Thursday, September 21, 2006


Sometimes I was allowed to drive the farm tractor, but usually it was a job strictly reserved by my partner for himself. After we bought the new Case, with its airconditioned cab, radio and CD player, power steering, and ergonomically designed seat, I was relegated to the old Fergy… women weren’t really fit to be trusted with machinery according to most rural men, and this one in particular. Unless he had to go to town for a meeting on hay day, when every mob on the place had to be fed; a job which necessitated opening and shutting dozens of gates with hungry sheep trying to rush through and get mixed up with the neighbouring mob. There were also certain times of the year when things got too hectic for one operator, such as hay making in the spring. Or non stop cultivation after the autumn break, when it was important to get the crops sown quickly. My help at those times was accepted ungraciously and with much critical comment. But I always used the Fergy for mustering when the swamp was flooded; it would slosh happily through the drains and soupy grey clay and never get bogged. In fact, the only time it ever got bogged someone else was driving it…
Tractor work is mind numbingly boring: round and round in ever decreasing…but ever so slowly decreasing…circles. Round and round the paddock, the excitement mounting as each corner approaches, turning them neatly is the only challenge. And yet men love it. They seem to feel a huge sense of achievement, probably because they can actually view what they’ve done for the day. It’s different from most farm work, which rather resembles housework; you usually do much the same things and no matter how well you do them, you have to repeat it all next day. Every day of your life, if you’re a conscientious house or farm keeper. But once a crop’s sown you can sit back and relax. Wait for it to germinate, wait for the weeds to grow, spray the weeds, wait for it to be ready to harvest, and finally harvest it. The culmination of the year’s work and one of the few times there’s a financial reward for your labours.
Preparing the ground for a crop leaves no room for imaginative tractor driving, every row you work around the paddock is there for all to see. The moist chocolate brown soil worked into endless linear patterns tells the whole story, and nothing can be hidden. Any crooked bits, where you were momentarily distracted by the crows and magpies fighting over the worms, or a mother fox playing with her cubs, are immediately visible and have to be sorted next time around. The bad turns at the corners, ditto. These repairs can sometimes mean wasting a whole circuit, straightening out your mistakes. The tricky parts where the big red gums get in the way and have to be negotiated make for a little more challenge. Exactitude is even more crucial when the seed is going in, and especially when the paddock is beside the road in full view of critical neighbours. Every crooked round, every overlapped row, or, horrors of horrors, where the seed ran out leaving a complete blank; each mistake is visible for weeks, and only magnified as the plants grow. Sometimes the unfortunate farmer can be fined at Lions meetings for his sins, and he must be relieved when at last the plants are big enough to join up and become one green mass.
But my usual job was raking the hay on the Fergy with two ancient rakes hitched one behind the other. I would start with good intentions, concentrating hard, but after a few rounds boredom would set in. I’d see some thin rows beside the cyprus plantation or down near the swamp, and think how long it would take to make a big roll of hay out of such a meagre winrow. Maybe if I raked three or four rows together instead of two it would save some time for the baler, it wouldn’t have to go around the paddock so many times. So I’d do some creative raking for a few rounds, returning to the normal routine as the swathes of mown grass thickened up again away from the trees. Did I get any thanks for my thoughtfulness? No. Only abuse for upsetting the normal pattern and causing distress to the operator of the baler. He actually had to stop and think where to go next. It would have been fun to be a fly on the roof and watch his reaction as the usual pattern dissolved into chaos.
A few years ago I left all that behind and moved to a small farm in Queensland. Today I was mowing old dead winter grasses, mulching them up to rot back into the ground more easily. The paddock had quite big spots that didn’t need doing, so instead of going around in circles I decided to be more imaginative and just cut the thicker patches. What a delight it was to mow great curves all over the paddock, to do smaller whirls and triangles where required, to leave small patches for young quail and tiny ground larks…all with no fear of retribution. I laughed as I bumped over the rough ground on the old grey Fergy, not my old favourite but a suitable substitute, and imagined what my ex would say. It was extremely satisfying, and I kept going for hours longer than I intended. The big white Maremma joined in the spirit of things, bounding around the paddock chasing quail with his curved plume of a tail waving excitedly above the grass; then I’d catch a glimpse of it down by the dam where he’d gone for a cooling swim. I vaguely wondered what the paddock would look like from the satellite that takes those detailed pictures, the ones that show up illegal tree clearing and marihuana plots. Who actually examines them? Certainly not a former farmer, I decided, as a couple of army helicopters flew overhead returning to their base at Oakey. Perhaps they’d think a flying saucer had landed here. Perhaps I’d be visited one day to see if I was harbouring aliens.


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