Sunday, August 06, 2006

Thoughts on "Our" First Real Team Job As I've said in the previous entries, one of my first real "big" regular jobs was to tend to the horses, their stalls, and the "tack room". For those non-farm folk who may browse past here, "tack room" refers to where the reins, harnesses, collars, and related "horse & mule" gear was maintained and stored. Although I was assigned to maintain the tack, I soon realized this was nowhere near as daunting a task as first it appeared. Mostly it involved cleaning, preserving, and doing minor repairs, all of which took less and less time as my familiarity with the items and their varied uses increased. I found that a good system involving immediate cleaning, preserving, and storing of all gear used after each use, no matter how tired one happened to be or what time of day or night, was invaluable. A few minutes spent when tired lessened the backlog I faced when first presented with my new job. R always had a habit of saving it up and then spending one long session doing everything at once. This involved too much anticipation of long hours spent with leather goods to hold my interest as a viable way to go. I guess I ought to explain my choice of accompanying photos before proceeding along with this entry. Where we live is somewhat famous for its occasionally harsh winters. By this, I mean temperatures that can reach -40F below Zero and can also involve fairly large quantities of snow, from first flurries in late September to last flurries around mid-April. This is both good and bad for farming that involves woodlots for added income, as the frozen ground and packable snow offer the opportunity to enter the woods and remove logs on a stable, slippery surface. This makes it ideal for working with horses to "twitch" the logs out a few at a time to where they can be transformed into easier to handle packages. Or, to where tackle can be used to hoist them aboard the truck for transport to the mills. The other benefit is that if you can control where the snow drifts, you somewhat control where the snowmelt goes. The optimal condition is to have as much of the melt as possible go into the ground to replenish the springs, wells, and the water table in general. One means of doing this is by careful study and recording of the winter wind patterns and placement of "snow fencing" to try to control where the snow accumulates in the form of drifts. The way this fencing works is by causing a vacuum and backswirl effect, which causes the blowing snow to accumulate in piles on the downwind side of the fence. The top photo pair shows snow fence of the type we used back then and the resulting drifts. Although not taken here, the photo may well have been, as it shows drifts we would consider mid-winter size. The next shows installed fencing, the next the way it came in rolls. We needed the pastures and fields open in the spring and summer for grazing, hay, and crops. This meant the fences were installed each September/October before the first hard freeze hit and were removed, repaired, and stowed each spring as soon as the fields were dry enough to support a wooded-wheeled wagon. The next is an example of a horse collar and then a wagon very similar to those we used. Uncle R had this thing about auto-tired wagons being too much trouble with flats and all. The last is included for a twofold reason, to show horses in working harness and to show the amount of harness involved just to work the horses.(out of order, sorry) One thing I couldn't find was an example of R's homemade "winter work-horse boots" as he called them. These were made of leather with inserts in the bottom that attached firmly to the winter shoes he either copied or designed himself. I just accepted them as normal to all horses in winter and never really thought about it until looking fruitlessy for an example photo. The bottoms were of very thick and rigid leather with short studs on the bottoms for grip on icy patches. These not only gave the horses good stability on the ice, but protected the hoofs and lower legs from constant contact with the deep snow to some extent. After one or two trips down a trail the snow would become fairly firmly packed until the next storm. The weeks immediately following my arrival just happened to come at what R called the "slow season" when , other than routine milking, slaughtering, delivering, apple picking, hay shuffling, silo filling, etc, there was very little to do. So, we installed the snow fences according to R's pattern book and the predictions in R's weather "bibles", The Farmer's Almanac and The Old Farmer's Almanac. These are two separate publications, and R would sit evenings and average out what they, local papers, and the radio predicted, then arrive at his best guess for the days ahead. Surprisingly, it seemed to be pretty accurate, as I can remember very few times when we were caught unaware of a coming big weather event. The day we were to start, I fed, watered, and hitched the big beasties to our old wagon and proceeded to the out-building where the fencing was stored to find, to my surprise, F waiting for me, sitting on one of the rolls of fence he'd wrestled from the shed. He told me where to park the wagon, which was totally unnecessary as the team had already stopped in the proper position for loading. This was my first confirmation of what I'd suspected for the few short days I'd been around the "Boys" as R and everyone referred to them. They were in charge of me. I might have done the hitching, feeding, etc, and even held the reins, but control was not to be mine until they trusted me not to screw things up for them. This worked out well over the first months, saving me and them injury and needless correcting of mistakes. Once again, looking back later, I realized this was R's way of training me to be useful without adding to his already full workload. In doing this he actually lessened the load on himself to the point that when I left he hired a local lad to live and work on the farm and perform most of the tasks I'd been doing. He couldn't afford to pay enough to get anyone to fully replace me, especially as I worked for room and board only. And the occasional evening use of the farm truck to chase girls in town. As we finished (mostly F finished) loading the wagon as high as practical, R appeared as if by magic, carrying "field lunches" to substitute for breakfast, dinner, and provide a light pre-supper snack. Thus ready, we rode away from the pre-dawn light, heralding another sunny day, toward the western-most fields beyond the pond to lay the south row of fence on R's farm. By working steadily, except for taking on food or water in brief pauses, we managed to lay a full six wagonloads of the snow inhibiting wood and wire concoction. We finished as the last light of dusk lit my work unhitching the team. This continued after school and on weekends for almost three weeks before the last of the, by now despised, fence and metal poles found themselves in the proper areas for them to do their duty against the blowing snows. This also presaged my first venture into wagon repair and sleigh preparation. As an added note, I decided one Saturday to try out my theory of my not being required to operate the team. To my utter astonishment, as soon as I lay down the traces they stopped, snorted, and refused to move until I repossessed the leads. Even though they knew exactly what to do without any guidance from me, they refused to abandon a fellow team member, no matter how inconsequential that member's part was. I like to think it offended their sense of symetry, in a horsey sort of way. Not sure where this rambling tale will wind next as it seems to come to me at the oddest times. Sometimes a smell, a television image, or some other stimulis sparks the process. Sometimes it's more a result of my own daydreaming while avoiding gainful labor of any sort. Whatever does it, I've learned it's totally unpredictable, so we'll both be surprised I guess. Take care and stay happy.

4 comments:

Mies said...

Sounds like you learned fast and adjusted very well to the tasks at hand...Good story...

Patricia said...

Good reading, Mike. Interesting picture of how self-sufficient farmers were in those days. I wonder if a dedicated farmer could do that today. Probably not, although the Amish approach it. Hard work, but probably a lot less stressful in many ways than city living. Or maybe just healthier stress.

Sarah said...

Love the stories & the pics Mike.Not at all rambling.It's all very interesting & the pictures help explain a lot.

Mar said...

Better witts than strengh, for sure! I have been astonished to read that you STUDIED the way the snow fell on the ground to take a bigger benefit of it. Thank you again for the info and the photos, Mike.