BY Jim Harding
I just bought a small, new tractor for our country home. It took months of checking and comparing to decide. I got the largest of the small Husqvarna tractors with 24 HP, a heavy duty mower and a blower and tiller made especially for it by a Quebec company.
It took this long to decide because down deep I wanted a Kubota, which we couldn’t afford. We’ve been spoiled having a small Deutz-Allis with a front and rear PTO left to us by my father. It’s been an ongoing labour of love to keep his hand-picked machine operating over the 20 years since he has died, but its reliability has steadily declined. After some difficult times this last, hard winter it was time to put the old machine to rest.
We couldn’t continue living in this coulee far back from the highway without a more reliable machine. We can’t get into our solar home built high into the hills without a way to clear away snow drifts that often block our long, steep driveway. Access is becoming a vicious circle: if I try to hand-shovel the lengthy driveway, I can get so stiff and sore that by spring, even with several chiropractic sessions, I have trouble doing all the bending and lifting necessary to replace the blower with the mower to carry on.
Sometimes it takes a crisis to convince us to change. I had already started to shift more physical jobs to equipment. I finally got a heavy-duty battery-operated trimmer to cut grass where it was difficult to get our bulky hand mower. There was some irony in this for, while trying to reduce the use of energy on our land, I was shifting more work to electric or gas powered equipment. I felt I had no choice after being immobilized from inflamed discs after strenuous winter work.
I’m not alone facing these dilemmas of aging and dependence. Many people are asking how long they can sustain country living involving heavy work, while our bodies steadily give way and helpful offspring are so far away.
The shift to newer technology didn’t come easily. Our new tractor drives its equipment with belts; I have heard that the Swedes adopted the design from the low-tech Ukrainians. It has no hydraulic power take off (PTO) like the retired Deutz-Allis. But having had difficulty attaching the equipment in the tiny spaces under the old tractor, I’ve convinced myself that more space to slip on a belt will be simpler. I remind naysayers that even the Deutz-Allis mower blades were driven by a belt that we’ve never replaced in nearly 30 years of hard mowing.
We all face some cognitive dissonance when we make a big purchase. I was always rationalizing buying a cheaper machine and convinced myself that the Husqvarna would be less of a hassle and could still meet our needs. But deep down I knew that a four-wheel drive tractor like the Kubota would be better for our steep inclines, so I made sure we got the largest wheels (23 inch) with chains and a system of weights to reassure myself. I haven’t yet tested the new tractor in severe winter conditions, but I will miss the ease of operation of the much less complicated Deutz-Allis.
But much more than consumer choice is going on; I’ve experienced a marked shift in my strength and resilience since entering my seventies. The healing process gets longer when I strain old injuries. A twisted sacroiliac or back spasm can put me out of service for weeks. While doing construction work or playing competitive sports earlier in life, I was able to override my body and push through the pain to reach new levels of performance. I’ve had to learn new methods of coping. No longer can I count on regular, intense work to keep me in shape; I now have to “train” for the ongoing physical challenges if we wish to go on living in this magnificent place.
Replacing my father’s tractor goes hand in hand with some personal retooling. I have been more patient when my father’s tractor failed to do my bidding and I can’t remember the last time I got “angry” at an uncooperative, aging machine. Perhaps I’m also more accepting of my own limits and trust my family becomes more patient with me, too.
I am more connected to my fond feelings for my father, remembering watching him as he also had to surrender to his limits. No longer able to count so much on my own body or even on an old machine that I’ve come to so depend on, has brought a big shift. I can’t be compulsive about what I want to get done. I truly enjoy still being able to tackle physical tasks, even if I can’t always accomplish them as I initially desired. My pleasure comes from a deeper place, a place of gratitude, not just the satisfaction of “getting the job done”.
And what’s of more value: the shiny, new orange tractor waiting for the first blizzard, or the welling up of my fond feelings for my long-dead father? And how far could this deepening wisdom get me without also having a new tractor?
I’m surprised by the memories I’ve had as I’ve retired my father’s tractor. Though it’s been 20 years since his death, I have vivid memories of working quietly together on the new green machine on a sunny summer day. There are many memories associated with the old tractor and our three sons or two granddaughters, who all live away. The retired tractor spans the quarter century plus that we’ve inhabited this coulee. And I hope that operating it over this period has had more positive than negative impacts on this micro-habitat.
Shifting from the old to the new tractor is a “new beginning”. Reorganizing our small barn so that there is space for the new equipment challenged me to let go of my identification with the past. I threw out many things from our sons’ childhoods, a part of the process of adapting to my own aging.
BREAKING NEW GROUND
My father and I broke the soil where our garden still grows. I used his tractor this fall to disc horse manure in to give the soil a new lease on life. It felt like a rebirth and I’m biting at the bit to see how the seeds respond next spring. I had to tinker with the machine each time I used it and enjoyed this because I felt close to my father and the soil and knew a new tractor was on the way. The new tractor has a tiller so I won’t have to do the back-wrenching hand-tilling any more.
I have some sadness as I retire my father’s machine. But I mostly have a quiet gratitude for all the rich times that occurred around the little tractor that helped us go on living in this wondrous coulee. I plan to keep a special place for it in the barn, a sort of honouring spot for its many years of good work. My father’s tractor disked in hundreds of bales of organic alfalfa that we grew atop the valley and used as remineralizing mulch over the years. Without his tractor we wouldn’t have been able to turn the glacial till into the rich soil that now feeds us. That is some legacy.
I am about the same age as my father when he bought his tractor. Maintaining his tractor has helped keep my love and respect alive and retiring his tractor has helped me face my own steady decline. The new tractor will perhaps help signify yet another chapter in our family’s life.