ambivalence with respect to men and animals becomes especially pronounced in Moodie’s treatment of the pig. On the one hand, emulating her sister Catharine Traill, she describes the pig as a commodity. When “six fat hogs” (357) are destroyed by a “ruffian squatter” (357), Moodie’s chief concern is for the loss of the product: “The death of these animals deprived us of three barrels of pork, and half-starved us through the winter” (357). A different view emerges when she turns from pigs in general to one in particular. Spot, “a very pretty little pig” (359),3 is a household pet, beloved by the children: “. . . he always received his food from their hands at the door, and followed them all over the place like a dog” (359). The allusion to dogs is significant since dogs are virtually the only animals Moodie does not cook and eat. Indeed, Hector, her “noble hound” (359), is the pig’s best friend, even sharing a bed with him in “the hollow log which served him for a kennel” (359).
     As has already happened with the deer, however, when hunger looms, admiration and friendship wane. After the Moodies have eaten the venison, they begin to cast hungry glances at Spot, and, as Jacob says to them:

. . . ’tis no manner ov use our keeping that beast Spot. If he wor a zow, now, there might be zome zenze in the thing. (359-60)4

Granted, as a member of a lower social order, Jacob must necessarily be lacking in sensibility—hence his murderous suggestion. (Jacob has also shot the deer, remember.) Unfortunately for Spot, the Moodies concur with Jacob; Mrs. Moodie’s physical needs take precedence over her metaphysical needs. Spot is re-labelled an “uncouth” pet (360) by Moodie and summarily slaughtered by Jacob. Neither Moodie’s daughter Katie nor the noble Hector will eat the pig. Their refusal highlights the importance of the pig as friend and makes the rest of the family appear more than a little cannibalistic.
     The ambivalence continues, and the unhappy Spot is mentioned again in Roughing It in the Bush when the pig’s grave5 becomes the final resting place for two other murdered companions. The pig is now known as “the pig that Jacob killed” (398), Moodie evidently washing her hands of the whole affair and her part in it. In her denial of responsibility and her burial of the remains,5 Moodie honours Spot and elevates him from pork chop back to companion. Finally, then, through her eating then sanctifying of a valued friend, Moodie sets up a cyclical pattern which echoes forward to Mrs. Buchanan’s use of Christian symbolism as noted by Reverend Frank Furter in his “Piggy and the Last Supper: The Aesthetics of Communion.” But Moodie seems unaware of the implications of her actions, since at this stage in the narrative, a gentleman houseguest, John, kills a cat and a dog named Tom and Chowder. Significantly, these pets of Moodie’s good friend Emilia are killed for eating the Moodies’ food—robbing them of essential commodities—and Moodie does not protest. Here as elsewhere, the value of the commodity supersedes the importance of the friend, and Tom and Chowder are murdered, then laid to rest with Spot, all three victims to backwoods necessity.
     The dilemma, largely ignored by Traill and unresolved by Moodie, is resolved or at least balanced6 by Buchanan in Piggy—and to a lesser extent, in “Duckies” as well. Mrs. Buchanan follows Moodie’s lead when she tells us that the pig is an important companion. She says, “the pig is a pard” (l. 11), the colloquialism, “pard,” indicating an easy, lower-class camaraderie like that displayed between Hector and Spot. Buchanan goes a step farther, though, when she comments that “the pig is a friend that will last to the end” (l. 13). Here she seems to be indicating a spiritual level to the friendship that goes far beyond Moodie’s tentative attempts at a porcine-human relationship. In addition to celebrating the pig’s ability to serve as a companion, Buchanan treats the pig as a commodity: “But there’s meat—juicy meat—and spare ribs so sweet” (l. 5). (The conjunction “but” used traditionally to begin a strong alternative point of view is used by Buchanan to introduce the pig both as friend [l. 13] and as meat [l. 5].) The poet moves from the listing of meat dishes—“There’s the head and the feet, and the carcase complete” (l. 7)—to the enumeration of by-products: “And there’s lard—snowy lard—sometimes soft, sometimes hard” (l. 9). Buchanan is derivative of Traill in her valuing of specific pork products, especially lard. The lard mentioned by Traill in The Canadian Settler’s Guide is a key ingredient in her recipe for success in the backwoods, and maintains its importance well on into the twentieth century, as is evident in Buchanan’s poem.7
     Buchanan, then, celebrates equally two attributes of her porcine acquaintances; her pigs are at once companion and commodity. One is not valued at the expense of the other. Stanza three shows an equal weighting of these ideas, for two lines are given over to the commodity and two lines to the companion. The last stanza, however, is the strongest. Buchanan describes the pig as at once mischievous, “on mischief oft bent” (l. 29), and gentlemanly, “the pig is a gent” (l. 29); he is a friend, “a corker” (l. 30), and a product, “a porker” (l. 32). These balanced phrases with their balanced rhymes place equal value on both aspects of the pig.
     The movement towards a balanced representation is well thought out by Buchanan, appearing elsewhere in her work as well. A similar demonstration of balance and order occurs in “Duckies” where she begins by expressing friendly admiration: “Ducks can beat them all” (l. 8); “Don’t they have a jolly time?” (l. 13). And she ends by saying, “Off goes duckies heads” (l. 26), a reference to the slaughtering of the friend to serve a practical purpose—feather beds and “juicy” meat (l. 39).
     While writers may deal with other animals—ducks and deer and the like—the more serious Canadian artists consistently return to the pig.8 Strangely, the pig has generally been ignored by the critics.9 Northrop Frye, for example, has not fitted the pig into his explanation of a “garrison mentality.” The omission of the pig from critical writing is to be regretted, and the serious treatment of Buchanan’s Piggy by the Canardian Poetry Press may begin to rectify the error. Buchanan’s pig, like other literary pigs, has something of value to offer, but as Stephane Éscobigh says in a pointed bit of understatement, “Piggy has long been marginalized, thrust to the outer limits, the borders, boundaries, edges, slippages, marshes, margins, gutters, parerga of our discipline” (176). Among the poetic and prosaic celebrants of the porcine, Mrs. Buchanan emerges as a pivotal figure; she takes the vague ideas of earlier writers and fuses them into a powerful portrayal of the bonds which exist between a woman and her pig.

