Maiden Voyage

Where did this maiden voyage begin? One delay after another had pushed the project back. It went from spring to summer, then summer to autumn, and autumn had aged to winter’s edge. Only now was I finally making time for it. I would mow the field with the bush hog. But in a sense this year was not the beginning of the journey. That started decades ago.

I have a long and storied history with this field. We first moved into the house, with the field stretching out behind and back up the hill, as I was turning eight. The entire property was a little over fourteen acres, the field portion an estimated five acres. To the critical eye it is a miserable little thing; in the drier portion of the year it appears as an undulating slice of hardpan clay, in the wetter months it is riven by flowing springs that seep and rush down the hill. It exists as if configured to frustrate anyone who would think to put it to good use.

In spite of the obvious exasperations I am a little fond of the place. My childhood is in the dirt. I remember attempting to cut paths through the brush with my jack knife, and pulling our red Radio Flyer wagon up the hill, and the winters of sled rides. The view from up on the hill feels serene and anchoring as I can stare out across the valley. From certain positions no other house is visible so I can imagine my own home below exists alone in the wilderness . I can imagine myself free from the clamor of life. So the patch of land may have little to recommend it as a field for practical use, but I can’t shake my attachment.

In the first years after we moved my dad–caught in a fit of ambition and optimism–mowed the entire field over the course of a summer using a push mower. I admire the insane determination of the undertaking. The things that could be accomplished in life if we all brought to bear a grit sufficient to mow a five acre scrub lot with a push mower. The strategic wisdom of that can be argued, the grit required is undisputable.

Still, the project pretty well killed the little push mower, and it was hard on Dad. He did not repeat the endeavor. As the years passed the brush began to reassert itself. During my mid-teens my mom bought a powerful self-propelled walk-behind brush mower and I followed in my father’s footsteps, reconquering the field from the brush. Not the legendary project of my father, but still a bit of work. It took more than ten hours to complete the mowing–not a one day project, but not an entire summer slog either.

For a number of years the field was mowed and regained something of the glory it must have had in the former days when the countryside was farmed and cattle grazed the hillsides of our little valley. There are pictures somewhere of the field in green grass, spring and summer flower bursting over the landscape in bright profusion. It could be that, and more. Then I left, and later, the family left.

Five years passed as the house sat uninhabited and the land lay untouched. The brush returned like a wild horde bent on conquest. The homestead stood vacant half a decade, but it was ten years since I had lived there when I returned with my new bride to resurrect the ruins. I was a few years shy of how old my father was when he first moved in. Time gets away, and here I was again, many years later and not so very long.

I mowed the field once again with the borrowed brush mower, battling scrub and trees that towered well over my head, reclaiming land that had come to the edge of turning toward a forest. But I couldn’t keep it up. I had a growing family, a house I was trying to bring back from the grave, and far more projects than I had time. The first five years saw me make a second abortive attempt to mow the field, an ambition which died when the onset of winter and a bad muscle sprain in my back took me out of the fight. I was heading through my late thirties and was not the man I had been–either in the place of life or the boundless vigor of youth.

• • •

My failure was sobering, and a lesson that if I wanted any hope of getting some control over the land before my boys reached maturity I would have to take a different approach other than simple throwing my body at the war in the few spare days I could find in any given year. Thus I stumbled onto the plan of buying a tractor. The hope was to have a means of mowing the field which did not require as much from me in physical labor or time commitment. It felt like a huge gamble.

I kept my eye out for used tractors for sale along the side of the road, and late last autumn finally nabbed a workhorse older than myself. It wasn’t a beauty, but hopefully it was a solid thing. I brought along a man far more tractor savvy than myself, who thought it a decent investment and a fair price.

It was too late in the year to learn tractoring (a verb of young boys) so the machine went into storage on the concrete slab, a promise to look at through the long months of snow. When spring came I bought a 6 foot brush hog deck, then I called up another friend, a former farmer, and had him over to teach me the basics of tractor driving. I was all set to go.

And then life happened. Spring is always bursting with more projects than can be accomplished, and I had to do triage on my ambitions. Mowing the field did not rate as critical as getting the garden in, and house work done, so the tractor sat idle for the rest of the spring. And the summer. And then also autumn. This brought me to the beginning of December and I knew if I didn’t get the field cleared before the snow settled in then spring again would be too wet and busy to mow, and I risked repeating the whole process of delay and ultimate failure. The trees and brush were already quite high and I was–on top of everything else–starting to get nervous about whether I would be able to brush hog at all if I let things get much further out of control.

Finally a weekend came up where I was able to prioritize the field. The weather was less than ideal, wet and cool, but it was this or nothing.

I was dreading it. My last use of the tractor had been in the spring, and that was no more than an initial introduction. I felt slightly sketchy on whether I would remember all the important points. On top of that, I had visions of the tractor not even starting after sitting untouched for months. I wanted to get the field mowed, but the nightmare outcome was wasting the weekend in frustrated futility.

