It Is Who We Are
by Lynn R. Miller
Out changing irrigation pipe on a crystal clear summer morning and I notice four buzzards circling over the woods a little to the north of me. One peels off the circle and heads my way, then floats on the current until it is just thirty feet above me banking into a small circle. Suddenly dawns on me that we are looking right at each other, and that I am standing still as a corpse. All of a sudden, I jab my fist into the air at the scavenger bird and it jerks its head, falling backwards out of its circle and returns to join the other three off in the distance.
Reminds me of my dear departed buddy Bulldog Frasier. He was staying with us, as was his custom, during one of our auctions, he and his red heeler Stubby. Auction was done and we were having breakfast just before he was to leave to return to Montana. Fork in hand, no change to his tone he said “Boss, don’t ever give up. No matter what, don’t ever give up.” Not long after that Bulldog passed away. But he never ever gave up. That was the sort of man he was.
Bulldog was a horseman, a farmer and a logger. He knew intimately what it meant, and what it took, to stay with the necessary work, day in and day out. He knew that there would be days when he could enjoy having laid up the crops, or having loaded out the last of the logs on a job, or selling a good team of horses he had raised and trained. But he knew just as certain, that every next day would have more chores needed doing. That he had signed on to a continuum.
With the difficulties we have experienced these last many months, difficulties that arguably were not of our making, we almost lost the ultimate battle, because we almost allowed the difficulties to define us. But now, all of a sudden it would seem, we shake our fist at the buzzards, and we return to the real work at hand because the animals need fed, the crops needed tending, the fence needs patching, the neighbors need our help, and family wants to be held and enjoyed. Those of us who are farmers know these things. It is who we are. And that distinction is incredibly important. Though the evidence is to the contrary, in the world today society seems to have accepted without quarrel that the highest and best distinction for us all is our commonality. I disagree completely. I believe our highest and best distinction as human beings comes of our individuality, and of our separate and separated cultural distinctions. I believe completely that we as farmers are different from school teachers, I believe that carpenters are different from bankers, I believe that Japanese people are different from Sudanese people, that paupers are different from princes, and that thieves are different from honest folk. And I also believe that the lines of distinction are frequently fuzzy and blended. But that never lessens the defining facts of the distinctions, one from the other. And those distinctions, that variety, those various sets of working values give us our vitality and worth, they define us.
Visiting a Parable
Fifty five years ago, in requisite summer bible school, my young brain took a bead on the story of the Tower of Babel. I found it fascinating even though I was too young to have any context to place it in, or against. As my remembered version of the story goes, way back sometime around the beginning of recorded history every one was of a kind, spoke the same language, ate the same foods, on and on. One nation, if you will. And the leaders, feeling like there wasn’t much left to accomplish within their small and nearly perfect world, decided to have its peoples build a tower all the way up into the heavens, right up to God’s front porch as it were. The project caused some discontent and, depending on your version, for whatever reason people fell upon each other in anger and argued until their languages separated in many dialects and people grew to hate one another just because it seemed the ‘right’ thing to do. (I do believe that that is where we came up with the word ‘Babbel’ as in nonsensical speech, a confusion of tongues at the Tower of Babel.) The Tower figuratively and literally came tumbling down and the small engineered and ‘perfect’ world became various, messy, large and far flung. I’ve always felt that the story contained a seed of the truth of natural design, that the ‘world’ sought and seeks its own balance in all things, definitely including the human species. And that balance begs for variety.
The Ranting Section
I have a storage closet in my brain, a space where I hang thoughts and ideas in a haphazard pattern that matches how these thinkings touch one another. The Tower of ‘Babel’ has come to hang in my brain with many thoughts centered on modern man and corporate rule. I ‘feel’ that corporate governance is very like the one world leadership of early Babel, believing that keeping everyone of a language and of a target (building the Tower) was the right thing to do, to demand. The board room needs to believe, in the measure they feel counts – the marketplace, that people in Uganda and Paraguay and Alabama and France and China are or will be all the same – they will eat the same foods, live in similar houses, visit with each other over the same social networking sites, use the same medical systems, worship in similar ways, get their news from the same sources. And the board rooms have decided that the Tower we are building is one of artificial life, that we will reach God when we no longer depend on the vagaries of nature for our food, environment, shelter, spirituality, class structures, and more. Genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, synthetic materials, ‘virtual’ realities, corporate funding and ‘suspense’ accounts will, they believe make it possible for all of us to travel back and forth from heaven on weekends in hybrid vehicles outfitted with talking computers which are capable of generating genetically-engineered snacks, beverages, and travel games. But something is going very wrong with this plan. People are fighting amongst themselves and reclaiming old ways, languages, heritage foods, craft-based skills of self-sufficiency, spirituality which is connected with nature, and an abiding disdain of usurpers, board members, pretenders, cyber mobs, stock brokers, bank owners and internet chatrooms. The construction of this new tower to artificial life is faltering. We are experiencing, in the wider world, a ‘confusion of tongues.’
