“Root hog or die.” If I had a dollar for every-time I heard my Aunt Stella say that I would never have picked berries for money. It’s a phrase from the first colonists in America who turned the hogs loose to forage for themselves.
Which lead to conflicts with the Native American gardens that were not fenced. Indigenous gardens grew what they called the three sisters. Corn supported the beans over a ground cover of pumpkins that kept the weeds down. It was a smorgasbord the hogs made short work of. The practice of introducing feral hogs to the environment leap-frogged its way across the country to the Oregon Territory where the Neal’s settled in the 1840’s.
There the hogs made short work of the camas, a staple crop that was the main source of carbohydrates since time immemorial in this vast territory where, “root hog or die,” was a way of life. My aunt Stella employed this phrase to motivate her crew of kids to get through breakfast and pile into the station wagon for a trip to the berry fields.
These days it is considered cruel and unusual punishment to make children work but back in the last century kids were considered farm machinery. Stella would have been up for hours by the time the kids were ready to eat. She had cooked breakfast and made lunch for her husband Len, who was off to the woods cutting timber. Then she had her quiet time until she woke up the kids. Stella baked countless loaves of perfect bread, canned everything that grew in her tremendous garden and made everything else from butter to beer the old-fashioned way with food grown, raised, caught or shot right there on the farm.
“Root hog or die,” she’d say putting out of spread of eggs, venison sausage, toast, jam, and fruit she’d canned herself before we piled into the station wagon for a dusty ride to the fields where there was money to be made picking berries and beans.
In those days there was no minimum wage for kids. Your pay was determined by how much you picked. You could make as little or as much as you wanted. As kids we wanted to make as much money as we possibly could for vital supplies of fireworks and fishing gear. There was only one way to do that.
“Root hog or die.”
After about an hour of picking anything a kid’s knees get sore, it gets awful hot and lunchtime seems about a million hours away. When it does finally come you are about hungry enough to eat a dirt clod so you wolf down a sandwich made with the most heavenly bread that Aunt Stella might have baked that morning, filled with some kind of lunch meat shot or raised in the back field.
Eventually, after what seemed like a million years it was time to go home. That meant a long ride down a dirt road with the windows closed to try to keep the dust out. The heat, the dust and the exhaustion of the day was instantly relieved with a trip to the swimming hole.
Stella didn’t swim. She did not have time. If she wasn’t cooking, canning or cleaning she was volunteering at the church, the school or the community. She lived a life of self reliance and service to others. We miss her now that she’s gone but it’s enough to know that somewhere in heaven there’s a root cellar with gleaming rows of her canned preserves where you don’t have to root hog or die anymore.