Old Iron and the Technosphere


This week’s post on Dmitry Orlov’s blog continues his fascinating series on the “technosphere”, this particular article proposing a “Harm/Benefit” analysis of the technology we have at hand and how we might go about weighing what is important for our personal futures as well as that of the planet.  Here’s a short quote:

“Technology is neither good nor bad, and it is essential for survival. Our job is to pick and choose carefully, to embrace technologies that liberate and empower us, and to look for ways to avoid or eliminate the ones that weaken us, make us dependent on outside interests and forces, and can even result in our extinction as a species along with all the rest (yes, there are a few such technologies).”

As ever, Orlov is always interesting and provocative, and it’s fun to read his comment section, to which he responds.  One comment, written by 234567, was about his experience with old tractors and trucks and what he described as “over-engineering”, which in his view, meant building things to last.

The evocation of a 1940s era tractor and a 1950s era pickup revived memories of my own experience with old iron, especially as it related to agricultural work.

In the early 70s, I was hired on to the farm crew at the old Circle X ranch, located in the Ruby Range, west of Alder, Montana.  A tributary to the Ruby River ran down through this immense ranch – supposedly one of the oldest deeded ranches in Montana – from year round snow-capped mountains to the west, which were said to be part of the ranch.  As I was to learn, the spread really was enormous.  Whether they really owned all that land, or leased some from the government, didn’t really make any difference to me.  We were using it, we were responsible for it, and we were a long, really long way from town, any town.  Talk about quiet.  It was so quiet I could hear a fly at fifty yards, an eagle or hawk hunting from miles, while I tended the pole and canvas moveable dams in the seemingly endless alfalfa fields I was assigned to irrigate when I first got there.  But that’s another story.

I don’t think there was one piece of equipment we used that was younger than 30 or 40.  They even had some army surplus Dodge 6x6s.  We had a permanent crew of mechanics who had their own shop, and when they weren’t maintaining, were inventing and building all sorts of stuff scavenged from junk yards from all over western Montana.  One of my favorites was an old McCormick four cylinder gasoline tractor assigned to me for wind rowing.  The foreman gave me a map, said the wind row implement was already there, that someone would come either to take me back for lunch or bring it to me, then come back again to take me back for supper.  Took me all day the first day just to get where I was to start, and I just kept getting farther away as the days stretched into a couple of weeks.  And that old tractor never so much as farted.  Ran like a 1955 BMW R-50 motorcycle I once had, the valve train ticking like any finely tuned thing, with an extended exhaust stack that kept the fumes away.

But the machine that really amazed me and to which I was assigned for alfalfa haystack season (when I wasn’t stacking), was a buck rake completely built on site.  We had a fleet of maybe five or six, at least, all built on the ranch.  They took extended truck frames and mounted Ford flathead V-8s just in front of the rear axles, put the driver’s seat just behind that so you had a front wheel drive, rear wheel steered thing, kind of life a lift truck.  In other words, they turned the whole thing around so you were driving the truck frame backwards, which took some getting used to.  In front of the motor, attached to what had been the rear of the truck frame but was now the front, they built a multi-articulated, maybe 20 foot wide rake with flat, gently pointed tines separated just far enough to gather up the bales three deep the entire width of the thing, which, depending on whether the bales were wire or twine bound, defined your upper limit.  The rakes could extend a good 40 or 50 feet high, and Jackson, the head of the haystack crews could survey a field and give us the foundation dimensions of the haystack, and damned if it didn’t work out just about perfect every time.  Well, he’d been working on the ranch for who knows how long, so he probably had a good idea, given the year and the weather, of how much each field would yield.  Still, his accuracy was impressive.

This ranch was probably an anomaly, a throwback, in those days.  How the Gilbert brothers kept it going as long as they did only they probably know.  The farming part of it was only part of the whole operation.  There was another part, the livestock part, sheep and cattle, located further to the west, where the real cowboys worked and lived almost like aristocrats compared to us, and only occasionally did we see them, but from what I gathered, our operation was considered almost to be a kind of labor camp for winter drunks, as it was pretty much just labor.  To a certain extent, I had to agree with them, because I was, along with another even younger kid, the only one allowed to go into town on Saturday night.  And as Jackson explained, even he wasn’t allowed off the ranch until after shipping season, when he would leave for Bozeman, where he had his pay sent to a hotel, who also fed him, where he spent the winter, drinking and occasionally doing fencing work.  Then turning up again at the ranch in the spring to dry out for a few weeks, before starting a new season.  And most of the guys in the bunkhouse lead pretty much that kind of life.  The year I was there, there was a core of about a dozen guys, mostly in their forties or fifties who were pretty all right, laid back, and a somewhat younger group of five or six who tended to be not really made for the strange way of life on this particular ranch, and who would disappear one day, only to be replaced by someone else who would might leave even sooner.  But the core group, of which I was a part, didn’t really give a shit who came or went.  They were generally disruptive of the relative peace that reigned in the bunkhouse and out in the fields, where the work was not frantic but the hours long.  They were in a useless, agitated and sullen hurry and we were glad when they were gone, even if that meant more hours than we wanted.  And I was living in a world I could never have imagined, had my books, had learned to roll a cigarette with one hand, could listen to the stories of the old hands, and “get up and do it again” the next day.

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