So I’m out baling hay and these scattered manic thoughts come charging in on me. What if several states in these United States actually succeed in seceding? What if Quebec becomes a nation unto itself? What if Mongolia pulls out of China? What if people around the world recognize that all of our governments are in states of advanced rot? What if the CEOs of large brokerage firms and big banks are actually charged with the felonies we all know they committed in recent years? What if Monsanto is tried in court for endangering biological life on the planet? What if college athletes are allowed to earn money? What if every elected official in every country has to pass a series of tests: lie detector, blood workup, spelling, arithmetic, criminal record search and financial disclosures? What if the Food and Drug Administration was subjected to an ethical and moral audit? What if people are allowed to grow real food? What if Facebook were restricted to those under the age of 10? What if people could milk their cows and then drink the milk, put manure on their fields as fertilizer, collect seeds from the plants they grow, allow their chickens and hogs to run out on pasture, plant fruits and vegetables in their yards, and be contemptuous of a justice system which has become contemptuous of them, a justice system which has forgotten what “justice” is? What if pigs grew wool?
Thunder and lightning and a whole mess of confusion, that’s what it would mean. The Tower of artificial life tumbling down. It could also mean we find we’re on our way back to a bigger world, one where fairness was/is a criteria and wealth a wide open measure. Because, let’s face it, the race to all things “bigger” has granted license to stupidity, corruption, and police-state tactics. The breakup of governments, empires, corporations, and artificial integrations would, in the long run, be a mighty good thing. Allow tribes to be tribes, find the biologically defensible ways to keep them from fighting each other. Allow families to be small craft-based businesses and find ways to defend them from corporate marauders. Allow that even the smallest of us are innocent until proven guilty even if it erodes the court system’s implied imperative to protect the property rights of the biggest. Does that make of me an anarchist? Don’t think so. Think it makes of me just one individual who’s tired of looking the other way.
Speaking of who we are, trying to fix my old John Deere A tractor I met a new friend named Dan. He’s an old guy like me and lives out on the edge of town with acres of old farm equipment scattered about him. He parts out that equipment. Walking up to him for the first time, his face and hands greasy – big smile, easy manner – I could tell he was a rich man. Looking around at all the old equipment, I observed “What a wonderful sight. This is parts heaven.” He just beamed. He’s been gathering this stuff to himself for over 40 years, gathering the stuff and also the bits and pieces of knowledge that go with it.
I asked him if he had a radiator fan assembly for the Model A and he said “I think so, let’s go have a look” so we threaded our way past balers, tractors, mowers, plows, swathers, and piles of parts til he got to the better part of a JD Model A tractor sans back wheels. The cowling was gone so we could easily see that the radiator and fan assembly were there. “It’ll take some work, have to pull steering wheel and radiator to get to it. I might have one already out, let’s go look.” So we wandered at his pace, again meandering through his garden of parts debris. We came to an area which had no less than five or six more Model A’s in various states of disassembly. No fans, except one from an older model that wasn’t going to fit.
We got to talking about old machinery and I got the idea he was a protector or gate-keeper of obscure equipment knowledge. “Hey Dan, I’ve got a slow leak at an oil seal on a mower. Don’t want to tear it down right now ‘cuz I need to keep it in the field mowing. Any secrets?” “Yep”, he said “mix a little clean grease in with that gear oil, might stop it up as the stuff mixes in. It thickens the oil.”
“Another question for you Dan, my baler has an old Wisconsin engine on it and it’s running rough and blowing bubbles in the filter bowl. My friend and I figure it might be the diaphragm for the fuel pump, do you have such things here?” “Nope, but you can get them from the manufacturer. Tell me more about that problem.” I did and he says, “I don’t think it’s the diaphragm, could be the gasket for the filter bowl, take this one home and try it out. Anywhere that there is a hole or a poor fit you might be sucking air.”
I knew that day that I had made the initial acquaintance of a treasure, a true treasure. Dan let me believe that if I ever had any other obscure farm implement parts question he’d have something useful to say. For years I have done such stuff for folks, mostly on horse drawn equipment. Don’t always have an answer but have been at least able to frequently point people in the direction of a solution. Now here stood Dan Miller, no relation but every relation because he gave me the gift of understanding how knowledge shared is wealth. How knowing where to go for a possible answer is also wealth. He gave me a view of myself from the other side.
We didn’t find a loose fan and shaft that would work and he understood I needed it soon. So we made a deal: he would come out that evening after supper and take the fan and shaft off that first tractor for me. He’d have it ready to pickup next day. I did some sneaky thinking out loud and discovered that Dan was partial to root beer. That I kept in my bonnet. So I left him thinking to myself that Dan and I spoke the same ‘tongue,’ there was no confusion.
