Seats can keep a person stationary, grounded. They also transport.
Tuesday October 9 began with a faux-leather swivel office chair and ended with a seat at a Vermont farmhouse table. In between were a classroom chair, a tractor seat, and a dump truck. The progression reflects the double life I have been leading these past few years, one in which I sometimes wear “girl” clothes and serve as a teacher and administrator and other times, I don work pants, flannel shirts and knee-high rubber boots while I tackle chores and projects on a farm.
I started the day at 8 a.m. in my office chair checking e-mail and scrutinizing weather.com. An examination of 05253 – East Dorset, Vermont – revealed afternoon showers and steady rain the next day. I had a major project at the farm in Dorset and only a small window of time in which to complete it. Rain would complicate the execution but not stop me. I finished preparing for class and got my paperwork in order, then crossed the hall to the Headmaster’s office where I listened to whatever concerns and issues weighed on his mind. He leaned back in his leather chair, hands laced behind his head, while I lounged in an upholstered armchair.
At 10 a.m. I settled onto an austere maple chair in the rear of the chapel as Tuesday’s all school service began. From this vantage point, which I have held for 27 years, I contemplated the backs of 300 teenage boys and 45 faculty members. We sang the appointed hymns, followed the readings, and recited the prayers. The sermon provided ample time for me to reflect and pray, ponder and plan the two days ahead.
English 10 Honors class convened at 11 a.m. right after chapel let out. The dozen boys and I gathered around the oval seminar table in my classroom. I alternated between the hard cold blue desk chair and perching atop the table itself, my legs crossed Indian style, as I engaged the boys in a lively debate about writing the personal narrative.
At noon, I met the teacher with whom I co-teach a 7th Grade English class. I needed to talk her through the material she would cover in my absence on Wednesday. We sat on oak chairs at a round table in Scully Dining Hall, hashing through grammar topics while I forked jasmine rice and roasted vegetables into my mouth. I surreptitiously kept my eye on the time since I needed to be in Vermont by late afternoon. Daylight fades fast behind the mountains.
By 1 p.m. I had exchanged my school clothes of navy blazer, tailored shirt, and women’s trousers for faded olive green Carhartts, a plaid shirt, and work boots. I hopped into Blueberry, my ten year old pick-up truck, and headed north on Route 22. The gray fabric seat welcomed me back. Three hours later, I tooted the horn at Scout who was leading a group of school kids on a tour of her farm. I pulled up the driveway and parked in front of the barn. Forsaking the standard swing through the kitchen for a slug of coffee, I went straight to the back of the barn and climbed into the black plastic seat of the 20 year old Kubota tractor. After checking the fuel and refamiliarizing myself with the shifters, levers, and gauges, I fired up the diesel engine and trundled up the hill to the 30 x 100 greenhouse structure that houses 500 laying hens.
My project was to excavate the bedded pack that had built up under the birds over the last six months. About six inches of compacted hay, sawdust, shredded office paper and cardboard, and compostable fiber dining trays from the local elementary school had soaked up the urine and chicken poop. The laying hens had already foraged and digested any residual food scraps from the school lunch trays. This dense material was an invaluable source of nitrogen and carbon, which would enrich the farm’s compost piles. Since I had begun to manage the compost operation, it was incumbent upon me to collect this resource. That meant using the tractor bucket to scoop up the clumped fibrous matter, deposit it into the dump truck, and transport the load over to the farm’s compost area located eight miles away on Route 30. The trip to and from the compost site took approximately 45 minutes.
Ignorance is bliss. Since I am a relative neophyte despite five years of working on farms, I often have no conception of what I am getting myself into with certain tasks. This project was a perfect example. Had I known then what I know now…well, I still would have done it. But I sure as hell would not have bypassed that coffee when I arrived.
The western length of the structure had been cleared; the water troughs, laying boxes, and roosting perches moved out of the way. I slowly drove the tractor into the plastic covered greenhouse through the wide opening at the south end and then it dawned on me: the damn birds weren’t moving out of my way. They couldn’t care less about this enormous and loud machine that was encroaching on their territory. The hens had grown accustomed to the tractor entering monthly to bring grain to the stationary feeder boxes. I would have to clean out this house with 500 birds milling about. In fact they were so comfortable with the tractor’s presence that each time I vacated the seat, the chickens hopped right up and usurped my place.
To complicate matters further, the tractor still had a backhoe attached, adding length and half a ton of weight. I had to maneuver the twenty foot beast with extreme care so as not to damage the plastic walls, the steel structural pipes, or the wood posts that framed the entrance. Or run over the 500 clucking birds.
I adjusted my green seed company cap, put my game face on, and dropped the bucket at a downward angle so the front edge could bite into the matted hay. As my right foot gently rode the accelerator, my right hand shifted the lever until the bucket rose and curled in on itself, rewarding me with a full scoop of brown and tan decomposing organic richness.
