November 13, 2019

Steps Along the Stepping Stones: Or This Stoneboat is Sunk

Illustration by George Danby

Illustration by George Danby

By John F. Chisholm •

Every project is multi-stepped.  Even allowing for variation in step size, some projects are just naturally bigger than others.  Of course.  Simply because there are so many projects on any farm ― this one is certainly no exception ― most of mine are born of necessity.  That means I’m terribly anxious to avoid unnecessary steps.

Please tell me that’s at least understandable.  Nevertheless, I create enormous amounts of work trying desperately to avoid it.  That’s just the way things go around here.

Perhaps an example would help.

Every spring our lawn turns into a quagmire.  With frost still in the ground, surface water has nowhere to go.  So it doesn’t.  It just puddles right on top, daring anyone or thing to get from the house to the road, house to the barn, house to anywhere while remaining clean and dry.  Put bluntly?  It can’t be done.  I stretch duct boards across the worst sections but they can’t be everywhere.  Now recall that my wife owns dogs.  Lots and lots of dogs.  The result?  Every spring our kitchen floor looks more like a poorly plowed field than ceramic tiling.  Shedding fur adds tremendous strength and an adobe-like texture to the mud.  Once dry, it rivals concrete for durability.

Mopping our kitchen?  In April it’s a daily task.  It’s no easy slog, either.  Yes, this is experience speaking.  I’m not making any of this up, either.  I promise.
Outside, the worst spot is the highest traffic area, that first step from the front door to the lawn.  Of course the dogs ignore the duct board.

“Why don’t you put a rock there?” my wife demanded, wiping her feet on the mat.

I’ve done that at the back door.  It was quite a project.  Using the bulldozer, I pushed a large, flat rock all the way across our fields to the back door.  Between the bulldozer and the rock, I made a huge mess, creating a half-mile long skidder trail through our fields.  Then I dug a hole, placed the rock and raked the lawn.

That’s when Step Five kicked me hard.  I repaired the ruts made moving the rock in the first place.  In case you’ve never done it, re-grading a field is a lot of work.  Leaving it unrepaired is worse.  Ever tried mowing ruts?  They knock your teeth out, pound your kidneys to pulp and ruin your mower while you’re at it.  The field will look like hell when you’re done.

Faced with the prospect of moving another rock, this one to the front door, I decided to make a stoneboat large enough to carry a really big rock.  I actually salivated, imagining the work it would save.  Sure, making one added an extra step to this particular project, but didn’t it eliminate that dreaded Step Five in the process?  Plus, if I ever have to move a rock again ― and you can bet that will happen ― I’ll still have the stoneboat.

So Monday I went to work.  I slaved all day, cutting, bolting, welding.  The resulting stoneboat is massive.  It’s rough-sawn hemlock planks mounted to a steel draw frame.  Hooked at the bow are half-inch chain links.  No.  It’s not light.  (Neither are boulders!)  In fact it takes the bulldozer just to move it.
That should have tipped me off that something was wrong right there.

It didn’t.

Yesterday I dragged my new stoneboat all the way down across our fields to a massive granite boulder.  “What a perfect doorstep!” I exclaimed looking at it.  At some point the rock  had been split, exfoliated from its parent.  The action created a large flat surface.  It lay in our drainage ditch sublimely confident in its position, regardless of previous experience.  Likely it realized that I wasn’t a glacier.

Not even close.

Sure, the split surface is as flat as it is extensive but the opposite side is bulbous, smooth and deep.  Save for the lip there isn’t much to hang on to.  I didn’t want to turn it over.  How would I ever turn it back?

All morning the bulldozer and I struggled with chains, crowbars and the winch to load it.  Finally, after hours of gut-wrenching labor, the boulder balanced precariously atop the stoneboat, potbelly down, planar surface staring at the sky.  It dwarfed the stoneboat.  (Still does!)  Remember, it all but won the battle with the tractor.

I wiped the sweat from my brow, smearing on mud in its stead.  “Whew!  Finally!”  I climbed on the tractor and backed the bulldozer to the bow of the stoneboat and hooked on.

That’s when circumstances conspired.  They do that frequently.  Especially here.  I was already in low-low.  (My bulldozer has twin transmissions.  They amplify torque considerably ― you just can’t be in a hurry.)  Alas!  The ground was wet.  The slope was steep.  Any sensible man would have foreseen the result.

Not me.

But yes, the combined weight of the boulder and the stoneboat was too much for the available traction.  Further, way out in the middle of the field, there wasn’t anything from which to winch.

In fact at this very moment, my brand new stoneboat is way out in our north field beneath an enormous granite boulder waiting for drier conditions.

Of course once those arrive ― and I successfully move that rock ― I’ll have to repair the ruts made trying to pull a load far too heavy for the conditions.

Worse, I tried several times in varying directions so yes, the mess is extensive.

Given all that, please tell me how many steps I added to a single project trying to save just one?

I can only shake my head in despair.  That’s just the way things work around here.