Wednesday, August 12, 2009

TRACTOR -- Essay / Memoir

[ * There are 16 pieces of writing on the mystical path in this blog:
essays, articles and poems. The "blog archive" or Table

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Darkness and Light among
the Fraser Valley Mennonites

Words and Images  
© Copyright 2022
by Neall Calvert

[ This essay appears in print in Recovering The Self:
A Journal of Hope and Healing
, Vol. VI, No. 2, Nov 2017.
See ]

FARM ASSIGNMENTS COULD CHANGE QUICKLY, like unpredictable spring weather. Like the berry farm’s unpredictable Mennonite owner, forty-year-old George Martin—six feet tall and built sturdy like a rugby player. Today the task was manure hauling, with three of us on tractors each towing an eighteen-foot manure spreader.

The source of the manure was two massive corrugated-steel chicken barns adjoining the raspberry fields. Thousands of squawking birds occupied three rows of wire cages stretching hundreds of feet into a windowless, dimly lit interior. The cages, each holding about forty birds, hung from the ceiling, and on the floor beneath them, four feet deep, lay the chickens’ muddy excretions of the past six months.

George, in sun-yellow wet-weather gear, his front-loading bucket scraping the concrete floor, zoomed his tractor down a lane-way and seconds later, bucket full, he roared back out, snapped the gearshift into forward and, raising the scoop as he moved, sped toward a waiting manure spreader. He expertly flipped the scoop forward to drop the load, then, engine growling and spitting, big back wheels spinning, he accelerated backwards, popped the shift lever into forward and, like a confident knight on a snorting charger, prepared to joust again.

The drivers’ task was to spread five-tonne loads of manure evenly along raspberry rows a third of a mile long. The manure spreader’s fat rubber tires left six inches of clearance. If you looked back too long when you checked that the manure was discharging properly, you’d deviate from the centre of the lane and begin destroying bushes, or tangle your equipment in support wires keeping the plants within the rows, or knock out a post—or all three.

Knocking out a post brought a session with the medieval post-pounder. Resembling a large steel vase with handles on either side, it got slipped upside-down over the top of the new post. Then two men, one on either side, grasp the handles and in coordinated movements repeatedly raise the heavy steel sock and smash it down, driving the sharpened stake into the earth. I only post-pounded once.

Everything on the farm was done in a hurry. When we weren’t being knights on motorized metal steeds I imagined myself part of a World War II bomber crew. “Wing Commander” George gave the briefings, then loaded our planes. We pilots headed out smartly on our missions to the fields.

On one trip, heading back along a farm road to reload, out of the corner of my eye I spied a movement. Turning, I was shocked to see my manure spreader running along beside me! It had broken free of the hitch and was travelling independently. Surprising myself, I coolly negotiated it to a halt against a sturdy post with my tractor, then just sat there, regrouping my thoughts.

A stopped tractor out in the fields always meant a problem unless you waved your arms in the air to indicate “all clear.” Drivers kept an eye out for one another. George arrived; soon a new, stronger locking pin had been installed. But a bigger challenge was yet to come.

When George had cleared most of a lane, tractor drivers had to take turns going on foot deep into the sombre cave of the barn, to clear out with hand shovels the remaining manure that the machine couldn’t reach. I was heading in for my first shovelling stint when on his way out my comrade Terry—years of experience on this farm—casually mentioned, “Watch out for the rats.”

My mind froze and my body stiffened. These rats would be filthy, disease-carrying creatures that in the darkness, not seeing me, might run up my arms and into my face . . . if I didn’t pass out from fear first.

In near panic, step by step I began a solitary, sluggish march in my yellow hooded rain gear through the diminishing light to the back of the barn. My mind now raced, seeking a solution. . . .

The solution at last came up, carrying the unfamiliar title “Prayer.” Here was something that, despite my Mennonite upbringing, I had undertaken meaningfully only once since childhood—on my fourteenth birthday when I prayed to Jesus to get me away from the confusing, terrifying and angry fundamentalist Christian environment that was my family. But pray I did. Every moment alone in that dank, dark hole with my shovel and the restless, shitting chickens overhead I maintained an unending invocation to the Highest of Whatever High Powers Might Be Available: “Thank you for keeping the rats away!”

On the fourth and last day of manure hauling, as I tractored my final load past a stand of tall cottonwoods, whose leaves flickered gracefully in golden morning sun, I turned to check my load and there, atop the smelly, moving mountain twenty feet behind me, clambered the fearsome creaturethe only one I would encounter. I felt as if I had earned my wings. The intellectual city slicker now belonged to a squadron of tractor pilots.