This fear didn’t become a reality, but it did presage some of the weekend. The tractor started great–after I figured out the choke lever worked in reverse of what I thought I remembered. My trouble with the bush hog was not so quickly resolved. I needed to figure out the existence of the PTO clutch, and after that I had to learn how to slowly (not quickly) engage the PTO clutch.

I must pause here and reflect that the day reminded me how much I am not someone who readily learns by reading a manual. For me, a manual is a good place to underline a few pertinent facts to which I may need to refresh myself, which I already know. I do not grasp new facts well from a manual. It feels a bit akin to trying to parse a language I have only begun to comprehend. If I am learning something new, my brain soaks up a visual demonstration with audio instruction, and physically doing. It was a bit of an odd experience trying to understand my tractor from its manual. I can read books of abstract thought and argument and unravel the threads in my mind. But give me a book about how a physical piece of machinery works and it feels like I am trying to look at something with my eyes closed. I felt a strange and frustrated urge well up inside me as I tried to parse the manual: Couldn’t the stupid book just show me what it was talking about? If I had found a video online the learning gap would have been quickly bridged. As it was, I had to fumblingly try to cross the void between the tractor in front of me and the written words that felt dangerously close to gibberish to my mis-wired brain.

All of that is a prelude to telling you that I think the total number of shear pins I broke was five, but one pin I broke after I figured out how to get everything working. So say it was four pins I broke just figuring out how to start the brush hog. At about $4 per pin, that was a $16 lesson in how to start a brush hog correctly. In the big picture this is not a bad price for learning, but it is also indicative of the level of my ignorance and inability to properly digest the manual. A farmer would have been appalled at the spectacle. I tried to keep a good perspective–in the end, I did figure it out.

After I cleared the initial hurdle, things went better. The tractor had plenty of power and easily traversed the brush lot, driving over anything in the way. However, after having snapped four shear pins before I even got started, I was leery about how much heavy brush the hog could swallow in one pass without the strain snapping more shear pins. So I usually did a half pass each time around the field, and kept the tractor in the lowest gear. This had the added benefit of not tearing up the field as much, with the ground being wet and muddy.

Once I got over the stress of figuring out the entire process, I settled into the routine of looping around the field. After a few passes I shut off the brush hog and let both boys have a turn driving the tractor. Then it was back to conquering the brush. There was a certain surreal, dream-like, quality to the work. The field is so anchored in the years of my past that the process of mowing felt like a trek through my life. Here is where the boy cut a path in the brush for his Radio Flyer wagon. Here the teenager mowed the field with a walk-behind brush mower, carefully avoiding the wild blueberries. Allowing each of my boys a turn to drive the tractor was a vivid reminder of how exceedingly cool I would have thought it if we had a tractor when I was growing up. On such intersections of past and present it is almost as if there is a conversation across time. “Yep,” I say to my child self. “You have a tractor. You have finally arrived.” And the child in me, still living there after all those years, feels like a great and awesome dream has at last been accomplished, even while simultaneously the adult of the present dreads this tractor as being a potential nightmare of repairs and trouble. There is a mild sensation of splitting in half as the two experiences of self seem to exist simultaneously.

The weather was miserable and many people would have called off the project. But I was determined (or desperate) to get the mowing completed. It was damp, and shortly after I started mowing it began to rain–not heavily, but enough to make everything even more wet than it had been. The storm broke, giving way to ragged clouds and blue sky. Then the wind picked up, blasting me with chilly gusts as I sat exposed on the tractor.

I was enjoying myself, a fact a bit difficult to explain because the weather was so disagreeable. If I wasn’t getting wet, my hat was trying to blow away and grit was being thrown in my face. But I felt alive. As I drove around the field I could see the house below, warm and snug with the lights on in the fading afternoon and the wind whipping the chimney smoke this way and that. With the leaves long fallen from the trees and the world sodden, the hillsides were turned to a monochrome of grays and browns. There was a mournful, and almost terrible beauty to it all, where death and life had their interplay.

I looped around the field and remembered the past, and felt life batter at me. With each pass on the field old sights greeted me, conjuring again what had been. There were the old blueberry bushes, planted when I was so young. There are the oaks along the edge of the forest larger than they had been, and I remember when we set up a long bench under one of them, rolling a log down from the top of the property. There on the north edge of the field is the poplar grove, the stream wandering its way through, down the side of the property. I remember what was of my childhood, what is, and what can be for my children. In the wild weather of the day I feel both the promise and the hardness of life and the things that pass away.

The sun is gone, and the wind is growing colder. I finish the major portion of the field, and save strawberry hill in the lower west corner another day, and fresh daylight. I park the tractor and walk down to the house, feeling a bit stiff from the chill. There is a warm fire waiting, a family that is growing, and supper to be made.