During high school, I spent my weekends working on a farm in northern Indiana. One Saturday in October, the farmer’s oldest son, a cousin who lived on a neighboring farm and I, spent the entire day clearing a field so that soybeans could be planted there in the spring. The day was warm and we were enjoying the blue skies as we cut down several trees on the field’s edge. We left the massive logs on the ground, planning to move them to the barn on the following Saturday.
Log-moving day arrived, but unlike the weekend before, the sky overhead was gray and the air thick with a chilling mist. As we started our work, a cold rain began to fall. Soon the field was covered in thick wet mud, which made loading the hefty limbs onto our trailer a soggy, grueling chore. With each log, our socks became damper, our feet colder and our backs stiffer. As the day wore on, we were so focused on our miserable condition that we failed to notice that the mud was slowly swallowing the wheels of our trailer. By the time the dinner bell sounded, the trailer was fully loaded and the tires had become fully immersed in the syrupy muck. We were anxious to warm our exhausted bodies, so we jumped on the tractor and started the engine.
As smoke billowed, the diesel engine rumbled to life and the drive axle began to turn. But the trailer, heavily weighted and absorbed by the earth, held like an anchor. With each turn of the wheels, the tractor buried itself deeper into the muck. Soon, the rear axle was buried. We climbed out of the cab and stood in the fall drizzle, our feet submerged in the mud.
Again, the dinner bell echoed throughout the field. We were faced with a choice. We could either unload the unwieldy logs, free the trailer from the mud, and then reload it, log by log, or… we could find a bigger tractor.
Given the conditions: the darkening sky, our aching backs and damp spirits, we made the only sensible choice – go to the barn and unleash the four-wheel drive, Cummins-powered John Deere tractor we called, “The Beast.” Our plan was simple and brute: hook the tractors together, one in front of the other, and pull the first tractor, the sunken trailer and all of the logs we had loaded onto the trailer out of the mud, in one fell swoop. At the time, our plan seemed foolproof.
Fast-forward an hour later. Now, we were looking at two tractors buried up to their collective axles in a sea of mud. We were faced with the same choice. But now it was darker, colder and the situation more desperate. The bell continued to sound in the distance. We could unload the trailer, or…
Being creatures of consistency, and perhaps a little stubborn, we made our decision and headed back to the barn. We returned with our final option, a Caterpillar bulldozer.
Three diesel engines roared; two tractors pulled while the bulldozer pushed from behind. Mud flew, the engines strained, the chains stretched and the trailer began to budge. Then, in an instant, the loaded trailer broke free of her moorings. We throttled back the engines, cautiously relieved, and maybe even a bit excited as the smell of diesel drifted down the field. Then, we noticed that something was missing. When we drove into the field earlier that day, the trailer had wheels and an axle. Now, the trailer was sliding across the mud like an overstuffed raft and her axle was still trapped in the muck thirty yards behind.
There, slightly visible from beneath the surface, we saw our nemesis for the first time, an old barbed wire fence. The fence had been there for decades, quietly lying under our feet. But as the rain fell, the soil loosened and we piled on log after log, the tires of our trailer had become entangled in the hidden barbed wire and muck.
I had always thought of fences as clear, obvious markers of division, either this field or that, their property or ours, choice A or choice B. But there are also fences that we cannot see and choices that are not so clear; hidden fences that unknowingly entangle our plans and ensnare our present. These are the fences, the choices, that often cause us the most trouble, buried in the muck of our uncertainty. In my experience, confronting these unanticipated decisions with brute force is rarely the best way forward. Often, we need a moment to peer beneath the surface, ask questions and wonder if there is something that we have overlooked.
We can try respectful patience, over raw power.
We can take a moment to listen, before insisting on the billowing,
diesel-filled roar of our opinion.
We can ask “Why?”, before getting another tractor and deciding,
“Eh, why not?”
Maybe, we can go one step beyond,
“What is the worst that can happen?”
Then, as the day ends, with a little understanding and a lot of common sense, we can safely make it home for dinner.