*  *  *


George’s paroxysm of rage about lead hand Randy’s act of incompetence went on for what seemed like five long minutes. Randy, twenty, working double shifts to pay off his aborted helicopter-pilot training, had given in early and was taking it like a puppy on a short leash being whipped.

Then George spotted me, pointed at the farm’s sky-blue International flat-deck sitting 200 yards away at the edge of a strawberry patch and screamed, “I told you every piece of equipment had to be back at the shed every night!”

“GET IN THE TRUCK!” he yelled at his two terrified young sons. They scurried into the cab of his Ford F-250, gravel spat from the back wheels, and George was off. His Mennonite community (the one from my childhood) knew about these outbursts. They called such behaviour “George’s frustration,” and seemed to consider it the inconvenient but natural behaviour of someone who had a big job to do and was trying hard to do it well. (I can’t help but wonder if children being treated as adults’ emotional garbage dumps when theyre young isn’t the reason they treat the world as their personal garbage dump when they get older—but that’s another subject.)

“Wait till 'The Season starts—it gets worse,” said Randy, suddenly the voice of experience.

The Season—that’s what we were all working towards on these early spring days.

Every June, as forty-five acres of succulent strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries begin swiftly ripening, farmhands’ 'leisurely eight-hour days become ten; the five-day week extends to six. Thirty hired berry pickers emerge shortly after dawn from a faded orange school bus, carrying their lunches in bags and cans. A large roadside stand soon attracts drive-in business; a few customers pick their own. Supermarket strawberries—the best—must be loaded before noon into a refrigerated van for same-day delivery. Their fancy paper baskets, piled all over the fields, can’t stand getting wet, so sudden spring rain brings workers scurrying from all over to gather them up. Irrigation pipes coiled like pythons on ten-foot-tall hose reels must be relocated each day.

At the end of every afternoon, the big blue flat deck gets loaded with the lower-quality “jam berries” for a trip to the cannery. Red juices run riot in the shiny yellow plastic flats as we cinch down several hundred of them at the end of a hot June day. The earthy-sweet scent fills my nostrils. (In Germanthe language I grew up speaking and that was spoken in the churchthe term for strawberries, Erdbeeren, means literally “earth berries.")

At each break, pickers’ flats must be weighed and their cards punched for later payment. Punjabis shouting “Hurry, hurry!” line up to punch out. Some of them are trying to rush you in hopes you will make a mistake and punch double, giving them extra pay. Every year a small portion of the pickers attempts the same assortment of ruses. Some fill the bottoms of their baskets with green berries, to save themselves the effort of having to move too quickly down the rows. When this trick is discovered, hundreds of baskets have to be checked by monotonously upending them one by one into an empty basket and then back again. Finally, George and the farm-labour contractor have had enough chicanery. In a blistering, double-barrelled early-morning tirade, they threaten to ban troublemakers from the farm.

Although Mother Nature marches to no man’s drum, it seemed George Martin wanted her to speed her pace to suit him. Randy had said that the hernia George developed during the previous season had made that a hellish year. I couldn’t imagine working there if he got any more temperamental.

One day, in a kind of epiphany, I sensed George’s emotional state. In that clairsentient flash, I was a party to everything he was feeling. Anger filled his stalwart body to its boundaries and overflowing. The excess wrath stuck to him like mists to a forested mountainside. His whole forty-five acres had been built with anger, I sawhe couldn’t enjoy any of it.

The day after George’s flare-up against Randy and then everyone else in sight, he and I met for my month-end probationary review. I reported that my time at the farm was going well. However, there was something further on my mind that I needed to mention, I said. Referring to the incident of the day before, I stated: “I won’t put up with being abused.”

“II’ve got a farm to run,” sputtered George in reply. “I’m a busy man.” The issue didn’t get resolved.

However, I had once known another religious man infected by the God of Wrath—my Russian-born father, whose mild character could also suddenly be taken over by firestorms of rage. (Years later, when I sought healing, a spiritual teacher said to me: “A crack in his aura lets his elemental lower dark side charge through.” 

In psychological terms, he carried an 'autonomous complex, a congregation of energy that contained his unchristian-like anger and aggressiveness. Because this part of him had to be denied, it had taken on a life of its own outside of his consciousness. But in times of stress when he needed more energy than the “good” side of him could muster, it emerged—a second personality, in effect—with the force of a blind, bellicose musk ox seeking to eliminate anything in its way, including his own children.)

