Givens, Failures and Moving Forward
by Ken Gies of Fort Plain, NY
Forgive me for what will be a rather rambling and maybe melancholy submission. Maybe I am actually writing this for me. You decide. Life is not always success and joy. It is tempered with tough times. So, when Shannon asked me if I had anything to contribute to this upcoming issue, I had to think through what would benefit us as readers. Sometimes sharing our weak moments, our vulnerabilities, our failures and experience strengthen others. That is really what I want to do, strengthen.
For example, I have not been able to pursue my latest dream of a belt drive, super quiet, hay mower. However, I do have a little wagon that gives me a twisted twinge of pride. It is one of those 3rd or 4th try to get it right kind of projects. It is constructed from two lawn tractor steering axles, two bed frame angle irons and some heavy 1” conduit. The deck was recovered from a small tin storage shed that had rusted into oblivion. One axle was seized up so I simply hammered on the tie rod arms until the wheels were straight. That became the back axle.
The other axle still moved so I lubed it up with penetrating oil and worked it until it was very easy to turn. To create the actual steering linkage I welded a heavy bolt in the center on the bottom of the axle. I also welded a smaller bolt to the center of the tie rod itself. This provided the two pivot points needed to assemble the drawbar steering linkage. By measuring the approximate distance from the center of the kingpins to the center of the tie rod holes, I was able to get a measurement for the center to center distance of the drawbar linkage. These holes were drilled to match the size of bolts I had welded onto the axle and steering bar. I also welded a couple of bushings for the handle to flex up and down. A bolt serves to pin the drawbar linkage to the handle. (I made several trips to my hay wagon to re-examine how the steering and drawbar were constructed so I could make mine workable.)
The angle irons are bolted to existing flanges on the axles. The other flanges were hammered flat to get them out of the way. A few scraps of treated 2×4 lift the deck high enough to clear the tires. Pre-rusted carriage bolts tether the deck to the frame. It is not pretty, pulls hard because it has sleeve bearings not roller bearings and is perfect for moving heavy and awkward items from place to place. I have set almost a ton on it and with begrudging help from a few commandeered teens, maneuvered large rolls of rubber belting into the winter corral to keep the horses out of the mud, positioned a 50 foot tower for ham radio, flopped a greenhouse frame across one end and reset it across the yard and hauled the remains of slaughtered livestock to the compost pile. Ugly, could be better, does the job, good enough for me.
And here is where I dive into my title. Life is very dynamic and situations change. You see, last fall our poultry hatchery failed and we realized that there was no way we could keep it afloat. I am part of an alarming parade of farm failures presently under way. At least we are not losing our generational home or our only livelihood as some are.
I moped as a way of grieving. My wife has cried numerous times. Even after several months we feel some lack of definition, a loss of part of our identity. We ended a hard 15 year uphill climb by stepping off a cliff. Things like finding “a real job” again and doing yet another recalibration in our lives have provided challenges we had not scheduled into our life plan. Then, just as we felt a tentative balance, I blew my gallbladder. Now I sit sidelined, with a new temporary given looking outside at the first real spring weather in central New York, unable to harrow the piles of horse droppings in the pasture, play with my little French plow, or complete any of my projects.
Projects… When I first started modifying horse drawn machinery I had little to work with. I had a used ½” electric drill and bits, a tape measure, a hacksaw, assorted wrenches, old hammers and a small angle grinder. I did a lot with that pitiful collection of tools. One time I needed to cut a sickle bar shorter. It took me three hacksaw blades and an hour to cut it to size. Soon I added a bucketful of well abused files. Then more pails of used bolts and a junk pile. Eventually I was given a little 110 volt wire feed welder. All these tools were housed in a 10×10 shed that emptied out onto a patch of dirt that was generally dry when the sun shone. And that is where many of my projects described in SFJ were fabricated. For most projects a pile of junk, lots of think time or “creative imagining” (for me that is usually a walk or forking manure), a willingness to work with limited resources, and the courage to fail were the essential ingredients.
