Joy blossoms in the fallow season

California's Sacramento Valley rarely freezes in winter. Farmers work the soil through this season to have it ready for early spring planting.

I drove a tractor in the northern Sacramento Valley that fall, winter, and spring. Every field I worked was large. I pulled a chisel plow, a disc, a harrow, or a land plane all the way down the field, turned, and did the same thing going back, over and over for 10 hours, sometimes for 12 hours. The hardest part of the job was to get through the workday without shriveling up from boredom.

A tracklayer, the type of tractor that runs on steel treads rather than on wheels, has no steering wheel. It pulls steadily down the field, with little intervention from the driver.

If the machine drifts a little from straight ahead, a pull on a lever interrupts the drive to the track on that side and causes the machine to turn gradually toward that side. For a sharper turn, apply the brake to the temporarily undriven track.

To keep going in a straight line, find a faraway, easily recognizable point, perhaps the peak of a hill on the horizon. Line the machine up with that point, and refer to it often enough to keep the machine straight. Turn in the seat and look at the implement coming along behind often enough to make sure it overlaps the last run, but not so much that you waste work.

I drove both kinds of tractors that year, but I prefer a tracklayer over a wheel tractor. On a tracklayer I can stand up, flex, bend this way and that, dance a little, find some variation from sitting in the seat.

On a wheel tractor, I can't stand up and dance. The steering wheel is in the way. Unless I stay seated and hang onto the wheel, the tractor will veer, and it will be difficult to straighten up the work pattern without wasting work.

Birds of many species are abundant in the Sacramento Valley. They brought color, activity, and wonder into my otherwise monotonous day and exercised my mind away from boredom.

Red-winged blackbirds, egrets, and thrushes eat worms and other things that normally live under the soil. They follow an implement with their active appetites and are soon satisfied as the soil beneath the surface is stirred into winter sunlight, exposing all manner of delectables.

Moments of wonder rewarded me for sticking with the monotonous work. Every morning before I started work, I stood and looked south, to the refuge.

Canada geese and whistling swans flew up, out of the refuge, divided into V flights, and spread out across the valley, where they found the day's provender and living. How could a hundred blackbirds leap from the ground, fly as a group, then turn so precisely together that every right wing reflects sunshine at me in the same instant?

One morning, just at sunrise, I watched a fox hunt voles in the grass growing by the ditch at the side of the field. She listened, then leaped up and came down with her forepaws together. She snapped sharp teeth on what she had located by sound and then caught by her speed.

The tractor carted me down the field, toward the big drainage ditch where burrowing owls that lived in the bank stood outside their burrows and watched the yellow tractor roar and clatter into its turn and head away from them.

Three days that fall, I didn't go to work. I was busy with my firstborn daughter's birth at home one early morning, then was unable to leave my wife and baby. I was struck even more deeply with the wonder and the joy of our family.

I went back to work amid profuse assurances from Mike, the farmer I drove for, that someone in his family would be constantly by the phone. They would notify him if my wife called and needed me, and Mike would drive high-speed across the field to get me.

On my first day back I was puffed up and dancing with the wonder of life all around me, the wonder of life in my family. I was filled with gratitude that I participated in growing food for my neighbors and received an income to support my family.

What's more, here was some of the best bird-watching in the valley. A white egret flew three feet above me, escorting me from the shop to the field.

And blackbirds turned as one and reflected sunlight at me as I danced with joy on the rattling, rumbling, yellow tracklayer, pulling a chisel plow down the long field.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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