 But why had my father, throughout his subsequent long life, never apologized for his behaviour? He was, after all, a longtime student of Christianity; he became an adult Sunday School teacher and the church's first librarian. . . . I finally figured it out: Personality #2 would never think of apologizing for that kind of behaviour, and since Personality #1 wasn't aware of the split-off Personality #2, it also didn't occur to it to apologize. (That only happened three years after his passing at age 81, when, during a quiet evening in my home, he, as spirit, visited me and whispered Im sorry . . . Im sorry . . .  over and over, for what seemed like twenty minutes.

As I emerged from childhood, I had often wondered: How much did the intemperate behaviour of Yahweh in the Old Testament give license to the Mennonites (and other Old Testament-based cultures) for this kind of behaviour? These people seemed to give themselves permission to act out the nature of the God they believed in, including [h]is savage, unreflective and jealous behaviour. Who then could, and would, stand up and declare that mistreatment “in the name of God” was being inflicted on children, who looked only for security and love from their parents. Children who were daily directed to the bible, the very source of their troubles, for the answers to life's dilemmas? What a conundrum!

In the Old Testament, only Job dares to challenge this archaic creative force, a being that seems in the worst way to need a friend—and also a counsellor. Renowned Swiss psychiatrist Carl G. Jung, late in life, felt compelled, he said, to write the book that he called Answer To Job: a psychoanalysis of the God figure in the Old Testament.

Job is the patriarch who, after having everything taken away from him at the whim of this God figurefamily, possessions and health—demands to know who has done this to whim and why. Out of this confrontation, Job evolves in his relationship with the force that claims to have designed the Universe, and in the end all is restored. But Yahweh is also deeply affected, says Jung, and is forced to slowly rethink his ways as well. 

Over the centuries, as all beings must, the God figure gradually becomes more conscious and more temperate, states Jung. And as part of an eons-long divine drama, to atone for his mistreatment of Job, he chooses to experience being human himself. He arranges to be born on Earth as his own son: to live out a human incarnation. It's a life that doesn't end well, according to the reports. (Some, like the apostle Matthew [see], say they are untrue. My own take on it came one year on Easter morning when, after a long silent meditation, I wrote the following lines: Wherever I am ill, my soul is imitating a dying Jesus / rather than radiating the light of a Christ.)

Jung writes: The foundation belief of our culture is of a father’s wrath being appeased through the sacrificial death of his only son. Is it any wonder we live in a crazy society? . . . What could a sane person make of such a belief? . . . This dark, archetypal drama that Jung talks about describes my experience with my fathers religion, except now I was the son being sacrificed and scapegoated on the altar of the fathers (and the berry farmers) wrath.

The central teaching of Christianity, as found in John 3:16, states: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” But Christianity has a shadow side, clearly delineated in Jung's words above, and that's what I had experienced, and it had marked me and affected every aspect of my life, including decades-long depression and several times of suicide ideation. Thankfully there are also Jesus profound teachings on unconditional love, and that death is not the end: as spirit or soul we are each an eternal being.

Jung states that the next (and most foolproof) stage in this never-ending divine drama is for God to be born in each human being. This would be the Good News of the 2,150-year-long Aquarian Age, which Western astrology says we are now [post-2012] entering—whose motto I know, therefore I believe replaces the Piscean-era slogan I believe, therefore I know.”

Is Jung therefore, as the Gnostic Christians say, the precursor and prophet of a new age, one that is evolving beyond old, unconscious and shadow-laden authoritarian religion and into a new era, based on a state of consciousness higher than living merely 'half in the light' (as a book of Mennonite writing is titled)? An age of spiritual maturity based on real love and compassion, where each one becomes their own minister, their own authority, through their own surrendered connection to the Divine? An age based on truth? For the apostle Matthew has stated recently (through a spiritual channel) that it is time for the truth to be known: the crucifixion never happened (see [lines 41 ff.]) . . .

Back at the berry farm, the life journey I was on wouldn’t allow me to bury my self-respect yet again. The day after my monthly review meeting with George, as I tended the blueberry bushes far back from the road near a pine woods, the owner approached me. I said I wanted to complete our discussion of the day before.

“I expect to be treated with respect working here,” I said firmly.

“How—how am I going to get anything done?” he flustered angrily.

“That’s not the issue,” I stated, and repeated: “I expect to be treated with respect working here.”

George stomped off, but I sensed his moral nature tugging at him to try to reconcile as he turned and walked towards me once more. But he couldn’t restrain himself and began shouting


But today I wasn’t going to play scapegoat to another unconscious, religion-infected tyrant’s tantrums. Today, somewhere deep in my bones I found a strength I had never been able to reach down for before. Today, the hundreds of words I wished I could have said as a child in standing up to a terrorizing fundamentalist father coalesced into just ten words that, in a voice I didn’t recognize, now poured out of my mouth


Immediately a strange, powerful sensation ran up my spine and simultaneously in my mind a clear image formed: a backbone made up of shiny, stainless-steel vertebrae.

