June 22, 2017

Kicking Up a Hornets’ Nest, Maine-style

Illustration by George Danby

Illustration by George Danby

• By John F. Chisholm •

Mowing our fields is a three-step process.  At least.  (There are always more steps when you’re haying.)  But for now, considering just the mowing, first I knock down the centers with the International tractor and the rotary mower.  Then I use the Cockshutt, Model 40 around the edges.  It’s set up with a six-foot sickle bar.  That’s a huge assistance in reaching underneath overhanging bushes.  Still, it’s an even bigger help if the edges are mowed to within that limit.  Finally, I complete the trim-up by hand, ensuring that I keep our fields.

Obviously, that last step is the most difficult.  Well, 99 percent of the time, anyway.

As a result, I do as much trimming as possible with the tractors.  But getting it all done isn’t as easy as it sounds.  It’s still time-consuming.  I inch both machines along in first gear.  Alders are forever falling over into our fields.  Gray birches, pussy willows and poplar trees are just as bad.

In fact every species of tree here in the Northeast produces twigs, boughs, branches and limbs of every imaginable shape, color and size.  They all fetch up against the tractor ― usually on the exhaust stack ― as I mow the perimeters.  Of course they don’t stay there.  They slip off as the tractor struggles forward.

Then the branches slap back.

I duck, weave and fend off the assault as best I can.  Still, I’m always scratched and battered by the time I finish.

My neighbor, Gary Mullen, tries teaching me.  He’s a wise, old farmer.  “Gov.  Mow the centers first.  That way if you pick up a stick or break something cleaning the edges, at least you’ve got the most of it done.”

He’s right.

I break a lot of a lot of equipment anyway.  That’s from pushing the envelope.  I crowd the perimeters, trying to get as much done as possible with the rotary mower, trying to squeeze that extra bale out of the field.  It’s gotten so bad that sometimes the International tractor is on its third trip around before I’m completely clear of the trees at the edges.  Sure.  That’s a big tractor.  But there are thousands of trees a great deal bigger.

The operator’s platform is covered with leaves, twigs, branches and pine needles by the time I’m done.

The coniferous trees are the worst.  Their limbs are heavy but supple.  The needles are thick, dense for their size and deliver stinging blows.  Worse, they’re opaque.  You might see the next limb coming from behind a maple branch.  There’s no such luck with pine boughs.  The next limb is on its way before you get better than a fleeting glimpse.

Trust me.

Yesterday I mowed a section of our south field.  Along one boundary, a row of red pines forges a steel-green hedge.  Thirty to 40 feet high, their limbs aren’t lightly brushed aside.  I braced myself.  “It’s easier than mowing by hand,” I asserted, selecting first gear.

It was hot.  Humidity drenched my T-shirt.  Cotton clung to my skin.  Hazy sunshine limbered the boughs.  Slapping branches coated my dark glasses with pitch.  Sweat streaked the inside of the lenses, further obstructing the view.  My forearms, raised to protect my face, took a pounding.

Halfway along that row something gray, indistinct, head-sized and even head-shaped clung to an upcoming branch.  I had neither time nor clarity to see what.  It scraped along the muffler which altered its appearance, flattening it on one side.  That brush with the tractor gave it voice as well.  I distinctly heard an ominous hum add to the roar of the diesel engine.  “What the …?” I demanded, foot landing on the clutch.

The tractor rolled to a stop.

Too late.

Wrong move.

Fateful act.

The branch slipped past the muffler, accelerating rapidly.  The bough was heavy and really whipping.  Never argue with inertia, it wins every time.  Reflex put up both my arms to stop it regardless.

I didn’t succeed.

But I caught that hornets’ nest as it hit my face, dissolving it in the process into paper, larva, cone and hornets.  Yeah.  Lots and lots of hornets.

Nobody was happy.  Me, least of all.

It took far longer than it should have to get out of there.  Sure, I took my foot off the clutch and wrenched the steering wheel right.  Alas!  Remember, I was in first gear.  Congress moves more quickly.  Those hornets made ample use of every second delayed.  It took a minute to locate a higher ratio.  I managed eventually, eyes scrunched shut, hands waving ineffectually at the cloud of fighter jets dive-bombing my face, arms, hands and chest.  My damp, clinging T-shirt offered no protection.

To be fair, I didn’t really care where the tractor went as long as it went somewhere ― anywhere! ― else.

In that at least, I succeeded.  Still, if you drive by on Tay Road and notice where some lunatic farmer signed his name with a mowing machine in the middle of the hay, please remember, he had excuse!

As it turns out, that 99 percent and me, we’re not so tight any longer.

There are areas where it’s much easier to mow by hand.