Went back to the ranch and met up with my buddy Jon Peasley, who’d been out helping with hay. He had a brilliant idea to do a temporary fix on the tractor’s radiator fan by strapping two large hose clamps on either side of the fan’s hub. So we were able to get back to the field. But we’d also been trying to unravel a couple of mysteries surrounding my old JD 14T baler. There was that problem with the motor’s fuel system sucking air, and there was a problem with the baler losing umpf when the windrows were big. Thought was that these problems were at least somewhat related. If the baler motor was not up to snuff it wouldn’t be able to provide the power for the plunger stroke. So we fiddled with this and we fiddled with that, ‘cause poor farmer that I am I cannot afford to go for fancy equipment. I’ve got to make the old stuff work. (Truth be known though, I am mighty partial to the old equipment, it suits me to a T.)
Jon Peasley said, “I think we need to tighten the drive belt.” And I said, “But that seems contrary because right now it wants to stall out whenever we get into a big clump of clover. I think we need to get the motor to run better.” We went back and forth on these questions til we decided to attack the problem one section at a time. We put the fuel pump back together, then disassembled the carburetor and cleaned it out. After replacing it we blew out all the copper fuel lines and accidentally found that the line from the tank to the fuel pump had one end with no flare. It was sucking air in around the connector. We replaced the line and fiddled with the mixture and got that old Wisconsin engine to run smooth as silk. Still though, the baler was jamming up with the heavier hay. So we shortened the idler pulley arm til the belt was nice and tight and that baler ran so good that we started to snap shear pins on the fly wheel. More tweaking this way and that way and a little fussing here and a little wrench slapping there and we got that baler balanced so’s she ran like a young widow after a pie thief, with determination and pluck. It felt real good to get that old equipment humming. Couldn’t have done it without Jon’s help because we were speaking the same language all the way.
Next morning I took Jon Peasley with me to get the tractor fan from Dan. I remembered to pick up a big jug of root beer (his brand). When we got there, there were several guys waiting to be helped so we just wandered the garden of farm equipment parts. Peasley was having fun, he’s got partial tractors of his own. Dan finished loading the old carcass of an International 460 on a flatbed trailer then drove his rusty old forklift our way. It was morning but already 90 degrees. When I handed Dan his jug of root beer he smiled big as a chrome radiator and said “Huh? You done what you said you would.” He made the observation with just the gentlest note of surprise mixed with certain gratitude. No confusion of tongues here. No tower building. Just neighborly.
All this stuff about folks sharing baler balance and farm equipment repair feels comfortably like the working reality of farming. Nothing about it is artificial. So much of it falls in the category of acquired and inherited knowledge and experience. Not so out there in the world of big business and big government, that world I alluded to when I was talking about today’s effort to build a Tower to artificial intelligence. The quick and ready approach to most of the bigger problems of the world seems to involve either throwing lots of money at it or sending it back for further study. Take the problems with our environment: most school children know the scope of the problem and have a working grasp of what needs doing. Not big government and big business – they want more study on the question. Why? Because right now the perception is that anything we might do to correct the negative impact of man on the environment will cause big business to lose profits.
But you don’t want to hear that because it’s old news, old arguments. It’s boring. What you want is the unusual, the dramatic, the quirky, the impossible – like woolly pigs. And by woolly I AM talking about pigs that grow a coat of curly hair what looks like wool, just like sheep. Would that catch your attention?
Most of us sit right here, certain that we have a clear sense of what the world offers up. We know about which vegetables can be found. We know about predictable weather patterns We know what pigs should look like. We know, or think we do, about right and wrong. Or at least we know what is acceptable behavior and acceptable fact. But do we really?
We know, deep down, that it is not good to mess with Mother Nature. We know how powerful she often is, especially when she hurls massive storms our way. Yet we continue to collectively look the other way when it comes to environmental pollution by industry, calculated and deliberate genetic mutations of life forms by science and industry, and geologically destructive drilling and mining practices. All examples of man messing with nature.
We look the other way because of the perceived tradeoffs. WE figure this is acceptable behavior because WE “need” the industrial profits, the synthetic foods, and the oil and gas. When we are collectively given a choice, as in ‘do we starve or produce more genetically engineered foods?’, we jump to respond without questioning the starting premise – the one which infers that without genetic engineering humankind cannot produce enough food.
But all of that is when we think and talk from that position of the larger WE, the world universe WE, the tower-building WE. When, instead, we think, talk and act from our intimate community selves – as computer programmers, as citizens of Indiana or Uruguay, as the local union chapter of steam fitters, as truck drivers, as expatriate Russians, as Vietnamese school children, as Bayou fishermen, as black French-speaking Jamaicans, as small farmers – we do so with identity in hand, we do so feeling the need to hold and protect that which we value. Protecting our environment is like doing the chores every day, we do it because it is who we are.
It is NOT a small world, it is a BIG world, as wide and various as you can possibly imagine. We are not alone. When we feel ourselves shut down, crowded by worry and a sense of failure, it would serve us well to remember Bulldog’s admonition, “Boss, never give up, no matter what, never give up.” Anyway, how could we? Who would put up the hay? Who would unharness the team? Who would milk the cows? Who would wax the cheese? Who would feed those woolly pigs? It’s got to be us, after all it is who we are. From all of us to all of you; thank you for your patience and belief in us. LRM