George strode off, this time not to return—and never to bring his volatile, tantruming self around me again. I turned the event into poetry:

               SINGING SPINE 

       Singing spine, now you’re mine;
       Stainless steel, now I’m real.
       Standing tall, bending free,
       Speaking truth for you and me.

       Singing spine, I gave a shout,
       My backbone’s there, my strength is out;
       Men won’t overpower me,
       I’m back in charge of my destiny.

       Singing spine, though years have passed,
       Today I found your tune at last;
       Angry excess can’t harm me,
       I’ve realized your melody.

*   *   *

MY SECOND TRACTOR ASSIGNMENT was to harrow the soil between the rows of green raspberry plants that were shooting up and out now as the days warmed. The sturdy peg-tooth harrow, framed of heavy angle-steel, sat even wider than a manure spreader. It cleared the bushes on either side by just two or three inches.

After hooking up, I took a test run down a row and back. I had already learned a major time-saving technique. To eliminate tight turns at either end and keep the speed up, drive down row #1 and back up row #4, then down row #2 and up row #5, and so onin ovals.

George, along with the hyper Randy whose verbosity I had appreciated on my first uncertain days at the farm, arrived on their tractors. We met in a rough circle, like three mounted horsemen. George asked if my seat needed adjusting—I was on a different tractor today and I’d be sitting there for hours.

I reached down and began fiddling with the unfamiliar controls. Before I’d had a chance to figure anything out, know-it-all Randy had bounded from his mount and jumped up onto mine and begun tinkering with the levers and pins beneath my seat—while I was sitting in it. There’s no room for two on a tractor, and I felt awkward and helpless.

“Get lost!” I needed to yell, but instead I became embarrassed at my social awkwardness; I felt childish. At this moment in the quickly unfolding little drama, George spoke with sudden directness the five words I least wanted to hear from another adult male:

“You need to grow up.”

I had struggled for years to either hide or overcome childishness; it seemed that a large part of me simply didn’t belong to the adult world—and I was ashamed of it. Laughter followed George’s comment, and, caught by the moment, I joined in. At the same time I was frantically trying to figure out—are George and Randy laughing at me or with me? (The actor Carol Burnett, once sharing a platform with the zany Robin Williams, was prompted by his behaviour to ask him the same question. He replied: “I’m laughing near you.”)

As I slowly recognized that George and Randy were not laughing in derision, my terror faded. George was really speaking to all of us, I realized—himself included. Everyone at times needs to act more grown-up, he meant.

Once more piloting my charger down the rows, I gradually realized that George’s statement had gone even further than that. The more I sank into the experience—and tractor driving creates a meditative state where contemplation seems natural—the more the words seemed to have come not from George, but rather through him. They resonated in a tone not of condemnation but of universal truth—of love, in fact. The whole world needs to grow up, I realized; to give up its psychologically immature ways; to become less angry, less reactionary, less afraid; to become more accountable, more aware, more compassionate. The whole world needs to give up being run by our unhappy pasts. And in an environment of love and protection it might just be willing to do soto change its mind; to choose a non-destructive future. 

(Looking around at our planet provides endless evidence of adults acting out their unresolved childhoods—with devastating effects. We terrorize because we were terrorized.)

Eyes to the front, sometimes standing, I cruised in second high gear at a steady 1,500 RPM down dirt pathway after dirt pathway. (A tractor has no gas pedal, rather a throttle lever or governor that stays put wherever you set it.) For hours, I kept the front wheels aimed precisely between the two rows of green bushes ahead. I knew that even turning to look once could put the tractor off course and create the havoc of the harrow’s steel bars ripping through pliant raspberry vines, so I drove with total faith. A sense of renewal began to fill me. Life suddenly became incredibly simple: Focus on what is right in front of me, and let everything else fall into place.

Fingers of fresh spring wind caressed my face. Freedom rang like a big ancient bell in my soul. The growling diesel engine sounded more and more like a giant purring house cat. I suddenly thought: I’m about to have some kind of Zen experience! Everything I've ever needed in life is right here, right nowand everything is connected. The next second a phrase I had never heard before erupted in my mind with the flash of crackling lightning:

"The child is father to the man!"

Again and again it echoed through me. At the same moment, a brilliant white light bathed and filled my complete spine—every vertebra became illuminated. These words seemed the most beautiful I had ever heard. Suddenly I felt immensely strong, and in touch with some new principle of living.

