by Jenny Neal
Me: “Why does it start in third?”
Him: “It’s not a car.”
Him: “Don’t let the oil gauge needle go below 30. That’s the most important thing.”
Oil gauge needle plunges to zero. Me: “Oh! How did that happen?”
Him: “Don’t over turn.”
I immediately over turn. My instructor swiftly leans over me, his red beard hair stroking my temple, and he puts one massive, dusty finger into the spokes of the steering wheel, spinning it effortlessly. He smiles at me benevolently out of the corner of his eye and we continue to sway together with the rhythm of the tractor.
Apparently, for the same reason that you should never say good luck to an actor (it’s break a leg), or you should never mention The Scottish Play by name, farmers should never say that they are haying, or will hay, because nature is in charge. The weather is your boss and she will change your plans if she thinks you have allowed yourself a little too much confidence. Sometimes, even the baler catches fire.
Thursday, the first day in three days of hay making, was not my first time on a tractor. Last year, I decided to join Jake in his world, a farm on the south side of a mountain in the Catskills; this city girl in muck boots and skinny jeans hopped up into the farmer’s happy place and had a poke around. For one of our early dates, he had asked me if I wanted to take a ride on the tractor with him and I wondered who on god’s green earth would decline such an invitation from the big fella. Not me! Presented with this huge vehicle, an Oliver 1650, and Jake’s green eyes twinkling down at me from on high, I pondered any slight possible danger. I then swiftly dismissed it and clambered up there.
“This seems dangerous,” I murmured, eyes narrowed, once up there and perched precariously on the fender above the driver’s seat, so he slips his fingers into my trousers, and grabs my belt buckle and the entire front of my trousers in this vice-like grip with one hand as meaty as a London Broil. “I’ve got you,” he says, laughing. “Who’s got you?” I ask. We trundled up a steep mountainside dirt road as the Oliver bounced lazily into potholes like a gentle giant – like its driver – and emerged from the thick of the sap bush, tall maples waving in the breeze, into the sunshine: a metaphor for how we had overcome the shadowy loneliness of solo quarantine.
You have to be just a little wild to climb these rugged mountains even with your feet, and I had hiked in all weathers including two icy winters, but riding high, overlooking undulating scenery and the valleys beneath after having been sequestered for so long was a mesmerizing experience.
Jake and I had met online in the very heart of the pandemic after I had quarantined alone for four months without any human contact. After we had been separated from our spouses for year, we were ready to move on. Being an erstwhile reporter in the area, I had already made his acquaintance.
To dare to go from a desk job of twenty-plus years, to such a contrasting, vigorous, physical life in two short years, to be uniquely transforming in the midst of a uniquely transforming time, felt fitting, like I’d made the most of an opportunity. (“If not now, when?”) I’d had a personal revolution and surrendered to this new love at a time when everybody else was gripping the sides of the boat themselves.
His friends, family and neighbors were intrigued by the earthy farmer falling in love with the “dashing urbanite,” but I had never been more compatible with anyone in my life. Farming requires skills beyond what one college degree can provide. It necessitates ingenuity, strength, fierce intelligence and a wide range of eclectic abilities that include everything from food production to pest management and engineering. I stood ready to learn all of it despite farming being riskier than any job I’d known back on Wall Street. Looking back on those alpha-males I’d known over the years, I chuckled at their artlessness. I was eager to grow, weld, build.
Learning new skills has been meditative and I now have a lot of time to concurrently think and do, on a tractor.
Day 1 of Haying School: Jake starts mowing around the edge of the field, under the tree line, in a rough circle that will wind inwards towards the middle of the field. He does one ring, or two and then shuts down the engine. I take the wheel, receive a rudimentary lesson on the how to start the ignition and change gear, then I begin mowing. It’s not easy to find the gears and my circle eventually turns very square: story of my life. Mowing is transcendental.
I notice the repetition of me going too tightly around corners at an occasionally alarming gradient, with this enormous, 50-year-old behemoth, an Oliver 1955 this time, rocking around in an uneven field on the side of a mountain. We could roll over and die; he could fly off the fender with the next jolt, which I ignore in my concentration, but feel guilty when we’ve finished: “I’m sorry I didn’t care about you just about hanging on there.” I smile up at him and he smiles back. “I’ve been driving a tractor since I was a boy,” he says, with that ubiquitous wry smile. He’s enjoying the part of mentor, showing someone around.
So–I must cut corners to avoid overturning, but I resist in the beginning, continually going much too sharply around the corners I have made for fear of missing a bit. It’s this fear of missing a bit that prevails. After we have about half the field remaining, and I turn too tightly again, he finally yells in my ear over the din of the engine. “We’ll go back for the corners!” And, noting my obsession, he spins the steering wheel back again with the index finger that looks as chunky as if it’s been working out on its own for many years. It takes me at least a half hour to be comfortable leaving triangles of hay uncut.
I can’t be strict with the tractor, I think. It’s not a haircut. We are not Vidal Sassoon. We can just go back to the corners and clean them up later.
Day 2: Friday means going back over the hay, fluffing it up like an eighties hair-do with a contraption called a “tedder” so that it may dry quicker. Why is it called this? Nobody can tell me. I’m still doing the odd tight corner, and taking too long, but it only makes Jake smile at me more. Neither of us is complaining. I ask him how much fuel and time that I’ve wasted in my novice state and he beams that charismatic smile at me with those vivid eyes like cool, mossy pools and waves my question away like he’s lazily swatting a fly.
Day 3: Hay raking and baling. Before baling, the hay must be combed into windrows by a rake that consists of a set of six wheels that work together in concert to draw the hay into tight rows. Jake and I sit on the tractor together and we silently enjoy the intimacy of being the only two people in his hundred-acre office to the sounds of the rake’s satisfying swish. I attempt a nervous glance over my shoulder that I try to make quick, but this giant broom that’s making order out of grassy chaos becomes hypnotic. Very soon into the raking, and for the next two hours, there’s only the constant swish and the feeling of Jake’s gigantic forearm snugly around my waist. Waves of dust settle on my neck and give me goosebumps.
Then finally, the hay must be baled, which Jake does on his own and into the night with a baling machine that he drags behind a tractor called a New Holland. There’s no room in the cab on this tractor for a learner and her teacher, so I miss out. After three days of riding, a solid stretch of the legs is necessary, so I walk up to the top of the farm with the dogs to the sound of the baler as it rumbles along like a very slow, heavy train: its clamoring clunk – clunk — clunk rings into the blue silence of a clear mountain sunset. As I rise in elevation the clunk fades to a light chink – chink and I am reassured that my love is still down there, laboring away and will be there when I descend. He’s part of the farm like one of these enormous oak trees, feet on the ground and mind as a weather vane reaching into the clouds, trying to make predictions, always thinking, always fixing, always moving, despite being a slow walker: a long-legged titan making deliberate strides. In the dusk, I watch those long legs extend as he dismounts the tractor carriage. The sudden halt of the chink-chink sounds piques my interest and, as I turn back in the half-light, the ghost of his lean silhouette makes a quiet adjustment to the baler.
These memories will carry me through another intense Catskill Mountain winter until next Spring when we start again.
photo credit: Luca, Unsplash