Recently I had my first experience making square bales with a cabbed tractor.
As I got underway on the first windrow I experienced several minutes of unexpected agitation: I couldn’t connect with the baler lugging along behind me.
A square baler has a mechanical language that speaks to the driver. There is the staccato rat tat-tat-tat, rat tat-tat-tat, rat tat-tat-tat as the teeth of the pick-up head make their rounds and clang against the slotted shield, accompanied by the bass whoom, whoom, whoom of the heavy plunger, shifting back and forth, setting the rhythm of the whole machine as it packs flakes of grass into the bale chute. A periodic whip-whap of needles and the associated crinkle of knotters marks the end of one bale and the beginning of another, a process that takes place so quickly it’s nearly impossible to see. Every mechanical movement makes a sound, and the cacophony burns into the memory of the operator.
The PTO shaft of the baler is designed to operate at 540 rpm. The tachometer on a tractor usually has a mark that indicates the precise engine speed that will turn the PTO at the correct operating speed. I’ve never used the mark; I adjust the throttle on the tractor until everything sounds correct, and proceed with no idea whether or not my intuition aligns with the operator’s manual. It’s remarkably effective.
Achieving such a connection with the equipment is only possible by sitting outside in the sun, noise and heat, which is extremely uncomfortable. Earplugs knock the hard edge off the racket before allowing the essence of the machine to be translated by my brain. By accepting distress, I can operate the baler very effectively using my own abilities. Inside a soundproofed cab, I felt vague and disconnected, clawing at my ears as if the motion would somehow clear an obstruction.
Of course, there are significant benefits to the protection of a cab: there is air conditioning, which was a relief to my flesh that had been baked like a turkey in the heat all day. And the radio is a nice perk. Keb’ Mo’ and Jamestown Revival were flowing from the speakers, so I wasn’t going to turn that off, certainly. The seat is a comfortable air ride that smoothes bumps. And I can answer phone calls without stopping the equipment, powering down, jumping off and running clear of the engine roar. Not too shabby.
Still, I thought, are we losing something by pursuing comfort? Soundproofing mandates additional reliance on second hand information: gauges and meters check mechanical progress, then tell a display what to tell me. There is more room for error, because a series of systems, all potentially faulty themselves, have to decide what to transmit before I can understand and react to a problem. That’s markedly different than understanding the machine well enough to recognize problems before they arise. Someone who learns only to read gauges will not be able to operate without them, compounding dependence instead of skill.
Arguments stating that improved operator comfort increases daily productivity are the antithesis to my musing, and we’ve certainly gotten good at enabling one person to cover a lot of ground in a single day by advancing equipment technology. Maybe we’re not supposed to be extraordinarily productive beings; maybe we’re supposed to be beings that are extraordinarily connected to whatever we do, no matter how small that might be. Would we be better stewards of everything if all of our work was difficult?
The smallness — in other words, the discomfort — of a humble operation breaks down the walls of isolation and distrust that plague society. When I’m scorched, dehydrated, hungry and physically exhausted, I’m not looking for a petty argument. I’m simply grateful for help from whoever is willing to give it. Two uncomfortable people rely on each other more than two who are contented. In this sense, raw discomfort possesses the ability to pull a community together far more effectively than any pep rally and parade.
Furthermore, by blocking discomfort from our lives, we lose the intuitive connection with the world around us, much like I lost my connection with the square baler. It might look like progress to suppress the harsh edges of life, but then who knows what’s real and what’s wrong? By muting everything unpleasant, we begin to depend on second hand information, which loads our minds with information and robs us of skill. Kathryn Schulz admonishes that “Second hand information, no matter how compelling or pervasive, never constitutes sufficient grounds for knowledge.” What, then, are we creating when we relinquish our fate into the hands of others, so we can chase out discomfort and make our lives “better”? We end up distrusting each other.
It’s not fun being uncomfortable. That’s why we try so hard to avoid it, yet it’s the ingredient we’re missing. Individuals are creative when they’re uncomfortable. People are frugal when they’re uncomfortable. People acquire skills when they’re uncomfortable. People are far more forgiving when they’re pressed to the point of needing help. And the world shrinks significantly when the discomforts of life at home draw us together and drown out the daily news.
Discomfort isn’t such a bad thing. It teaches us and breeds resilience, which, paradoxically, is a comfort. A/C and gauges are nice, but, because I’ve sweated through the heat before, I know, should the gauges fail, I can open a window: rat tat-tat-tat, rat tat-tat-tat, rat tat-tat-tat…