*   *   *

The adult is not the highest stage of development. The end of the cycle is that of the independent, clear-minded, all-seeing Child. That is the level of wisdom. . . . “Return to the beginning; become a child again,” say the Tao Te Ching and other wise books.
—Benjamin Hoff, The Tao of Pooh

*   *   *

I am not the only one to find freedom on a tractor. American poet Rodney Jones has a compelling piece on the subject:

                             SOVEREIGN JOY
           On the John Deere he felt inaugurated,
           freshly minted, risen to eminence.
           He could hit the left foot brake, square-
           pirouette at the floodgate, and follow
           the creekbank back to the barn. He knew
           where liveth and when goeth and how
           lift harrow and turn governor down.
           He had studied paradise—this came close,
           making a vow always to live right
           and perfect corners he’d cheat by littles
           until he went in an oval, round
           and round, not seeing everything, but happy,
           breaking ground, a farm boy with the Beatles
           in his head, a young Baptist dancing.

          (Salvation Blues: One Hundred Poems, 1985-2005. 
          New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006, p. 216. Shortlisted for 
          the Griffin International Poetry Prize.)

I spent the rest of that morning on the tractor in wonder, in ecstasy, in simplicity. I felt like jumping to the rooftop of the nearest barn and shouting from its heights, “The child is father to the man!”

I realized during my following days on the farm that I had been mistaken in all my exertions to become an adult. I recognized the absurdity of trying to grow up by becoming more and more serious, mimicking the solemn adults around me. (“My children all take their religion too seriously,” my maternal grandfather had once whispered in my adult head.) All that had accomplished was to create weariness, which was the reason I had fled the city in middle age to work a season on a farm.

It was incorporating the spontaneity, silliness, sense of humour, curiosity, lightness, energy,  joy and love of the child that would help mature menot increasing sombreness. And rather than continuously berate the child for not becoming more adult,” I must celebrate his wisdom and abundant life force; communicate with him; work together with him.

The seven-word phrase, which I later discovered comes from a poem by William Wordsworth, continued to bounce through my inner being like the cursor in the now-ancient computer game called Pong. Wordsworth wrote:

                     or, THE RAINBOW
           My heart leaps up when I behold
           A rainbow in the sky:
           So it was when my life began;
           So it is now I am a man;
           So be it when I shall grow old,
           Or let me die!
           The Child is father of the Man;
           And I could wish my days to be
           Bound to each by natural piety.

          (The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, 
          Vol. 2, William Knight, ed. Edinburgh: 
          William Paterson, 1882, p. 260)

Several months later when I left the farm, it was clear to me that I was no longer Mennonite. I had two broadminded friends in the city—they were “my people” . . . my kind of people . . . my tribe. Later I realized that, as an adult, I was free to choose any religion that worked for me—or none at all: freedom from religion: spirituality.  

And I would watch my feelings of freedom slowly expand when, despite having felt cursed by my father, rather than curse in return I prayed for him. Through the great difficulties he had visited upon me (and had likely suffered from his own father), he had helped to set my life's course as scribe, seeker and healer; as someone who would never settle for the ordinary as being good enough; as someone acquainted with depths as well as the irrational in man

As well, I began to bless George Martin. For I saw clearly that, if not for him and his berry farm and his tractors, I might never have accomplished this next step forward in maturity; might never have gotten to the realization that every situation, seen right, contains a gift. |~|

Detail, Municipal Sign, Delta, BC, Canada

*  *  *

O water-baby, child of the Inner Ocean:
Be gentle with the world you see . . .
It was not prepared 
for the likes of thee.

*  *  *

For another angle on recovering from oppressive
and unworkable religious beliefs, see the book

From Delusional Beliefs
To Discovery of the Self

by Esther Harrison:

1 comment:

  1. Wow, what a powerful story-teller you are, Neall! You are to be commended!

    Our family was raised on a farm as well. Not a "community" farm like yours, though. Just a quarter-section belonging to my family of 9. My oldest brother has tractor stories, but he doesn't have a computer to share those with you. Dad had him harrowing fields alone by the time he was five years old. Scary stuff now that I look back. But, fortunately he survived, at least bodily. Unfortunately, he is alcoholic, since he has never healed his emotional wounds from father's abuses. I'm the only one in my family that has had any therapy. They all live in Manitoba.

    I also read your blog with conversations with your higher self. That is pretty awesome stuff. Great work, Neall!

    One question about your book of clouds. Is the "phoenix" in there? You know --- my book cover?