Never having grown up on a farm and coming from a staunchly “bring-it-to-the-shop” type family, I certainly didn’t have a machinist’s sensibilities coming into this job. But the great thing about the land steward position is that there is often no one else around to ask when things stop working, so you just have to figure it out. I discovered that I may, at heart, be a tinkerer after all. Granted, a novice tinkerer, but one who could quickly fix a shired pin on the mower; disassemble, attach a new motor to, then reassemble the truck-mounted herbicide pumper unit; jump-start a lawn-mower; change the front-loader on the tractor out for the seed stripper; coax a reluctant power brush cutter into life, and many other useful things that may seem modest to anyone with mechanical sense, but felt like huge accomplishments to me then, and now.
With mechanical issues on the sanctuary, when it rains, it pours. I remember once when I was the Goose Pond intern and Tony the land steward. Mark and Sue were taking a well-earned vacation and Tony and I were determined to tackle the invasive work and impress them with our accomplishments upon their return. The machines, however, had other plans.
Right away in the morning I began mixing herbicide in the truck-mounted sprayer in quantities and concentrations appropriate for reed canary grass. Tony went out on the tractor to mow some trails until we were ready to go. It wasn’t very long before I got an SOS call from Tony. When I got out to where he was, I saw one of the front tractor tires looked like it had melted into the ground, a flat! Well later I learned that a flat tire on the front of the tractor is relatively easy to fix; you use the front-loader on the tractor as a jack to lift it up, then take the nuts off the tire and, in our case, pack it off to Weber Tire in East Bristol for a new tube. But this had never happened to either of us, and by the time Tony and I had this figured out, most of the morning had slipped by.
Frustrated, but determined to salvage the day, we finished mixing the herbicide and decided to do a quick test to make sure that the pumper, which had been working fine all summer, was ready to go. Surprise, surprise, the motor clicked on just fine, made lots of noise and did nothing at all except leak herbicide into the back of the truck at an alarming rate. Of course, a smarter procedure would have been to test the pumper unit before filling it with a hundred gallons of chemical, but zeal and an unusually calm summer for mechanical breakdowns had lulled us into a false sense of security. Now we had the unpleasant task of draining the tank so that we could disassemble the motor and find out what had gone wrong. Our first hurdle was moving an incredibly heavy and full pumper unit, now partially covered in slippery herbicide, off the back of the truck and onto a large cattle tub into which we could drain the herbicide. This was actually the easy task when compared with evacuating the liquid. The drain on the bottom of the tank had probably never been opened before, and our best efforts with a plumber’s wrench were thwarted. Eventually, we decided to cut the hose in two place; once to let the herbicide drain, and again to free the motor from the tank. Before you judge, come on out to Goose Pond and try to loosen that drain yourself! There was a cracked seal on the motor, and maybe something else wrong as well. Whatever the case, it wasn’t an immediately fixable problem.
At this point, we’d been fussing with equipment all day. We could still knock back some invasives before the end, and we figured a low-tech approach was the way to go. Enter the backpack sprayers. Nothing electric or gasoline powered there. Nothing but simple mechanics; you pump with your arms, pressure builds, you release with your finger on the trigger. Anyway that’s how it’s supposed to work, and usually does, except on days like that day. The sprayer I was trying to use would build up the pressure and then never release it. Sometimes there are issues that I think must have been caused by ghosts. Everything seems to work fine one day, then the next an inexplicable mechanical failure. The backpack sprayer was definitely haunted. I believe we ended the day by digging parsnips with shovels.
Of course the frustrating breakdowns and mechanical failures will always stand out the strongest, but most of the time everything worked great. I was grateful that we had well-maintained equipment that helped us do our work so much more efficiently. I’m grateful still that I’ve learned something about machines, and simple fixes, and most importantly, problem-solving with one’s hands.