* Studies in Canardian Literature 17.1 (1992): 199-34. [back]


  1. The development of the pig as friend undoubtedly has its origins in the early days of settlement in Canada when neighbours were few and far between. A woman might well be glad of the companionship offered by her pig. [back]
  2. Robert Krouch is one of the few male writers to focus on the pig; see his “The Fear of Pigs in Early Canadian Poetry.” Men more generally stay away from the porcine, possibly because the pig in literature is usually male as noted by Rosemary Stuffing in “This Pig Which is Not One” (69), and the neutering and then slaughtering of the male pig for meat would obviously prove threatening. [back]
  3. Margaret Atwood, in the Journals of Susanna Moodie, sees Moodie’s voice as “paranoid schizophrenic,” but she does not comment on Moodie’s Spot. The name “Spot,” in fact, may link Moodie to Lady Macbeth (“Out danm’d spot,” etc.), another deeply divided character. [back]
  4. Note the importance of the female in the backwoods. Far from being marginalized or suppressed, women in Canada have traditionally been empowered, as the valuing of the sow by Jacob makes evident. Remember, also, that the male pigs are neutered or they are unappetizing. The male, then, from the very beginning in Canada, has been emasculated, sidelined, margarinized, and eaten. [back]
  5. The reference to a burial is odd since there would be very little left of Spot to bury. [back]
  6. As Robert Krouch says, “Mrs. Buchanan is ever more the postmodernist” (121). [back]
  7. In rethinking my 1991 book, The Pioneer Woman: A Canadian Character Type, I have, in the best contemporary tradition of on-going critical discourse, decided that the approach should be changed to recognize the paradigmatic value of lard. [back]
  8. Dr. Elizabeth Legge, Art Curator at the University of Toronto, has noted the valuing of cows over pigs in traditional English landscape painting. It is her contention that the development of a Canadian tradition necessitates the rewriting of the genre to include the pig in the landscape. [back]
  9. The eminent scholar W.J. Kouth can be credited with the late twentieth-century discovery of Mrs. Buchanan’s Piggy in his “Piggy Scrutinized.” [Not true—Ed.] [back]

Works Cited

Buchanan, Mrs. Walter. Piggy. Ed. Susan Bailey and D.M.R. Bentley. London: Canardian Poetry P, 1991.

Éscobigh, Stephane. Rev. of Mrs. Walter Buchanan’s Piggy. Canardian Literature 131 (1991): 175-77.

Furter, Reverend Frank. “Piggy and the Last Supper: The Aesthetics of Communion.” The Sacred Union of Pork Producers of Ontario 10.2 (1992): 3-7.

Glebe, Prudy. Peas Shall Destroy Many. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1977.

Kouth, W.J. “Piggy Scrutinized.” Canardian Poetry: Studs, Documents, Reviews 6 (1980): 25-34.

Krouch, Robert. “The Fear of Pigs in Early Canadian Poetry: An Erotics of Pork.” Open Litter, 8th series, 4 (1992): 116-26.

Moodie, Susanna. Roughing it in the Bush. 1852. Afterword Susan Glickman. New Canadian Afterword Library. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1989.

Ricardo, Rick E. “The Meadowlark Lemon Tradition: Popular Basketball Verse of the Canadian Prairie.” Assays on Canardian Writhing 18-19 (Summer/Fall 1980): 145-66.

Stuffing, Rosemary. “This Pig Which Is Not One.” Cahiers du bif 5 (1992): 20-28.

Traill, Catharine Parr. The Backwoods of Canada. 1836. Afterword D.M.R. Bentley. New Canadian Afterword Library. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1989.

Traill, Catharine Parr. The Backwoods of Canada. Afterword D.M.R. Bentley. NCL. Ed. David Staines. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1989.

———. The Canadian Settler’s Guide. Intro. Clara Thomas. New Canadian Library. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1969.