It’s that time of year again, like it or not. Round these parts, this piece by Cactus Ed has become a Christmas tradition.
Scrooge was right. What I like best about Christmas in the desert is the conspicuous absence of Christmas. By late December the cone-nosed humbugs are gone and all the horny elf toads retired into their burrows for the season. When somebody asks me what I think of Christmas (nobody ever does), I reply, “Not much.” Easy to avoid it out here in the rocks.
Think about Ebeneezer Scrooge and Bobby Riggs, the twin patron saints of us middle-aged cryptoliberals. Cryptoliberal? Well, sure, why not? I have been called other names even worse. Misanthrope. Sexist. Elitist. Crank. Barbarian. Anarcho-syndicalist. Wild conservative. And my favorite, from a Maoist lady in New York–she called me a creeping Fascist hyena. Quite true, so far as it goes (you can’t please everybody), but they forget to add that I am a pig lover too.
The pig I’m talking about is the one known also as a peccary or javelina, the wild pig of the Arizona desert; not a true pig exactly, according to zoologists, but a good approximation–a close relation. Close enough for me, and the javelina, commonly defined as a “wild pig-like animal,” is the best kind of pig. Though that definition, come to think of it, is a shade too broad. Some of my best friends qualify as wild pig-like animals without half trying. But that’s another issue. The fault of the permissive social atmosphere, the Bill of Rights, the general weakening of moral fibers everywhere you look.
Back to my topic: Christmas and pigs. Have you ever stood alone under the full moon in the prickly cholla-mesquite desert on the night before Christmas and found yourself surrounded by a herd of hungry, snuffling, anxiety-ridden javelinas? I have, and it’s a problematic situation: some of those little fifty pound beasts carry tusks and have been known to charge a full-grown man right up the hairy trunk of a saguaro cactus. That’s the story I’ve been told by old-timers around here.
In any case, this part is true: I was surrounded by javelinas while O’Ryan [sic] chased the Seven Sisters around the Big Bear and the moon looked kindly down. To say that I was nervous would have been an overexaggeration. Though unarmed and on foot, I was happy, at ease, and comfortably drunk.
The herd of javelinas was aware of my presence. The mind of a wild pig is unpredictable. These couldn’t make up their minds whether to run or stay. After a while, since I made no move, they stayed. I could see them plain in the bright moonshine: parody pigs with oversized heads and undersized hams; each one bristly as a wire brush. They trotted from bush to bush and cactus to cactus, anxious restive fellows, all fits and starts, busy, busy, busy. I was accepted, but not welcome; they hoped I wouldn’t stay. As I watched, I heard the sound of their vigorous jaws at work–a crunching of jojoba nuts, the munching of prickly pear. In all nature there’s no sound more pleasing than a hungry animal at its feed. Ask any cattleman or farmboy.
Down by Aravaipa Creek I heard the barking of a fox. An owl called. Everybody out shopping for supper.
There was a good strong odor in the air, the rank and racy musk of half-alarmed javelinas. I like that smell, just as I enjoy the smell (at a comfortable distance) of skunk out looking for trouble. Associations: the wild tang of skunk brings back October nights, raccoons and baying hounds, the big woods and foggy hills of Old Pennsylvania. That smell means Arizona too; a border wolf, a desert bighorn, a mountain lion crouched on a ledge above the deer path in the chapparal. Good smells, good things, important, hard to find on Speedway in Tucson or Central Avenue up in Phoenix.
Now and then one of the larger javelinas, suffering from curiosity, would come close to me, sniff, advance, and retreat, trying to figure out exactly what this thing is that stands there like a bush that breathes but smells like Jim Beam, moves a little. Suspicious; from time to time, a ripple of panic passed through the herd like a wave through water. They knew something was wrong, but didn’t know what. One minute they’re on the point of exploding in all directions, pig fashion. A minute later they forget the danger, start feeding again.
Then what happened? An angel came down from the stars in a long white robe to give us a lecture on the meaning of Christmas? No. I’ll admit I have a weakness for simple fact, even if it spoils the story. Maybe that’s the main difference between a serious literary artist like me and one of your ordinary sports columnists, say, who writes for the newspaper. But I don’t want to make any harsh judgments here; this is supposed to be the season of goodwill toward people. Sports columnists too. And wild pigs.
As my hero Ebeneezer says, if the spirit of Christmas is more than humbug then we’re obliged to extend it to all creatures great and small including men, women, children, foreigners, Mexicans, coyotes, scorpions Gila monsters, snakes, centipedes, millipedes, termites and the wild pigs of the Arizona desert. That’s the reason the Arizona Game and Fish Department puts off javelina season until January. Out of a decent respect for that annual outburst of love and goodwill we call Christmas.
As for the herd of javelinas snorting around me, the truth is, nothing much of anything happened. In fact, I got bored first, tired of simulating a saguaro cactus. I picked up a couple of rocks, in case one of those husky beasts with the tusks came at me, and tiptoed off through the prickly pear. I did not wish to disturb my friends, but they took alarm anyway, erupting in various directions. Would take them an hour to reassemble. None charged me. Despite many meetings with javelinas, I have yet to come eyeball to eyeball with one. Even though I’ve charged them a few times, out of meanness, just to see them run.
If I were good and hungry, would I eat a javelina? Yes. I’d roast its head in a pit of mesquite coals and scramble my eggs with its brains. I have no quarrel with any man who kills one of God’s creatures in order to feed his women and children and old folks. Nothing could be more right and honorable, when the need is really there. I believe humanity made a serious mistake when our ancestors gave up the hunting and gathering life for agriculture and towns. That’s when they invented the slave, the serf, the master, the commissar, the bureaucrat, the capitalist, and the five-star general. Wasn’t it farming made a murderer of Cain? Nothing but trouble and grief ever since, with a few comforts thrown here and there, now and then, like bourbon and ice cubes and free beer on the Fourth of July, mainly to stretch out the misery.
Sermons aside, the javelinas and I parted company that moonlight night with no hard feelings, I hope, on either part. They had the whole east slope of Brandenburg Mountain to ramble over, and I had my cabin to crawl back into, where I keep my bearskin and this neurotic typewriter with a mind of its own. Christmas or no Christmas, it does my chilly Calvinist heart a lot of good to know those javelinas are still out there in the brush, pursuing happiness in their ancient piglike manner. What would Arizona be without a Game and Fish Department? Without a Sportsmen’s Association? Hard to say. I wonder. But what would Arizona be without wild pigs? Why, no wonder at all. Arizona would be another poor, puny, poverty-struck antheap like California, not fit for man or his dog.
Happy Christmas, brother and sister. Long live the weeds and the wilderness. Merry New Year, pigs!