Saturday, February 6, 2010

In the blur of an oak

There’s a turn in the dirt road that’s almost a blur to me, except for the fact that it’s both beautiful and dangerous.

I slow down first because it’s a blind corner and second because it dips dangerously fast into the creek 30 feet below.

One slight missed turn and a tumble down the steep embankment would easily be the end of a life.

The only safety net is an old oak tree growing out of and over the embankment. The road becomes most narrow, and the turn most dangerous, at the point where the spacious oak stands.

I’ve wanted to stop here, stand by the tree, protected by its cover, and listen to the creek recently washed with rainfall. It’s wild, green and alive here.

But it’s too narrow and dangerous to stop.

At the bottom of the turn a red tail hawk sits at the top of a post, watching over the fast-flowing creek. There’s a place where I can park and take in the view.

Lately I’ve been in such a hurry to get to the farm, I haven’t taken the time to stop. So far, it’s mostly a blur with occasional side-glances at the tree and the creek below as I pass by carefully, watching for anyone coming around the corner.

The road is surprisingly busy with trucks from Arizona, farmers on quads, electric service and delivery vehicles, tractors and pick-ups with surfboards on the rack.

The dirt road has turned slightly muddy and it’s slippery. I can see the tread of wheels and the mud they’ve splattered onto the road.

Today’s not a good day to stop. Despite the rain, and the slippery mud, the road has been busy.

In fact, as I make another less treacherous blind turn in the road, I’m startled when a middle-aged man in a ball cap, face gleaming in the gray of recent rain, speeds by me on a quad, the four-wheel workhorses farmers use to tend their fields, check on workers, and repair irrigation.

He didn’t even let up the gas but sped along, smiling brightly, as if he’d been set free from something, without care, fearless.

His cheerfulness brightened me as I kept saying to myself: “Everything’s going to be OK. Everything’s going to be OK.”

There’s been a lot of talk in the area about an heiress of the Arm & Hammer fortune purchasing property here, 3,000 acres some say. At least there’s been a lot of activity—new fences, a new corral, and plenty of trucks from Arizona.

“She brings her workers here from Arizona; that’s where she’s from,” a local resident told me recently. “She won’t hire Californians, at least none from around here. They’re not good enough.”

Most of the crew building the corral drove trucks with Arizona license plates and they worked day and night until they finished the job. Within days, they were bringing in cattle.

I could tell her crew was a different breed, even before I saw their license plates. Everything about them seemed large, like the desert, and imposing.

“She works them like dogs,” the local told me. “She hires only the best.”

I don’t know why but my first thought when I saw the guy in the ball cap was that he probably works for her. He didn’t look like someone who was being worked like a dog. He looked more like management.

I tried to imagine what it would be like to manage a farm. You’d have to grow up with it. I don’t see how it could be done any other way.

I had yet to face my worst danger, still ahead, one that had started the day before. I was happy to be out, testing the road, driving as safely as possible, wishing I’d had the confidence and reckless glee of the man on the quad.

I’d barely averted a disaster, a result of ignorance and a sudden need to relieve myself in the unoccupied workers quarters, the nearest building with functional toilets. You don’t sit on these toilets. You squat. There’s no paper. You bring your own.

I had turned on the irrigation to test the lines and make sure they were drawing solution from a tank with sulfuric acid. In my haste to get to the bathroom, I’d improperly turned off the system and water had backed up into the tank.

When I returned minutes later, the poly tank looked as though it was about to explode. It had expanded and solution was trickling down the sides. My stomach turned ill. I panicked.

Fearful that it was too late, I walked to the other side of the field, distraught and sick to my stomach, imagining an environmental disaster in which acid pours into the creek and the end of my farming days; I collapsed to the ground and sat and waited for it to explode.

I thought of Zorba the Greek, as everything around him turns to shit, and he takes it all in. There’s no time for whining or groveling, he says. Be a man! Take your medicine!

When I realized that it wasn’t going to blow, I returned to the sputtering tank, released the pressure by opening the lines to irrigate the field. A small amount of solution had trickled out onto the muddy clay. The rains were coming.

I wasn’t too worried about it reaching the creek and if it had there was enough water flow to dissipate what might have spilled into it.

Still, I made a call to the supplier. “ I think water got into the line,” I said, “and the tank started sputtering, trickling out solution.”

It should be OK, he told me. “Everything’s going to be OK,” I told myself after we hung up.

The next morning I began researching the hazards of working with sulfuric acid and remembered that I had left a wrench on top of the tank, which had been covered to keep the rain off of it. Acid is highly reactive to metals.

Again, I panicked and rushed to get out there, imagining the top of the tank steaming with the fluid remains of a wrench melted in acid.

In the blur of passing an oak in the tight corner of the road, both beautiful and dangerous, on a wet and rainy California morning, I found a metaphor for my life on the farm.

I know very little of the hazards and joys of this lifestyle. I’m making a dangerous turn in my life and what beauty there is passes with side-glances and an eye out for oncoming trucks.

I’m reminded too that to survive it pays to pay attention.

I’m also reminded that I need to find a place in the road to pause and ponder its beauty as well as its hazards, and to feel the wind in my face, like the quad driver who found pleasure riding through the mud. §


  1. Beautifully written. My word verification to post this comment was
    jollydig. Sometimes the verification is meaningless, other times as they say on the farm. It hit the nail on the head with this one.

    What happened to the wrench?

  2. Tusk, thanks for the comment.

    Definitely, there's something intriguing about the beauty and danger of the farm, and about the road getting there.

    It's a place that feels at all once familiar and alien.

    Growing food, caring enough to take it to the markets, and supporting family and friends has immense appeal to me. The quiet and lack of distractions are bliss.

    The danger of messing with things beyond reason—nature, the environment, natural disasters, bills and weather changes—is also intriguing.

    It's all there at the farm, beauty and danger.

    jollydig: is that a happening that makes you feel good?

    Yeah, sometimes the word verification is meaningless. More often, I can't read the letters and have to click for another option until it's legible.

    The wrench. Not melted. It felt good to hold a solid piece of metal in my hand after I uncovered the plastic cover and found the wrench sitting intact atop the poly tank. A huge sigh of relief.

    I have yet to return it to its rightful owner.

  3. Thanxs for the response. And thanks for the twitter on Russell Shorto's comments on Christianity, The Texas School Board, and our Founding Fathers.

    I think I'm putting Russell's book on Faith and Reason on my Kindle Wish List.