Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Magic Algebraic Equation

(x + y) * (z)(z)(z) = (d)

For most beginners, getting a feel for driving oxen doesn't happen all at once.  In a class, it's nice to have a few students to trade off the goad so the students can go through a number of critical steps:

1.  Watch an experienced teamster do (x) correctly (where x= Hitching to a cart, for instance).

2.  Do (x) incorrectly.

3.  Feel sheepishly humbled.

4.  Do (x) passably, with coaching.

5.  Handoff and watch steps 2-4 with someone else attempting.

6. Think about what worked and didn't work.

7.  Start back at (x) suddenly better than before.

The key in step 6 is that the student gets to add (y) (Where y= "why").

It's easy for students to identify THAT what they did didn't work, but when they step back and watch someone else's struggle, the "why" (y) becomes apparent.

Then, it's a simple matter of multiplying those steps in their head by several (z)(z)(z)'s (where z= sleeping on it) in order to end up driving (d) oxen.  The more z's, the better.

After repeating the equation over a decade, I'm starting to feel like a pretty good beginner myself.

Yesterday, we had two students, Russ and Tristan, out at Tillers for day one of Ox Driving Class.  They did really well.  Both had cattle sense to start with, which helps greatly, and both were easily coached.  Day two starts in a few hours.  We'll see if they had their zzzz's.  I hope so.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

They're Not Normal

Underneath the Stone Canoe, the grass has started to turn a little bit green, but spring is not exactly springing just yet.  At least in Michigan. 

However, it's nice to spend a few minutes of summer with the kids from New England as they compete at a summer fair: In this case the Four Towns Fair in Connecticut. 

It would be nice to have the "director's cut" of this video, for an hour or so of entertainment, but to get even a couple minutes of summer in March, that'll have to do.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Chain of Fools

Don Covay's song "Chain of Fools," made famous in the iconic version by Aretha Franklin, has been running through my head all night.

I was trying out a new goad stick yesterday with the boys (see: My Grandfather Did), as we spread a little manure.  They haven't been worked much lately and were not acting as sharp as they should have been, although they backed the manure spreader down and into position twice without any fuss. 

Even a lightly loaded spreader has a fair bit of draft, so some warm-up would have been in order.  Also, they aren't used to driving with a goad (or on a wheeled vehicle, come to think of it.  We've been doing nothing but "chain work" for months), so starting in after a lay-off - even a short one- with something quite new is not that smart.

After our first trip around the field didn't go so well, I decided to switch back from the goad to my crop.  Instantly, I felt more comfortable and more able to communicate with the oxen. 

Brutus and Cassius stood patiently with the spreader while I loaded it (lightly) by hand.  Even a small load takes a few minutes to fork in . . .at least as long as was required to forget that the apron chain was still engaged from the last load.  I had shut off the beaters, but left the apron chain going to clear the box as we left the field. 

I probably don't have to be Paul Harvey here, but yep, when we got to the field and I went to engage the already-engaged apron chain, I discovered the box was nearly empty.  The grass should grow well in that part of the yard this year. 

Cue Aretha. . .

Chain, Chain, Chain
(apron Chain)
Chain, Chain, Chain
(apron Chain)
Chain, Chain, Chain
Chain of fools

Saturday, March 3, 2018

My Grandfather Did

At last week's "Logging with Draft Animals" class, (Here's a short video from the class, as a bonus) we frequently mentioned a similar answer to students' questions: "Because my Grandfather did it that way." 

Brandt Ainsworth's Hickory Bows- with bark.
Duane Westrate first used it as an answer to a question about horse harnesses.  "I do it that way because my Grandfather did," but then the answer seemed to take on a life of its own: explaining everything from using oxbows with the bark on the outside, continuing to work oxen in a "modern" world (we'll ignore for now the assumption that oxen are incongruous with progress), to the etymology of words like "gee" and "haw." 

Never was the answer given instead of a solid reason, but alongside one.  Duane Westrate is a first-rate horseman, and while he's reluctant to change things, that's not because he's a Luddite; He's got a process that works, and change-for-change's-sake doesn't fit with his worldview.  Brandt Ainsworth, who was visiting as the lead instructor for the class, used the phrase in a similar way, more like: "It's done this way because it works to do it this way," rather than: "We do it this way as an homage to the past, and now please don't step on my leather shoe buckles or knock over my whale oil lamp."

In a nutshell, if you're going to change, do it for a good reason. 
A crop is durable.  And will stand in the snow.

This leads to a thorny problem I'm wrestling with:  a crop or a goad.  I've always used a nylon "crop" (Buggy whip, lash, etc.) because Dulcy used one and she taught me to drive oxen.  They're readily available, cheap, and durable (I haven't bought one in a couple of years), but they lack a certain style, they can be inaccurate for correcting an animal, and they're a bit manic in their motion.  A goad stick lacks the reach of a crop and the ability to crack in the air but possesses a steadiness and authority that's hard to deny.

Ivy Pagliari, Tillers' on-staff oxen teamster, spent a little time in New England this winter and came back with a nice, White Oak goad stick.  She commented on how well it was working for her and so I spent all of Sunday using it with a single ox and with the yearlings. 
Frank, Sparrow, Ivy, Goad

The jury isn't back yet, but I may switch to a goad stick for an extended time.  Woodworking writer Christopher Schwarz advises that when you build a workbench, you should spend a full year working at it before you change a thing about it.  Then you'll know what works and what doesn't.  I like my crop, but don't love my crop. 

What to do?  My grandfather didn't drive oxen.  Stay tuned, I guess.
A twisted goad I'm working on.  Steam-bent Ash