Ellyn Gaydos' meditative Pig Years mixes memoir and nature writing as it details her four years of seasonal farm work in New York and Vermont. In punishingly long days as a farmhand, she planted seeds, tended vegetable plots (weeding, watering, coping with pests, harvesting, sorting and selling) and raised chickens and pigs. The book opens right in the middle of things, describing the pigs on a small farm in New Lebanon, New York, and zooming in to consider Gumdrop, an accidentally pregnant pig, and her piglets, who “came out like torpedoes all attached through different stems to one briny umbilical cord. . . . Nature, being unsentimental, accommodates the reality that some sows eat their young, but Gumdrop is gentle in her new domesticity, tenderly positioning her body so as not to squish anyone. She is a good mother.”
The book's loose narrative proceeds chronologically through the seasons, and through Gaydos' relationships with other farmworkers and with Graham, her partner. Gaydos' close eye on the natural world allows us to vividly see the cycle of a farm's blossoming and dying seasons. She doesn't look away from any part of it, either from newborn pig life, for instance, or from the pigs' later deaths—the procedures of slaughter and the preparation of the pork that she will eat and sell. “I keep seeing death's face in different ways,” she writes. “It is funny to choose a profession, like farming, in which death is taken into the fold and yet nothing is clarified. It does not steady me for loss even if I have held a pig's head in my hand or seen a chicken collapsed in the dirt. It is like a blunting of the real.”
The bulk of Pig Years takes place on the farm in New Lebanon, which is part of a former Shaker settlement that's now a Sufi commune in decline. Throughout the book, Gaydos turns to 19th-century Shaker farm journals for comparison, and we can see the similarities between the current-day farm's gains and losses and those of the long-ago Shakers. There's a coming-of-age aspect to Pig Years, too, as Gaydos, a young woman in an unsettled phase of life (and an inherently impermanent field of work), studies the women and moms around her. She reflects on her own path, imagining possible futures as a parent and life partner.
Gaydos' cleareyed, sometimes intense perspective reminds us that farm work is not always pretty: It often involves constant near-poverty, injuries, even desperation. Still, Pig Years is a poetic meditation on fertility, loss and the farmworkers who eke out a marginal living as long as they can. It's a narrative that evokes the pleasures and perils of life and work on a small farm.