My neighbour, Willy Little, gave us a three-furrow Massey trip plow as a wedding gift in 1987. I remember the day he trailered the plow over to our place and dropped it off in the laneway.
“Don’t thank me,” said Willy. “Once you’ve ploughed a stony field and hopped on and off the tractor 20 times you may find yourself cursing me and the plow. They weren’t the greatest invention.”
Sometime later, I hooked the plow onto a clevis on the two-cylinder John Deere AR we bought with our wedding money and put-putted out to the field behind the house that I had just cleared of ancient apple trees. I made the common mistake of tying the nylon rope from the trip lever on the plow to the back rung of the tractor seat, so that I could reach it easily. Within two minutes the plow foundered on a hidden ledge of rock and parted company with the tractor. I was busy contemplating the flight of a blue heron and reflecting on the tranquility of a beautiful fall day while, behind me, the nylon rope tightened up to an octave and a half above Middle C and then snapped. It curled back like a horsewhip, smacking me right between the shoulder blades. I thought I had been shot and said, “Oh my!” plus a few other things. As I recuperated on the kitchen couch, my wife applied a poultice with one hand and fielded a call with the other from Willy, who said he had forgotten to mention that it is not a good idea to tie the trip rope to the tractor.
The German philosopher Fred Nietzsche once observed that great pain is the ultimate liberator of the human spirit because it teaches us to be sceptical of our own thinking. This may be one of the reasons that the farm has produced so many brilliant ideas over the last 200 years. The learning curve in farming is very steep and painful. Errors leave physical marks on a person. Jimmy, one of my adopted uncles from the Seventh Line, survived four years in the trenches of the First World War and came home unscathed. Subsequently he lost an eye and an ear, one leg below the knee and all the fingers off his left hand from working with horses. My mother said she always liked Jimmy, but she wished there were more of him. He was one of the first in our neighbourhood to give up horses altogether and buy a tractor.
Our embrace of new ways to till, sow and harvest crops paved the way for all the other inventions that gave us the modern world. If you have mixed feelings about the farm it may be because you have the same feelings about the modern world. After the whipping I took from that plow, I gave up plowing entirely and adopted a no-till, pasture-based livestock management system long before the idea became widespread in this neighbourhood. The trip plow went to China and has probably returned to us as a lot of bad air.
Pain has been the driving force behind many sensible decisions around this farm. My wife and I suffered for years from a mysterious trapezoidal affliction that made it difficult to pick up the children. Doctors were at a loss to explain it but the condition disappeared one summer, just after we bought a Ritchie automatic waterer and stopped lifting five gallon buckets of water over a nine-bar gate.
If necessity is the mother of invention, then pain must be its father. As joints and reflexes deteriorate, I come to rely on stabbing twinges to make me re-think situations and reflect if there might be an easier and safer way to load a pig or move a rock. A smack in the occipital region can produce a blinding flash of inspiration that leads to a pig-loading chute that rolls on bike tires, a frame that holds the posthole digger ready for safe mounting, a hands-free donut spike on the tractor or a cam shaft lever that raises the chicken’s pasture hut just enough to clear the turf and move it easily, without squishing a chicken.
It all puts me in mind of Mark Twain’s famous remark that “a man who carries a cat by the tail, learns a lesson he can learn in no other way . . . he absorbs information at up to two or three times his normal rate.”
Dan Needles is a writer and the author of the Wingfield Farm stage plays. He lives on a small farm near Collingwood, Ont. His website is www.danneedles.ca