Muddy Reflections

We have a saying Up the Lane about this time of year, when the long hard winter begins to soften and you can smell spring in the air.  Frozen mud is high ground.  I never studied Soil Mechanics the way engineering students do.  But you don’t need to design a twenty-story building or a freeway ramp to be reminded that, however solid our earth might seem, in another sense we are lucky to be in suspension on its surface, by an arrangement that is provisional and—out in the country, anyway—somewhat seasonal.

 Farming in the Midwest, you learn to take such things in stride.  The gravel on our lane disappears about every three years, sucked down into the muck.  We call the gravel guy to have another forty tons put down.  He advises larger-sized stone.  Specifies quarried limestone for its angularity.  It’ll last you a little longer, he says.  And sure enough it does.  But that gravel sinks too.  It’s still down there, under where it was—now part of the road’s foundation.  Meanwhile, out in the pasture, the heaving of the soil keeps spitting up to the surface rocks as big as softballs (and bigger).

 The soil in Central Ohio is not so much loamy or sandy as it is heavy with clay.  Clay is dense and holds onto water rather than letting it drain downward.  It gets slick and greasy.  If you till it when it is too wet, it will harden up afterwards like a piece of pottery.  With clay ground, you have no trouble establishing a pond—just make an indentation in the land and let it fill with water. 

 You can’t tell, driving along the freeway between fields of corn and soy beans, but farmers who can afford to have spent a lot of money installing underground drainage systems beneath those crops—grids of flexible plastic piping that feed into main lines and carry sitting water out to lower lying areas such as ravines or passing creeks.  It can cost five-hundred dollars an acre to install such tile (so-named because earlier versions were done with red ceramic tiles bedded in gravel).  But with the clay soil’s drainage thus improved, crops are happier and more productive, in theory rewarding the farmer’s investment. 

 Our pastures have old tile in them.  We know this because of a couple places where the tile have collapsed, creating sinkholes.  We have one hole that, when we first purchased the land, was big enough that you could bury an economy car in it.  Now it is closed in, only a couple feet deep.  The cattle like to wallow in it when it is dusty in the summer.  But who knows, next year it could suddenly open up again.  

 Walk in wet clay and you have pounds of it clinging to your boots.  Churn wet clay with tractor tires (or with the split hooves of animals weighing half a ton) and you have mud.  Lots and lots of mud.  Heavy and thick and more than a foot deep.   On the six o’clock news, sometimes they show dramatic footage of mud slides, usually in Southern California.  Seems like everything is exciting in California, or makes good TV—even their mud.  In Central Ohio we don’t have mud slides.  Our mud just lies there.  It figures you will be along soon enough. 

 If you are using the internet as a resource for learning to farm, Google often showers you with euphemisms.  For example if you want to learn about making hay, you get a lot of personal finance sites about  making hay while the sun shines, learning to recognize your hay day.  You can imagine what comes up if you Google the word ruts.  I can tell you—having sunk a tractor clear up to its axles, so that the only way to release it was to clear by hand the muddy ground between the ruts it was in—getting stuck in a muddy rut is like…well, like failing to override your brain defaults and remaining settled in monotonous routines.

 When the first really nice spring days come, in early March or so, I notice in town everyone is all smiles and optimism.  What a beautiful day, they exclaim.  I keep quiet.  Who am I to detract from town folks’ relief (as soon as they can find it) from another drab overcast winter we have just endured in Central Ohio?  But my heart sinks when those first thaws come.  I know what is waiting for me back at the farm.  It will be late May, really, before I can rely on getting around with the tractor and pickup truck without tearing things up.

 This leads me to mention the agricultural term sacrifice area.  This would be a part of the farm, typically around the barn, where you cannot hope to have healthy pasture.  You need to keep the cattle somewhere for a prolonged period during the winter, when they are on hay, and that area becomes overwhelmed with too much manure and too much persistence of traffic.  In the spring, when the herd heads out to pasture again (like a ship leaving harbor, heading out to sea), the abused ground of the sacrifice area dries up into a kind of almost lunar-looking landscape, sprouting little more than occasional big ugly weeds that could be featured in science-fiction movies. 

 We are working Up the Lane to contain the wintering-with-hay phase of our operation to as few as sixty days.  And we are offering a larger area for wintering, to mitigate somewhat the damage done to the ground.  But it gets sloppy in there, let me tell you.

 Tractors have split brake pedals.  You can brake the left rear tire only or the right rear tire only.  This is because if you are in slippery mud on a two-wheel-drive tractor, you sometimes cannot turn by steering the front tires.  Let’s say you need to turn left or you will hit a tree.  You turn the front tires to the left, but the tractor keeps going straight, now pushing the left-facing front tires forward through the mud.  It is a really big tree.  So what you do is, you step on the left brake pedal.  The left rear wheel stops and the right keeps turning, swinging you to the left.  This manner of driving in mud takes some getting used to.  After a while it becomes second nature.  You learn to combine turning the front tires (slightly, not too sharply) with small touches of the brake pedal, scooting around gracefully in the slop.  Coming up hills you learn to tack in mud the way a sailor tacks in wind.

 Early spring, when the ground is so soft, is the perfect time to pull up fence posts.  I back the tractor up to a fence post, wrap a chain around the post connected to the hydraulic lift arms on the tractor, then I lift the arms and up comes the post.  At the very last, as the bottom of the post comes out of the ground, there is a popping sound—the suction of the mud letting go.  You can look in the hole and see it filling with water.

 Here’s a sensory memory: you are walking through deep mud in tall rubber boots.  The mud sucks at your every step, holding your foot before releasing it.  You aren’t paying quite enough attention and, before you know it, you have lifted your right foot clean out of its boot.  So now you are standing precariously on your left foot, twisting around, trying to keep your balance.  Your right foot (in a perfectly clean white sock) is suspended inches above the mud.  You can see the empty boot, planted back there, but you cannot get to it.  You have no choice.  You have to put that poor naked foot of yours down into the mud—and soon, before you lose your balance.  So down your foot goes, into the cold slimy muck, wet clinging sock and all.  Nearly everyone I know out in the country has had this happen once.  Nobody ever lets it happen twice.

 Well, I’ve gotten you down into the mud with me a little.  I suppose I am glad for the company.  The hard part, as always, is getting out.  I think I will simply finish by saying abruptly (as Central Ohio folks will when they are done complaining about something), and that’s all I got to say about that.

 Wipe your feet!

 John Wiley

 Up the Lane Farm

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