Now to transfer that load into the waiting dump truck parked outside the greenhouse. The ground was mushy from recent rains, and the chunky tractor tires left huge gouges in the earth, rendering the patch a slippery quagmire. The shoulder-high rear wheels spun and spewed mud, and the tractor slid off course. After swearing like a sailor, I devised a way to creep forward and reverse, avoiding sharp turns or over-correction with the steering wheel. I fought my propensity for fast and intense, muttering “Slow and steady wins the race.” I approached the truck, raised the tractor bucket and extended it over the flat bed, and then pushed the lever to dump the material. A satisfying plop. Back to the greenhouse, through the brownie-mix muck, and onto the second scoop. When the bucket could not bite into the material, I had to attack the clump with a pitchfork, and sometimes resorted to my bare hands. The laying hens scuttled and clucked, giving me an earful about this rudimentary technique.
Half an hour later, I had filled the dump truck with my first load. Twenty-five years of rugged use by countless drivers had worn the maroon fabric of the bench seat bare to the pale yellow foam padding. I shifted the Chevy one ton rig into 4 wheel drive and slowly jounced down the rutted path from the layer house to the dirt road.
By 5 p.m. dusk was fast descending and a light drizzle had started. Classical music filled the cab and I wondered how many other dump trucks cranked Bach and Vivaldi.
Fifteen minutes later, I bumped along another muddy lane to the compost area. Five 100 foot windrows stood out in the murky light, brown rolling waves on a green field. I carefully reversed to the nearest windrow and pressed the “up” button. Slowly the massive dump box rose to full extension and out slid the bulky load in a deep whoosh. I pulled the vehicle forward a few feet and the clinging residuals cascaded down. I pushed “down” and watched as the metal box descended and thunked into place on the chassis. The light might hold for one more load so back to the farm I went.
I spent another hour scooping and loading in the layer house, sliding and spinning in the mud outside. My flannel shirt was soaked with a mix of rain and sweat from sheer concentration. The fading light urged me on since the layer house had no illumination. Most of all, I needed to clear out so the red, white, black, and speckled birds could find their nightly roosts and get back to the job of being laying hens.
At 6 p.m. I parked the tractor, covered the seat against the rain, and jumped back into the dump truck. Headlights now guided me along the roads. Over to compost farm by 6:15 to dump the load then make my way back home. I had cleared more than a third of the material. Not what I had anticipated but still better than less.
At 7 p.m. I pulled the truck into its space and trudged up to the farmhouse. Sweaty, mentally and physically tired, frustrated at how slow the process was, but determined to succeed. I had the full day Wednesday to complete the project, and already I was devising ways to improve my technique. I pulled off my muddy rubber boots and left them on the covered porch. The smell of roasting chicken and the sound of a whistling tea kettle welcomed me into the farmhouse kitchen.
An hour later, freshly showered and changed into clean clothes, I sunk into a comfortable wingchair covered in a wool plaid fabric. The chair sat in an alcove off the kitchen, near the action but quiet enough for reading and writing. I opened my black journal and began to capture the day’s events. One of the sons had cued up relaxing music as dinner preparation was underway. No one seemed in a rush, hunkered down at the long table checking the Internet and reading books. Around 9, the roast chicken and root vegetables emerged from the oven. All the fixings had been grown on the farm, a genuine point of pride. We took our places at the solid ladder back chairs, held hands, and said grace.
Thirteen hours, ten different chairs, one hundred fifty miles. School to farm. From morning chapel and teaching boys about the writing process, to cleaning out a layer house of rich compostables. The next morning began with processing sixty chickens.
At 10 a.m. I went back to the tractor and dump truck where I spent the next nine hours shuttling between the two farms. By 7 p.m. Wednesday, I had completed the task. And the 498 laying hens (two didn’t dodge the wheels quickly enough) now have the next six months to build up a new bedded pack which I will tackle in March during spring break. Which means I may be able to jump from the farmhouse kitchen chair right onto the tractor. Two seats and a world of difference.
Tuesday October 9, 2012
8 am black faux-leather swivel chair in my office
9 am upholstered armchair in the Headmaster’s office
10 am maple straight chair in All Saints Chapel
11 am molded resin and steel desk chair at seminar table Room 219
12 pm oak chair at round table in Scully Dining Hall
1 pm gray fabric bucket seat of ten year old pick-up truck farm
4 pm black plastic seat of twenty-year old Kubota tractor
7 pm shredded maroon bench seat of twenty-five year old Chevy dump truck home
8 pm fern green and blue fabric wing-chair in alcove of farmhouse kitchen
9 pm cherry ladder back chair at dinner table