The tractor exerts its timeless pull

The world looks better from atop a new, green tractor. I could sit for hours just listening to its percussive three-cylinder diesel hum, jouncing on my springy seat with its tickling vibrations, just as I might have done as a kid. Who didn't dream of being at the controls of such a machine? Only one thing could possibly surpass it: riding on a fire truck with the siren blaring.

The world is an empire of work to be done, from atop my green tractor. And I'm a kid who has finally come of age and is old enough to drive it. It's been a long time coming.

My great-great grandfather, Spencer Colby, would have used oxen for my intended chores: pulling stumps and stones out of the ground, tilling fields, skidding timber from deep in the woods. He was the last generation in our family to make a living by working the land, and, of course, what are chores to me were a matter of survival to him. If the fields weren't cleared, and kept cleared, then the crops couldn't be planted. No crops, no food. No food, no family. No family, no Todd Nelson bouncing in the seat of his John Deere.

My descendants do not depend on my tractor. Though I have a romance with working the land, I admit to my chores being a reenactment of the Colby farming era. Nonetheless, I lie awake at night just dreaming of all the work I can do. Possession of a tractor makes work.

Every time I drive past my neighbor, Mr. Cyr, I get new ideas. For instance, Cyr uses his tractor's front bucket loader to stand on while he's installing or painting clapboards at ladder height. The tractor, in effect, offers him up to the eaves and soffit, and he stands comfortably while brushing on this year's layer of bright white.

Then there are the trees to drag and brush to push and pile – even if they are not my trees or brush. And when someone in the family puts the minivan in the ditch, as happened recently, it is less an aggravation than a welcome opportunity to rev up the tractor and go pull 'er out. The tractor invites work.

My tractor lives in constant comparison to the draft horse my daughter, Ariel, would prefer to have. "If you'd just buy me a draft horse, I could pull all those stumps for you," she implores. "A horse would be great in the woods. They love to pull logs. And it would help the garden grow!" She is her great-great-great grandfather's great-great-great granddaughter, to be sure.

I must admit that the notion of all that free, convenient "spring dressing," as they call manure around here, is tempting. I envision huge tomatoes. And a horse would certainly do its part to keep the field clear of alder and other invasive plants that my tractor and I are working hard to keep at bay. A horse is also gentler on the woods than the deep tread of John Deere.

On the other hand, horse fuel – oats and hay – costs quite a bit more than diesel fuel. And a horse doesn't stop "running" once you unhitch it. Tractors enjoy idling and do not require combing, shoeing, or mucking out of stalls. They do not need their teeth filed. They do not step on your toes.

You do not, however, get to name them, which leads me to conclude that owning a horse is having a relationship while owning a tractor is having a tool. And this new, big tool does present a few dilemmas.

Fridays have become my tractor day, the culmination of a week spent thinking of projects: trees to move, rocks to lift, firewood to pile, roads to scrape, earth to till, and holes to dig. Then came last Friday, the ultimate tractor day thus far – 100 yards of trench digging with the backhoe beckoned. A power line conduit for our new house needed to be laid underground, and the drainage pipe needed a deeper channel so that groundwater from the foundation could be directed to the stream. I would spend the whole day digging to my heart's content – after surmounting the challenge of the backhoe attachment.

Remember, this is not a horse with three controls: left, right, stop. The backhoe arm is controlled by a couple of levers that, if used correctly, articulate its movements with grace and finesse. One can scoop, push, pull, flick, scrape, and smoosh. It's like learning to eat with chopsticks. Intuition will finally take over, but there is many an awkward slip 'twixt the trench and the debris pile (plate and lip) before anything like dexterity is achieved.

I began the day wrestling with a cedar stump. Frost in the ground forced me to nibble away in small bites. The ground had a deep layer of clay, which fought back against my scooping intentions. Then there were roots, and stones.

Still, I was grateful not to be doing it by hand, and at the end of the day, the job was done. I had something to show for my persistence. The water flowed; the trench was ready for the electricians. I was cold, weary, and content. Even a bad day of tractoring beats a good day at the office. Now, about that fire truck....

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