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High on the Land

By Kathryn Olmstead



August 5, 2000. Millie has been in the family almost six months. Friends who endured the agony of my decision-making received photos of her on cards, which read: “Announcing the arrival of Millie, The New Millennium Tractor, February 18, 2000, 1,535 pounds, Westmanland, Maine.”

She has helped me clear snow from the driveway and till the garden, but today I observed the ethic of being a tractor owner.

“Is that thing broken,” a neighbor asked, casting a glance at Millie as he passed through the garage.

“No.”

“Then why haven’t you mowed any of the fields around your house?”

Well, in fact, I made my debut with the mower behind the house, not visible from the road, but the question touched a nerve.

Today is one of those spectacular Aroostook County summer days—cool breezes, warm sun, blue skies with regiments of clouds marching toward the horizon. When I first moved to Northern Maine, I promised myself I would not stay inside on a day like today. With a tractor in the garage, the obligation to get out is even stronger. Whatever is on the to-do list becomes subordinate to savoring summer. Forget the textbooks to be read, the syllabi to be prepared, the magazine to be laid out before Monday. Seize this day. The grass is crisp. The wildflowers have passed their prime. (I couldn’t mow down a field of smiling daisies and buttercups.) I define one section to begin with by mowing around it. By mistake, I create a wide swath at one end of the section that turns out to be just what I need for turning space, so I can head straight across the field in straight lines. I create a duplicate swath at the opposite end of my section. Neat. Anyone riding by might think I knew what I was doing.

I would never have dreamed this field was so uneven. There are bumps and mounds and holes invisible to the eye and undetected by the foot. A legacy of the farmer who last tilled here, the ridges running east and west cause my mower blades to lift, then scrape, marring the perfection of my paths, as I mow north and south. Previous to my mowing, I knew this field as a gentle slope. Now I know exactly where the grade changes and when to beware of the drop-offs.

I start small. After an hour of mowing I estimate it will take about five hours to mow the whole field. The sun warms my face and legs as I ride toward it. When I turn north, a cool breeze sweeps the perspiration from my brow as the view of Madawaska Lake ahead takes my breath away, for a moment. Grasshoppers fly out in all directions and two fat gray mice scurry for protection, their hiding places suddenly exposed. Bugs I have never seen before land on my arms and legs. Some of them bite. I wonder if they are special bugs that appear only when people on loud tractors destroy their homes.

I am amazed at the varieties of vegetation I encounter and wonder what conditions create the differences—soil, light, drainage, prior planting. What could cause one part of the field to be a tangle of vetch and strawberries, while right next to it is a stretch of fine timothy, its slender spikes shoulder-high? Of course, there must be ledge beneath the high side of the field where spindly furry-stemmed flowers emerge from a carpet of moss.

I look ahead. Mowing is planning. How am I going to negotiate that spruce tree? How close can I get without being knocked off the tractor by a limb? Can I get between those two trees and still make the turn? How can I maximize efficiency, cutting all the time without traveling over land I’ve already cut? How can I economize on fuel by lengthening downhill passes and shortening the up-hills? I have been dying to clear a fairly flat, overgrown spot of the field, but not before I walk through it to be sure no rocks are hiding beneath the thicket of red osier and raspberries.

I am not ashamed of my inexperience. I am exhilarated by the opportunity to learn and appreciative of the neighbors willing to take time to teach. I knew when I noticed a nut on the mower hitch touch- ing the wheel on turns that something on the opposite side probably needed tightening, but I didn’t know how to do it, nor how to test when it was done. I took a walk to the neighbor two houses down the road and left a note when I found the house empty. On my way home, I spotted my next-door neighbor installing a new belt on his car. He agreed to come up “in a flash,” and he quickly remedied the problem.

I am also no longer embarrassed by my new fuel tank. I actually tried to hide it with a pallet when it was hardly used, but now I am more than pleased to be able to pump Millie full of diesel when she gets hungry without having to leave the dooryard. I know just how many pulls on the handle will fill her tank.

I have forty-five minutes before I have to stop mowing and get ready to go out to dinner. I just have to finish this field first. It might rain tomorrow, and who knows when conditions will be this good again . . . on a weekend? I don’t want people to see an unfinished field when they drive by the farm. I apply all I have learned about efficiency and grade and turns. I warn the grasshoppers and mice (they are brown at this end of the field) and suppress my sentiment about the surviving yarrow standing tall in my path.

I am high on the land. My view encompasses the hills along Route 11, miles west of here, as well as the lake and the valley below me. I stretch, on a constant lookout for rocks, as Millie encircles the last section to be mowed.

I ask myself, “What am I doing here?” and realize it is not a rational choice. I think about the distant cousin in England who took me and my sister on a tour of her farm. She was in her fifties when she started farming. Of course, her father farmed, as did her great-great- grandfather, who was also my great-great-grandfather.

Fifteen minutes until dinner. I make my last turn at the top of the hill and Yes! The last strip of grass before me is just the width of my mower blade.



This story is featured in Karthryn Olmstead's True North, a collection of essays from her years writing for Echoes magazine and the Bangor Daily News that shares her introductions to rural life in Aroostook County in an attempt to reveal the universal in the particular—the night sky and ice-out, the people and their cultural roots, and the intimacy with nature in every season.


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