Straight Lines and Old Lessons


Maybe it doesn’t matter – it’s not all that important to set out to do some thing perfectly, with excellence. It certainly used to matter to my father, who as a farmer (among other things he valued in life including his work in the church), sought every time that he began ploughing, in each season, to try to get the first furrow right – to get it straight.

He took me once to the place where as a fifteen year-old young man he had begun to plow (he would have spelled it plough) with a team of horses, and to cultivate acre after acre, taking upward of two weeks’ time, at least, in the seasons of each Spring and each Fall.

What he showed me was an old tree, still older now and still standing there though much disfigured with age and abuse, back on the farm, in a little oasis of land that for some reason was never completely plowed. Wether it was too high and rocky or too shallow, depressed and swampy, I forget now (though the tree and wee surrounding area seems elevated and high beside the scrub land and parking lot and cramped, dark, industrial buildings.

I look southward to the old farmhouse, still present and used as an office for a lumber company. I see where the barn was that was sold off in 1951 when Grandpa sold the farm and Dad was then off establishing his own place, taken down piece by piece, numbered and re-erected on another farm in another county. Sadly, it burned down in that new locale and exists only in the memory of a very few. I see the low tunnel under the railway line that allowed cattle to pass through to back pastures and where Dad must have ducked his six foot three body to lead or follow the team through its cool and shaded passage.

The tree is still there – an old oak. Dad said that he would take the team and line it up across from the tree, at the other end of the first acre intended to plow. Thus, by keeping his eye on the tree and shouting out to Old Ned and Junie, joined in tandem” ‘Gee’ – for right and ‘Haw’ – for keep left, they would make their way across the field, harness jingling, horses sweating and snorting until the furrow was etched out – that first furrow made as straight as possible under the circumstances.

And that could be remarkably straight indeed, as any one can attest who has been to a plowing match – whether of horse or horses, or with a tractor. The straight row, and each one to necessarily follow, create a direct and even patchwork-quilt, the only undulation, if any, occurring to the eye because of the slope, pitch and fall of the land.

Even on our much smaller, three and a half acres of rich, sandy-loam, market-gardening farm, when I was fifteen and about to strike out with tractor and plough to make my own field-covering furrows, Dad would first mark out the row. He did so simply by hammering in a large stake at the end of the row, its spot-location having been measured in proximity to whatever boundary he had selected for us to ‘get our bearings’ (often measured from a ‘skinner line’ a few feet away, a inch and a half pipe-conduit for the above ground water distribution). Then, with eye fixed firmly on that stake. and I think barely blinking, he would drag his right foot along, his toe scuffing out the mark to follow, straight toward the goal, making – again remarkably so – an amazingly accurate line into and along which I would guide the left tractor wheel, as I began my part of the task.

Keeping one’s eye on the goal, pressing toward the mark, not looking around, second-guessing nor wavering – even getting oneself dirty and sweaty as may be necessary – these things I remember from what my father taught me through word and deed.

He's been gone a number of year ago, dying March 28th, 2007. He rests from his labours, but his works (and words) follow him.

No one having put his foot to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the Kingdom of Heaven – says the Good Book. I wonder what applications might further be made as I (and now you) muse on such a simple lesson.

My Dad would have some creative things to say about that. I miss him.

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