Saturday, July 4, 2015

The stuff of life

July 1994

It fills our pockets, crams our desk drawers, occupies our basements, and packs our machine sheds. It's our Stuff. And we love it. One of the most wonderful aspects of farming is the ability not just to store, but semi-justify the accumulation of enormous amounts and types of Stuff. We can stack it on long shelves, pile it in unused buildings, line our fencerows, and load our dashboards with it. The ownership of vast heaps of Stuff is an outward and visible reassurance of our success and well-being.

I have done some deeply serious research on Stuff and the unusual importance it has in our lives. Take Pocket Stuff, for instance. Men carry lots of change because there is something slightly unmanly about ever using it to pay for anything, so it accumulates in a large jingling mass in our right front pocket. Into that receptacle also go small parts we don't want to lose, but never seem to get back on the machine. Many of us also carry a pocketknife of some kind here in direct defiance of our mother's wishes. This act of rebellion can be so strong that to express it fully we need to strap an 8 inch Swiss Army Knife in a special holster onto our side, to be admired by all, and ready for some split-second Corkscrew Emergency. [Technically speaking, it then becomes "Belt Stuff".]  In one rear pocket we find the ubiquitous Hanky - large, loud, and sporadically laundered. In our pockets also lives the Wallet. Wallets double as filing cabinets and bookkeeping systems - sometimes becoming three inches thick. This substantial weight causes many trousers to be worn at half-mast. It also explains the shape of the driver's seat cushions in used pickups. These wallets can produce business cards from 1955 and hog checks from last year. This is the origin, I suppose, of the phrase "running your business by the seat of your pants". Other popular items of Pocket Stuff include the ever-popular screwdriver/fingernail clipper, woefully abused checkbooks, enormous rings of mostly unused keys, scraps of paper with 6 out of 7 digits of a phone or part number, various office supplies, lunch particles, and anything given away free at the last store visited. At my farm supply store, the farmer ahead of me dumped his pockets on the counter to find a nickel. Along with everyone else in line, I checked out his Stuff, which included: various capsules of medication (loose); two bullets (caliber unknown); a Brillo pad; and most interestingly – a mascara pencil. Eyebrows were raised, so to speak.
At the end of the day Pocket Stuff is transformed into Desk Stuff. As farming becomes a larger and more complicated business, many of us are spending increasing amounts of time driving a desk. To help us feel at home, we bring some of our Stuff to be with us, pocketful at a time. It accumulates and breeds in the drawers and under paperwork until interred into modern storage devices, such as old coffee cans. Desk Stuff has other components, mostly paper. Articles, or even whole magazines to be read diligently at an appropriate time, warranty cards to be sent in from tools long since broken, school pictures of now fully grown adults, important papers to be filed when the new improved filing system is in place, unlabeled computer disks, eight-track tapes, appliance instructions (untouched), and forests of old newspapers comprise the hoard. It bulges the file cabinet, buckles shelves, and buries every square inch of horizontal space. 

Of all our Stuff, however, it's the Farm Stuff that is dearest to our hearts.  Farm Stuff is divided into two general categories - Machines and Tools.  The difference being that when a tool drops on your head it doesn't kill you, usually. We spend our lives accumulating a respectable herd of Stuff and when the End comes at our auction, we hope for that highest of accolades, "He had Good Stuff". 

Stuff is our equivalent of a picture album, I have discovered. While Jan can waste an entire afternoon on a baby book discovered while doing the biennial dusting, I can kill a similar amount of time looking for the right piece of angle iron amidst my Stuff. In a large old corncrib built in my youth is a mother lode of machine parts, metal scraps, replaced tools, and broken, but still valuable, leftovers of my and my father's farming careers. Wandering through it produces an irresistible urge to identify and reminisce over rusty heirlooms nearly forgotten. I emerge from this quality Stuff-time at one with my heritage, and on rare occasions, holding what I went for.  

Tool Stuff, for many of us, is not just an astronomical farm expense; it is a fundamental reason to exist. Look at the lustful eyes of farmers in the tool tent at a farm show. Likewise, what farmer doesn't secretly like to look in his competitor's shop and scope out his tools, forming an instant opinion of him as a human being?  The welders and grinders, saws and compressors; the gleaming wrenches and pungent fluids of our profession - with these we wreak our will on the steel and wood and earth of our world, leaving a visible mark of our existence. They are extensions of our hands, and seldom argue with our purposes. They are our closest friends (which explains our social lives).

Machine Stuff is just grown up Tool Stuff.  We have had many visitors to our farm and I am convinced that corporate executives privately envy our ability to surround ourselves with large, noisy, shiny evidences of our personal power. To top it off, they are tax deductible!  Eat your heart out, Lee Iaccoca. This characteristic of machine stuff has impacted the evolution of our industry. The trend to no-till is doubtless slowed by its Stuff-diminishing effects. There is a palpable sense of loss in a half-empty machine shed, regardless of the economic benefits. 

Of course, these are the Nineties, and we all realize that true self worth is not associated with possessions and comes from within, blah, blah, blah, etc.  People are much more important than things, but until the world has come to the full realization of this most important concept, don't mess with my Stuff.

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