The Way it Wasn’t
by Brandt Ainsworth of Franklinville, NY
It often seems to me that a good share of life is determined by our own perspectives. I’ve competed in pulls where the team came in last and I was completely content, if not downright thrilled. We made weight, we crossed a few loads, showed some potential, and didn’t have a hard time hooking, (or at least not a runaway). I’ve had other times when the team pulled all they could and behaved perfectly, and still disappointed me. It’s just my personal perspective on that particular day that led to my disappointment or pleasure. Let’s face it; a day at a pull, with the good people a pull attracts, and the bond shared with horses is a good day that we should cherish whether you finished first or last.
Ever since I was very young, I’ve struggled with bipolar disorder, (though I never heard of the term until well after I was an adult). Being bipolar makes one’s perspective all over the map. A sunset may be the most hopeful, beautiful sight you’ve ever experienced one day, but the next day the same sunset may be depressing, ominous, and lonely, another day yet may receive that same sunset with complete apathy – just something that happens every day. I’ve learned to live with my albatross with the help of my friends and family reminding me often that things are never as bad as they seem, and just as important, things are never as good as they seem.
While being bipolar affects only a small percentage of us, changes in perspective affects all of us and how we view each situation and each memory. Where I live, somewhat close to Buffalo, the local perspective is, we have a good season if the Bill’s win a few home games and don’t fire the coach mid season. Playoffs? C’mon… it’s Buffalo. My New England friends have the perspective of it being a poor year if the Patriots don’t win the Superbowl. Looking back and reflecting on one’s memories is a pitfall for skewed perspectives. That’s why it’s said, “the older a man gets the better he used to be,” and “the older the man; the farther he walked to school, and the deeper the snow.”
I was familiar with an item in my youth that could change perspectives in people as quickly as a politician changes his stance on an issue to a new one that gets more votes: a faded, red, half gallon water jug. The handle was broken. The outer shell was cracked from falling off the jig cart while dragging. It was perpetually as dirty as our hands. I think it came free with a pizza years earlier, but the logo had worn off a long time since. The white inside was stained a rusty brown from our very hard well water. When filled with our awful tasting water – pieces of mineral like sediment settled to the bottom until it was passed around and the particles were mixed throughout. On a good day we would fill the jug with the pure clear water from the spring if we walked past it on the way to the southern part of the farm. Even the good spring water didn’t help much inside of a vile vessel like that.
The old water jug was as constant in my youth as our old sheepdog. It rode on the guard over the power take off shaft of the Farmall H when we were haying. It hung under the seat of the Pioneer plow when plowing. It dangled from a wire gathering layers of dust on the back of the Ontario drill when planting. Shoved into the corner of the wagon by the staples and fence stretcher. Hanging under the seat of the sulky cultivator it hung low enough to touch the tops of the young corn plants. There was no place to hang it on many implements like the handle cultivator, (as opposed to riding cultivators) the corn binder, or the grain binder so it hung on the near horse’s hames. When it was back onto the wagon for hauling back to the thresher, or ensilage cutter the old red jug hung on the front standard where we tied the lines. As often as not the jug hung together with other farm essentials like a rifle, or a grease gun. Thus, the jug always seemed to have smudges of grease, even on the part where you put your mouth.
I may sound like I’m describing a nasty memory that I’d rather forget, but my perspective is quite the contrary. I remember the old jug as a refreshing oasis. A break from the hot and dusty work. I remember setting the lid on a lug of the tractor tire and enjoying every sip of the delicious water the way a wine connoisseur remembers a fine bottle of vintage wine from a good year.
We were lucky enough to often have help on the farm for many of these hot, dusty, and laborious jobs. Of course, the prissy people from town thought ill of my Dad and I for drinking from this unhealthy jug. Even rough and tumble farmers and rednecks turned their nose at it. I understood their perspective. How can these Ainsworth boys pass that nasty jug – I just saw a bug lit in it. Dad and I would pass it back and forth, with him always getting first dibs and I was second as our helpers tried not to look so they wouldn’t feel ungrateful when they declined our offer to share. Perspectives changed as the work got harder and the day got hotter. Often by the third load of hay someone else would tentatively try a sip. Then by late in the day an hour or so before evening milking time, the friends, no matter how civilized, would eagerly take part in our ritual of sharing one water jug of dirty water as my Dad unhooked the strap where it hung, blew the hay chaff off the lid, and took the lid off. It was an early lesson to me on the way people’s perspectives changed.
As I remember all the places that jug went on our farm, I remember the wonderful feeling of being a farmer who farmed mostly with horses. I can close my eyes and smell the first furrows of the year being cut, hear the stones scrape across the moldboard, see the perfectly straight furrows laying over, and feel the leather lines resting in my hands. Plowing was a favorite to so many of us that we always remember it fondly, even poetically.
Farming that way seems to stir all of the senses, and make us long for those days. Try to close your eyes and remember the way about mid-May when the pasture was green, a horse on pasture would have a distinct smell – not really sweet, but surely pleasing. A few weeks later it was the smell of cut hay. The first hay of the year had a smell that seemed welcome after it was first mowed. Corn for silage in the fall had a smell that reminds us of summer work and somehow makes us think of whiskey. After the grain binder went by it was time to shock oats, with the dry smell of oats and straw and fall in the air. Every job had it’s own feel too. The air during plowing had a mixture of the warmth of spring, with the cold of winter still in the ground coming up from each furrow. The sun on your skin makes you feel healthy in the hot of a July haying day. Threshing is hot, dusty, and itchy feeling, but you know in a month or so you’re fingers will be feeling the checkering on your favorite deer rifle. One could write a book on how good a set of lines feel in your hands with a team on the bits just right, or even how their favorite saddle feels under them.
Heel chains jingling, a good teamster commanding his team with quiet confidence, the steady hum of a sickle bar are all music to my ears that make me lose sight of the other perspective of farming. The one that happens in a not so perfect world.
This perspective has us itching under the chin from setting up shocks of oats, and our ears ringing from the loud threshing machine. I often forget how bad I am at cultivating, and that I seem to take out as much corn as weeds. It’s easy to forget how hot and dusty the straw mow is, and how often the thresher plugs, and its belts slip. I’ve had hard hands, and blisters all my life from fork handles, and every spring I get sunburned while picking rocks before planting. Damn the flies that chew on me and the team all summer long. My life would be fine if I never had to scour another rusty plow, or fix a knotter that won’t tie. Just when you make some progress mowing hay it rains for four days straight. They say the journey of a thousand miles begins with a flat tire, and so does a trip to the hay field; then it’s an odd size tire the local garage doesn’t have on hand. As long as I’m griping, let’s talk about the fence that’s down and the animals that get out of the meadow and into the yard of the only neighbor around who cares about his yard. Then the frustration of chasing the stock back in. It makes you long for the dog you used to have instead of the one you have now.
While I’m not deeply philosophical, I do believe that you don’t truly know pleasure until you’ve felt real pain. That may be why we love farming so much, after all the hardship you endure – when it finally does go right we tend to relish in it.
It’s just a matter of keeping it all in a realistic, not idealistic, perspective. When teaching somebody new about farming, we would do well to recall the way it was on both the good and bad days. Few farmers, even on the rare time when they remember the bad days, would’ve traded the worst day on the farm for the best day without a farm.
As we flip over a five gallon pail, and sit down with the kind of friends who sit with you in the barn and remember the old days; try to keep in mind – if it was as bad or as good as we remember, we are probably remembering the way it wasn’t.