Tuesday, April 18, 2017

9 Miles

Saturday next, Tillers International hosts the annual plow day and open house.

A number of classes coincide with the event, but as the title implies, the centerpiece is plowing with horses and oxen.

The folks at Tillers favor using a walking plow and most often select the Oliver 99.

The reason they choose a walking plow is largely due to the practicality of the implement for international development.  Walking plows are still used in most places where draft animal power is employed (The plain communities of the United States would be a notable exception, with sulky and gang plows being more common).

The reason for choosing the "99" plow is that it's state of the art.  It's truly one of the most advanced walking plows on earth.  The joke is that tractor plows came along shortly after the Oliver 99 and so "state of the art" makes it nearly a century old.

Plowing an acre of land with a walking plow the size of an Oliver 99 averages out to be around 9 miles of walking for both the drover and the plowgirl (or boy, or man, or operator - no judgements here).  Done well, though, plowing is not the drudgery progress has made it out to be.  Farmer and author David Kline (who produces the very fine quarterly magazine Farming) explains it better than I:

“I enjoy plowing. Just this past year one Soil Conservation Service expert told me, in all seriousness, that if I'd join the no-till crowd I'd be freed from plowing, and then my son or I could work in a factory. He insinuated that the extra income (increased cash flow) would in some way improve the quality of our lives. “I failed to get his point. Should we, instead of working the land traditionally, which requires the help of most family members, send our sons to work in factories to support Dad's farming habit? Should we be willing to relinquish a nonviolent way of farming that was developed in Europe and fine-tuned in America? Should we give up the kind of farming that has been proven to preserve communities and land and is ecologically and spiritually sound for a way that is culturally and environmentally harmful? “Maybe I'm blind, but no matter which angle I look from, I fail to see any drudgery in this work. And I am convinced that if one farms carefully, soil erosion need not be a problem.”

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Yoke Maker's Bible

"This might be the best book on
 woodworking ever written." 
- Jim Crammond, Windsor chair 
maker and instructor.  

Hear me out.  The best book for yoke makers doesn't use the word "oxen" anywhere.  Not once.  Animal power isn't described.

The book ostensibly covers the process for building a Windsor Chair.  To my knowledge, writer and chairmaker Peter Galbert has never even seen a yoke, and his Chairmaker's Notebook doesn't overtly describe the first thing about them.

What Chairmaker's Notebook actually describes, in 400+ pages and 500 illustrations, is everything you'd need to know to make the best yoke you've ever seen.  (sans hardware) Think about it: a yoke is basically a large windsor chair with its carved beam acting as the seat and the bows functioning as well . . .the bow.

Wood selection? Yep, he's got it covered, starting in the woodlot.

Carving? Oh my, yes, with clear descriptions of grain direction, the subtleties of reading lumber, and the proper way to choose and sharpen tools familiar to yoke makers:  Adzes, drawknives, spokeshaves and (you should really try one on a yoke), travishers.

Bow bending?  Steaming, forms, drying times, tips and tricks are all there.

Finishing?  If you've ever tried -or shied away from- milk paint, you'll be equipped after reading Galbert's descriptions of the process- with lots of nice, color photos.

Finally, Peter Galbert loves traditional tools because they make so much sense even today in accomplishing a task that matters in a way that brings joy.  Sound familiar, ox drovers?

While Chairmaker's Notebook seems pricey at $54 (shipped), you get what you pay for.  Check it out.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Stuck in First Gear

Justice Collins plows with Marco and Polo in 2009 - on her 10th birthday.
Oxen, like so much else in this world, are a compromise.  At once generally cheaper and more rugged than horses, they move slower and tolerate the heat less well than equines.

When I first started driving oxen, Dulcy Perkins explained oxen as like having a tractor stuck in first gear, whereas horses were like having a tractor stuck in third gear.  Not better or worse, just different.

For teaching someone to plow though, first gear is nice to have.  Tillers team, Marco and Polo, plowed not so much in first gear as in granny-low gear.  They'd move forward, but just barely.  However, Polo would stay in the furrow, they'd walk a straight line and they would make most beginners look pretty competent.

For mowing hay, their creeper gear would wear thin after even a few minutes, and getting an acre plowed might take twice as long as you liked, but being stuck in first gear sometimes has its place.

"A man must plough with such oxen as he hath." - Chinese Proverb

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Broken Handles

 While working on a backstool the other day, I let one of my nice, Jet clamps fall off the bench and crash to the floor.  The handle didn't survive.  If the saying, "no hoof, no horse" has a corollary, it would be: "no handle, no clamp."

The following day, I used a chunk of ash wood from the end of one of the stool legs and turned a quick replacement.  It seems to work and we're back in business.

Why mention this in a blog about oxen?

The same day, I had Brutus, Cassius and Zeus all out to work.  They hadn't been out in a week, but I don't think their bad behavior could really be attributed to that.  I think I dropped more than the clamp that day.

Most misbehavior in the oxen can be traced back to my driving them badly.  Cassius and Brutus are in some kind of power struggle in the yoke.  Cassius is ornery, wants to walk ahead by a step, stop 2 steps ahead, and swing his horns at Brutus, who responds with a fair bit of fear.

But, how I respond makes more of a difference than what either of them do.

Today, we started a little better, then I found myself getting frustrated and too heavy-handed, so it was time to make a new handle, so-to-speak.  30 minutes of whispered commands, less and less use of the crop, and, finally,  voice-commands-only and we were working pretty well.  In the end, I let them go back to the hitching post after they slowly walked 40 feet to me with only a voice command to start and stop.
Neither "handle" is fully done, but the principle is pretty consistent:  try to limit mistakes.  When you make them, work on a fix.

I'm trying not to dwell on either mistake, but that's a story for another day.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Where'd I put my. . .

 Two men were arguing about bad luck.  The one said,  "I'm so unlucky, whenever I drop my toast, it lands butter-side-down."

His buddy wasn't willing to concede the point and asked for a demonstration.  The toast was prepared, the men got ready and the toast landed on the floor. . .with the butter side facing up.  The buddy folded his arms and looked triumphant.

"Whattaya know,"  said the first man, "I buttered the wrong side."

Anyway, bow pins are akin to buttered toast.  They don't often fall when you're yoking, but when they do they either land in mud, they bounce underneath an animal, or they mimic a chameleon and become invisible for a few moments.

Whatever you can do to keep them close is probably worth it.  Today, when unyoking the boys from in between them, I couldn't quite reach the top of the post to set the pins and spacers, so I simply looped them over the end of each animal's horn.

Now, if they only came with a drink holder. . .