Clenching a cigarette between my teeth, I scrunched my face and struggled to hold down the right brake as the tractor spun on its rear, right tire. With my hands gripping levers and my left knee up against the wheel, I swung around clockwise in one smooth motion: Dropping the tiller, pulling the throttle, engaging the blades, and lining up against the pass I had just made. Soon to be rows of squash and tomatoes, it laid a rolling sea of wispy green cover crop that my Dad and I had seeded back in the fall. At fourteen years old and suspended from school, I was home on the farm and ‘tilling winter rye.
On a family farm in New England, spring is as hopeful and optimistic as fall is unnerving and nostalgic. Now spring, it was time to turn in the rye before it grew too tall. Young rye prevents erosion over windy winters and melting springs, then becomes nitrogen-rich fertilizer in May and June. Like the rye I ‘tilled, we had weathered the winter, holding things down, thinning, and longing for brighter days.
I pulled the throttle down further as I crept along the field. Traveling at a walking speed, the engine roared and cranked out black exhaust from its stack rising through the long, green hood in front of me. All that power—all that noise—went right to the teeth of the bouncing, thrashing, rototiller behind me. Chopping, chewing, overturning, and aerating, it did the job of a multi-blade plow and disc harrow in one, only better and faster.
The tiller crashed and bounced over a vein of ledge that lay buried under the soil. Its skid-plate slammed with all the noise of a dump truck tailgate banging shut. I knew the ledge line well, it ran north to south along the top of the field near a lonely oak, but still with each pass the noise startled me into thinking I had done something wrong. It hopped to the right and then back to the left before centering again, all without missing one beat of its job.
Warm air from the engine in front of me blew into my face as I traveled slowly along the field. Making sure to straddle the line between green rye and freshly ‘tilled soil, I aligned the silver arrow atop my tractor’s hood over the divide. To my right laid a narrow swath of fluffy, brown soil from the first few passes I had made and to my left sprawled acres of bright, golden-green rye too short to bend in the gentle southwest breeze. The left side of the ‘tiller chewed into the rye while the right side re-tilled the soft soil that I had turned on the previous pass. Stones banged and rattled behind me as I made my way under a low, grey sky.
Crows circled and cawed overhead, chatting of seeds and other goodies now visible from their vantage. Field mice scattered in all directions, scurrying up and over last fall’s tire tracks on one side and along a bed of soft earth on the other. Frantically looking for cover from hawks, eagles, and owls, they burrowed headfirst into soil and tufts of turned and twisted rye. Their tales, the same muted browns as last year’s dead weeds, snaked behind them with every move. I watched them from atop the tractor, noting the way each moved, the ways they communicated with each other and interacted with the earth.
My cigarette burning low, I pulled a fresh Camel from the pocket of my wool shirt and lit it from the one nearly spent. A fine mist moved in from the southwest—the type that insidiously soaks to the bone. I flipped up my shirt collar, pulled down the brim of my hat and slouched down into the seat. Warm, sweet smoke filled my lungs while the cold spring mist chilled my fingertips to numbness. Out and back, back and forth, I tossed and bumped over every rock. The droning, maxed-out engine roared hypnotically while spring’s grey, waking splendor wetted and blew all around.
The tractor was noisy, up in the air, and vibrated a ton. I mindlessly watched the exposed wheels rotate slowly in front of me, as my worn-down boots managed its pedals. My ears rang from hours of noise and my feet and legs were numb from sitting in the same position in spring’s cold, damp air. I was nearly finished and wanted nothing more than to call it a day, head inside and put on a fresh pot of coffee.
To my right laid a vast field of freshly turned soil and to my left a narrow strip of wet, glistening green rye bending to mist that collected into heavier droplets. Nearing the end of the pass, I readied to spin around the other direction and straddle the line I had left behind. Again with hands on levers and knee on wheel, I cut the throttle, raised the ‘tiller, disengaged the teeth, and spun counterclockwise on my rear, left tire. My short, nearly numb leg barely reached the left brake pedal. I fought to hold it down until I swung into place, cut the wheel back straight, dropped the ‘tiller, engaged the teeth, and pulled the throttle.
Shaking my head to wake from the near trance into which I had fallen from prolonged, deep thought, I saw a flash of brown and white up ahead on the border between tilled soil and green rye. Looking closer, it was a plover. She bounced, squawked, and spread her angled and narrow wings. She jumped up and down and made more of a racket than even the most disgruntled robin I had ever seen. I stopped for a moment, disengaged the teeth and cut the throttle. I pulled the parking brake, put both shifters into neutral, swung my right leg over the controls and jumped down from the machine.
Landing into deep fluffy soil my boots caked with mud from each step as I walked toward the squawking, hopping bird. She didn’t back down or step away. Rather, she just made more noise and thrashed around. I bent at my waist and leaned in to get a closer look at the spectacle only a few feet away. There, speckled in tan and brown, laid a clutch of eggs nestled into an old tire track and up against a rock that sheltered from the northeast. Her nest was in my path and there was no way in Hell she was moving.
I stood there in the rain and watched her. Her commitment astonished me. Lifting my cigarette to my mouth, I took one last drag before flicking it with my thumb and middle finger out into the field. I exhaled a thick cloud of smoke with a sort of deflating resignation and turned and walked back to my tractor. With my chin at my chest and my boots huge and heavy with mud, I walked away from her.
From the seat of the tractor, I looked down the hood and over the silver arrow to the mother plover, tiring, but still jumping and yelling. Reaching down to the bright yellow lever, I pulled and engaged the ‘tiller’s teeth while pulling the orange throttle down with my other hand and popping the clutch with my left foot. The tractor roared back to work and crept straight toward the bird.
She hopped and cried and flashed bright white calls for help with her wings as I neared. She threw her entire body into it—every last defense went into trying to stop my enormous tractor from chewing up her family.
At the last possible moment, I swung to the right and looked down to my left at the field below as I passed the bird by. Cutting back the other direction, I quickly got back on track and continued straight. After about a hundred yards I stopped again and shut the whole thing down. Turning around in my seat I saw a teardrop-shaped patch of stubbly green rye, surrounded by freshly ‘tilled field. In the middle stood the mother plover, safe with her clutch.
As April turned to May, and May to June, that patch of rye remained. It grew taller and greener and stood out more with each passing day. It could be seen from all over the farm—strangely misplaced among an otherwise perfect field. We worked around it the summer through: Planting, weeding, and caring for the crops as if nothing had changed, but somehow we knew everything had.
Later that fall, a teardrop-shaped clump of rye flowered and went to seed, rising high in a field of golden butternut squash. Inside that patch of tall winter rye laid a few well-hidden, faded and brittle, weathered and worn, hatched-open eggs.