The ground shook beneath me. Iron bolts rattled and the machine coughed carbonic exhaust fumes into the air. I was the captain of a trench digging machine, essentially a massive chainsaw spliced with rubber tire treads spliced with a standing platform like some sort of Frankenstein’s Monster: Farm Edition™.
I rumbled down the field like an M4 Sherman on its way to battle, my two-hundred-pound chain oiled and unstoppable, ready to tear through the earth to carve drainage ditches. Though often romanticized as a peaceful activity suited for getting in touch with the earth, a modern US farm operation often involves some intense mechanization, with gas-powered machines filling in where two oxen and five children would have been a hundred years ago.
At least, I certainly romanticized the idea when I moved to a farm this spring. I pictured myself watering the fields, picking a few weeds under puffy clouds and blue sky, harvesting vegetables, all while wrapped in a garment of verdant green. I thought I might resemble something like a human bean trellis. Instead, I was stained with spray paint, caked in mud, and gouging the earth with a gas guzzling contraption of alloyed steel.
In fact, the earth shook so forcefully that creatures were stirred up from their underground dwellings to tell me off. By far the most notable of these species was the legendary star-nosed mole, which has probably the coolest sensory organ of any mammal—a twenty-two-tentacled nose the mole uses as an appendage for feeling its way underground. Pair that nose with slick, oiled fur and massive forelimb claws for digging, and you’ve got yourself an invertebrate’s worst nightmare.
Moles aside, I continued my onslaught of unbroken ground. RMMMM BRMMMM BRMMMM scrape scrape BRMMMM RMMMM. Rocks and old long-buried bricks flung aside. The sheer strength of the megasaw was unstoppable.
And then there she was.
A killdeer. Weighing all of three ounces and roughly the size of a banana, killdeer are highly protective of their young and will stand unflinching to protect their eggs, even from stampeding herds of cattle; or, in this case, my earth-wrenching megasaw. Fanning her tail feathers and spreading her wings, she was an immovable object—a civilian standing down tanks in Tiananmen Square. My force came from fossil fuel-powered torque, hers from a righteous fortitude to protect that which was most precious to her, her nest.
I turned the key to the off position and stepped down from the tank platform, and there, nestled in the woodchips, were four brown speckled eggs, only feet from the treads of my machine. At this point, I’d like to say that I canceled my route, and instead carved a trench that arced around the innocent eggs. I’d like to say I watched as the pair of killdeer reared their young in the field over the summer, teaching their four offspring to hunt insects and migrate south come autumn.
But I can’t say that. The paths for the perforated irrigation tubing needed to be as straight as possible. Straight and controlled for maximum efficiency. There was no mention of what to do if one encountered, say, a killdeer nest, in our plan for installing a hydraulic drainage system.
In a section from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer, a Potawatomi woman herself, describes the process of weaving practiced by the Pigeon family of Potawatomi basket makers. Black Ash trees are the species of choice, providing the perfect blend of flexibility, malleability, and strength. John Pigeon—the basket weaving teacher in this story—explains how building a basket starts with selecting the right tree from the forest. But not just any tree is chosen; instead, a particular tree is requested from the forest, and it is only given when the environment indicates that a tree is ready.
“Traditional harvesters recognize the individuality of each tree as a person,” Kimmerer writes, “a non-human forest person.”
The megasaw is so efficient there’s little time to recognize the soil or observe what might be growing in one’s path.
“Respectfully, the cutter explains his purpose and the tree is asked permission for harvest. Sometimes the answer is no.”
It’s hard to hear the voice inside my own head over the roar of the megasaw, much less the whisper of the earth.
“It might be a cue in the surroundings—a vireo nest in the branches, or the bark’s adamant resistance to the questioning knife—that suggests the tree is not willing,”
The megasaw met almost no resistance slicing through the earth, spare for a few boulders and some patches of particularly mucky clay.
“Or it might be the ineffable knowing that turns him away.”
To be honest, I can’t remember the last time I heard the earth tell me “no.”