Friday, March 20, 2009

A Farmer and His Tractor

Today has been emotional and tiring, and I welcomed the cool evening breeze and a quiet moment to stand alone in the dark and gather my thoughts. I snuggled in my oversized bathrobe, poured myself a cup of coffee, and walked out to the back porch. Only a few stars seemed to be out tonight and due to the darkness, I couldn’t tell if that was because of the clouds or not. The backyard is shallow and just beyond the hot wire that lines our boundaries is a farmer's field. Throughout the winter it has laid there dormant and lifeless; but apparently today has become the new beginning for this vast stretch of ground.

I remember last year meeting the farmer who worked this field for the first time. I'm guessing him to be in his mid to late 60's who owned the most beautiful and well trained black lab I had ever seen. In looking back, it was probably his dog that inspired my family to finally get one of our own. Every day we would watch this farmer tirelessly, day in and day out, work, prepare, work, and cultivate his crop. Not having ever farmed myself, it became an obsession for me to watch him. I had so many questions that even surprised myself. Why am I so interested in what this man is doing? But each time I had the opportunity, I would ask him my "city girl" questions. Why do you work the field back and forth and then diagonally, before you plant it? Why don't you water the entire crop at the same time? Is there anything I can do to help you? Would you like some water? He was always ever so patient with me, but I often wondered if he just wanted to be left alone. I tried to keep my distance as the season went on. I would be pulling weeds, or cleaning ditches, and would try to leave this poor man alone, but then would feel I was being rude.

One night I had noticed just before the sun began to set, before he had begun to plant his crop, that he had spent a great deal of time working on his tractor. As the evening passed we paid little attention to him, until it became dark. Once the sun had set and the sky was black, he fired up that tractor, turned on his lights and went to work. First plowing the field from east to west, back and forth, for what seemed like hours. I'm sure it was. That night I had stayed up particularly late, and I noticed from my dining room windows that his lights appeared different. Again, like tonight, I went outside and watched him. He was now plowing diagonally. How long into the night was he going to do this? And why at night? Wasn't it incredibly hard to keep everything as straight as he was, in the dark? Finally I reached a point where I could no longer stay awake and I went to bed.

When I awoke again at 5:30, he was still working! My word, this man had not slept all night and a wave of guilt went over me as I thought about how he had toiled all night while I was just a few yards away sleeping like a baby. And what about his wife? She had spent the entire night without him. Did that make her uneasy to know he was out there alone, and working harder than most men half his age? Within an hour of the day's light beginning to lighten the darkness, he parked his tractor, walked wearily over to his pickup and went home. I fixed breakfast with an entirely different attitude. He had worked at least 9 hours in the cab of that tractor while the world around him slept. I wasn't going to complain about being tired today.

As the weeks wore on and spring and summer came and went, we watched him every day. Once the crops were planted he spent many long days watering his crops, cleaning irrigation ditches of debris and an occasional ball that my kids had kicked into it, and pulling weeds. Yes, pulling weeds. By hand. I had thought, in a field this size, that was something of the past. Apparently I was wrong. He, his wife, and another helper would walk the entire field throughout the season, pulling weeds by hand. One hot summer afternoon out of pure guilt, I offered to help them. He informed me that he couldn’t pay me for my help, and so I tried to explain that I wasn’t offering to help for the pay, I simply wanted to help. Still he refused to allow me to do so. Without paying me, he said, it just wouldn’t be right. There was something about the way he said it that made me realize if I pushed the issue, I would insult him. He had an accent, from where I’m not certain, but I had a pretty good feeling that wherever that accent came from was the same place he acquired his pride. And I respected that.

By the time the season was over, he had raised two separate and different crops out of that field. In a distant kind of way he became a part of our family. His dog was always playing with the kids, and he always welcomed fresh baked cookies and iced tea when I offered it. I felt a sense of sadness when his last crop was harvested and the field was plowed one final time before winter. I knew it would be a few months before we saw him again, for his house didn’t sit on this same piece of ground. And on that day of his final plowing of the year, I sat and watched him again. I wondered if the world knew or understood the long, tiring hours these men put in for us? I thought about his wife and the amount of time alone she spent during the season. I thought about the afternoons I had watched them working together under the blistering sun because they couldn’t pay, nor would they hire, the cheap and sometimes illegal help around here. I wondered if there was ever going to come a day when the farmer, the true old-fashioned farmer, became extinct. And I wondered why he did it. Was it handed down to him from generations before? Was he carrying on what his fathers before him had done all of their lives? He seemed to like the work he did and so I could only guess that whatever his reasons were, he was happy with them. And at that very moment I wanted the world to appreciate him and his work as much as I did. I sent up a prayer for him and his success. I hoped that the next season would be as fruitful and that people would show their appreciation for the food they have on their table.

Tonight, as I sipped my coffee on the back porch and let the spring breeze blow through my hair, I heard it again. That familiar sound of a good friend and his tractor.