Adventures in Tractor Sitting

A lot of people who farm enjoy riding tractors. They enjoy the equipment. Loud diesel engines bellowing exhaust, the magic of hyrdraulic fluid and cylinders. They derive pleasure from the power harnessed in the combustion engine. Moving vegetation. Moving earth. But, I don’t.

I enjoy the sound of leaves rubbing against each other in the wind. A sound like that of ocean waves rolling. There’s just something calming about it. I enjoy the look of an orchard, fresh-mowed, in late July when the nuts on the trees are about done sizing. The way the limbs sag lower and lower toward the ground as they grow heavy with the fluid that feeds the developing kernel. I enjoy the labor of working in concert with the soil and trees to see what we can produce together, coaxing them to be consistent in the bearing of fruit. A new miracle born every year.

But the loud, clunky, greasy machinery required to do this work holds no attraction for me. They are nothing more than tools. Most of the time when I am on a tractor I am somewhat anxious—just waiting for something to break down. This is the result of running old, over-used equipment for a number of years when I began because that’s all I could afford. Some people embrace the repair of broken down equipment. They seem to relish skinning knuckles coated in hydraulic fluid, grease, and diesel fuel, trying to reach some bolt, impossibly placed in a spot no one but some sadistic John Deere engineer would locate it. My grandfather was like that. He would have rather worked on a piece of equipment than use it for the task for which it was designed. I envy people who are capable of such work. People who have the patience and enjoy the challenge of repair, almost like a puzzle.

I don’t embrace repairs because I am not capable in this regard. I have no patience with nor any interest in what makes a machine do its work. However, I have now learned to accept these challenges as part of the process. It goes with the territory. I’ve learned to change and grease bearings, prime a pump, change hydraulic hoses, cylinders, valves, belts, sprockets, and chains, to grease universal joints, and to wire a switch.  I’ve learned by necessity but I still don’t like it.

I just want a tractor to start when I turn the key. I want to finish whatever task I have to do on a tractor—mowing, spraying, moving limbs—as quickly as possible so I can get back to the parts of this I enjoy. I don’t rush though because rushing any task on a farm can lead to disaster. A damaged tree, damaged earth, damaged equipment, or worst of all, a damaged body or life.

The best moments of farming are when a task has been completed and I can look back with satisfaction at the results of my work. An orchard planted, the grass in the row middles mowed so short it simply fades to dirt as it meets the weed-free strip along the tree row in the sun-dappled shade, order restored as the clutter of downed limbs are removed from the orchard and stacked and pushed together tightly on the limb pile.

I relish time itself here and the privilege of being able to serve as a witness to the changes on the land through the seasons. The land itself, a chameleon. Winter’s dull, blonde grass and the bare limbs reaching to the sky like the gnarled fingers of witches. Crimson clover madly blooming its thick red carpet in spring, a fitting welcome mat for the fresh green foliage bursting from the tree’s buds, heralding the glad new year. Summer’s lushness. The fat of the land. Dark green leaves, heat, and fleeting life bursting in every direction with the joy of existing. The tempered approach of autumn as nature slows its pace and settles peacefully toward rest in a final splendor of warm color, leaves floating wearily down to earth. One task completed and another beginning. The nourishing. The cycle begun again.

The air-conditioned space of the tractor cab is a fine thing, I must admit. A nice respite from the heat of a south Georgia summer. I haven’t always had a cab tractor for work like mowing and spraying weed strips and this makes me appreciate it all the more. Anyone not in favor of AC tractor cabs needs to spend a summer atop my old Jon Deere 5510, breathing exhaust and melting from the combination of the heat coming off the engine and the sun boiling down upon you in this sauna.

I’ve recently even come to know the pleasure of a radio and Bluetooth from the tractor cab. Radios are not new to tractor cabs. I know many farmers who have had radios in their cabs for quite some time. But I’m not one of them. This is a new phenomenon for me. But because I am wary of Murphy’s law, I like to get the feel of the tractor each morning before the entertainment begins. Each tractor, along with the implement it is pulling has its own rhythms, sounds, and vibrations to which I like to become acquainted before I turn on Pearl Jam, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, or Fleetwood Mac to join me in my tasks. If something goes wrong with the tractor one can usually feel it even with the music in my ears.

I have my most profound thoughts from the tractor seat. From here I compose great lines of thought in my head. More than once I have solved the world’s problems while rolling slowly through the orchard. You’ll just have to take my word for it. These thoughts and ideas tend to leave me before I can get off the tractor and set them down for posterity.

I have seen the beauty of small things out the large glass windows of a tractor cab. Deer, often surprisingly trusting of tractors, allow one to get remarkably close in this disguise. Spotted fawns lying in the high grass scamper from cover at the last minute. Sometimes you never see them until they move. Just as nature intended. I’ve heard sad stories of people accidentally running over them with the mower, never seeing them, but hearing and feeling the mowers grinding as if it ran over a stump or log lying there. Fortunately, this is one experience I haven’t had.

But, I have seen nature red in tooth and claw from the seat of a tractor. Red tail hawks tend to perch nearby when I’m mowing. They dive at rats and rabbits fleeing from the tall grass in the mower’s path. Occasionally they will rise with something squirming in their talons. I have seen great masses of honeybees writhing as they crawl over each other in the morning sun, swarmed on a limb, awaiting the return of a scout to point them in the direction of a more suitable home. Cattle egrets follow closely behind the tractor, stabbing at grasshoppers leaping from the undergrowth. Purple martins flutter and glide over the young trees and the adjacent cotton fields, occasionally swooping down low over the canopy of the fields to feast upon the throngs of insects living their best lives in the heat and humidity. South Georgia must be a fabulous place to be an insectivore.

Often, there’s a humbling feeling that comes over you as you become privy to the rare glimpses of the life with which we share this world. I’ve shaken squirrels and even opossums out of the trees during harvest. Have you ever taken a good, up-close look at a opossum? Other-wordly creatures, with looks in those coal-black eyes that can leave you unsettled. But in a good way. Sort of like discovering a gnome or some fairy-tale creature and then realizing how grotesque they are in real-life with that grin on their face as they play dead. You just want to tell them, “look, I know you’re faking it. Just get up and get out of the way”. And after a few minutes they do rise, and wobble off to climb the next tree, carrying that weird naked tail high in the air. I’ve seen a red fox rambling through the orchard, stopping at the barn, to take one last look around, before slipping beneath the old weathered boards where it has dug its den into the earth. Big fox squirrels, bushy-tailed and the size of a small cat, colored solid black or grey, or sometimes a mixture of these two colors (we rarely see the red morph here). A bald eagle or osprey just soaring with wings spread wide against the sky. Bearing witness to these things, it’s as if some sort of grace has been bestowed. And I suppose it has.  

Perhaps my favorite moments of all occur late in the afternoon or in the early evening when work is done and I climb down from the tractor. The big diesel engine finally grown silent. Those few brief moments just before dark when all around, the land is quiet. The flapping of dove wings and the whistling of wood ducks has ceased. The birds have found their roosts. The sound of cars on the road dies away as most people have found their way home for supper. The wind stills. Deer emerge quietly from the wooded heads to feed warily at the field edges. As if everything has paused to take in the last gasp of daylight descending in the western sky. I called these small things earlier. Little things. But, that’s not meant as an affront. For as Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “Enjoy the little things in life because one day you’ll look back and realize they were the big things”.

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