Failure… In our culture, “Failure is not an option.” I beg to differ on that note. Thomas Edison failed about one thousand times before he found a functional filament for the first viable light bulb. My father often quoted, “To fail to try is to try to fail.” Someone else said that if we erase our past failures that erases part of who we are. My dad laughed at my first barn, which had a 100 year sag after only 6 months, but he admitted that the horses weren’t complaining. And as an aside, I built 4 buck rakes before I had a working model to proudly report on. I have learned that when something doesn’t work try something else, make an adjustment, maybe learn a different technique for your version of a machine.
Learning… Drop the “L” and you have earning. It costs to learn. Even as a middle aged adult, learning continues and costs. Again, quoting my father, “When you stop learning, you die.” I think inquisitiveness, childlike curiosity, fascination with what others are doing in very different occupations and locations, is a valuable trait that enlivens us as we invest in our future. It is important to invest in new knowledge and to reprocess old knowledge for the gold it contains. I have applied principles and techniques from my years as a logger, a trucker, electronics assemblyman, janitor, and writer to my love of horses and animal traction. I find stimulation in ham radio, archery, music and assorted auctions (great idea and supply places).
I also think that the term “cross-pollination” applies to much of what we must do as we move forward. Being aware of what other industries are doing, what is cutting edge, or even over the horizon is essential to continuing our push to better horse powered agriculture. Think of plastics such as nylon used in harness. Think of better lubricants for our wobbly old machines. Think of all the force sensors on Schaff Mat Paërd experiments. Think of advances in medicine that mean we can improve how we treat our animals and ourselves. Think of how much better we understand soil life.
And yet sometimes we don’t have to reinvent the wheel driven mower. Have you considered the absolute genius embodied in a one hundred year old mower? Roller bearings! Who’d a thunk!? The knowledge of steel to make millions of identical sickle sections. It is amazing! And it still works! And that is where the rub is. What needs improving? Will a new idea have a real impact on what we do? Will our incessant imaginations leave us like children with a yard full of abandoned toys? Or will we find that by some unique intersect of time and opportunity that we have just changed the world for the better. That our work has left us anonymously immortalized through a good idea?
And that leads me further into moving forward. For years I have been accused of being a survivalist, a prepper (never even knew what one was till a few years ago), even a doomsdayer, because I work with horses. It is not fear of a bad future that propels me. It is not a rejection of technological progress either. None of that motivates me to use horses. I simply cherish the quiet of harrowing with a team. The muffled chink of a stone on the spikes, horse sweat, warm leather and the innocently rude sputter of a well aimed fart combined with the sting of my own sweat in my eyes and the buildup of lactic acid that makes my muscles sweetly ache, create a fullness of experience I never attained on a tractor. I am not trying to hide from a promised apocalypse, it will be a terrible thing should it come, nor stop progress, it has much good in it, rather, I follow some romantic, deep, sensual, primal call to a place of significance on one little farm. It is my instinctual response to a command given in the Garden of Eden.
Givens. What are my present limitations physically, emotionally, and financially? What are my present assets, opportunities, skills, strengths and dreams?
Failures. So what? At least I tried. (And I won’t stop trying.) Learn from mistakes. Healthy analysis is okay but quit navel gazing…
Moving Forward. In a minute I am going to ease out of this chair and try not to strain the three little holes in my ample and now swollen belly. I am not sure how much I trust the medical crazy glue restraining my innards. But, I will dream and scheme and alter my plans as I face these new defining facts in my life and hopefully continue to contribute to things I value very much. Some work will not get done on time or maybe not at all. But maybe the redirection will lead to new discoveries, innovations or deeper self-understanding.
Maybe my experience will resonate with someone and spur them on. And, in the end, if any of my givens and failures help someone else move forward, I guess, my experience, it is worth it. Isn’t it?