Tuesday, June 03, 2008

“The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair.” Douglas Adams, author of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 1952—2001.

Last blog, I’d just returned a tractor I’d borrowed to Paul, our pig-farming neighbour. If you want to catch Paul in, either before (when you’ll be invited to drink a glass of aniseed-tasting Pastis) or after lunch (when you’ll be invited in for a coffee) is usually reliable. The amount of wood we had to unload meant that at 2pm I hadn’t actually eaten, so I really wanted to just drop off the tractor and come straight home for lunch. It’s not easy to decline their hospitality but they have also got used to our English quirks—including morning and afternoon “tea breaks” which are as sacrosanct to us as the noon–2pm window of lunchtime opportunity is to a Frenchman—so would put down the fact that I hadn't yet eaten to my English eccentricities.

In fact, I found Paul not relaxing over a coffee but fretting over a second broken-down tractor. Paul has three tractors, the venerable Massey Ferguson, which I’d just returned, and two John Deere behemoths, about three times the size of the Massey. One JD had cracked an exhaust and the hot gases had melted lots of expensive plastic components so it needed more than an new exhaust. The second one had been overheating in the field and the mechanic-on-the-end-of-a-phone had suggested that he change the oil filter as a first, “easy” attempt to solve the problem. If you have ever successfully changed a screw-on cartridge oil filter on your car you’ll know how easy it is, so simple that it cannot possibly go wrong: I refer you to the quote at the top.

I’m not the type of bloke who can borrow a man’s tractor and, when returning it and finding him in a pickle, can say, “cheers for the borrow, best of luck with your problem” and just walk away, so, there I was, hungry, on my back, staring at the most inaccessible oil filter that now had a rounded off, previously square, hole where one is meant to insert a socket extension and unwind the ****ing thing. After three quarters of an hour, Paul sent me home to eat something and I returned half an hour later to find us no further forward. Philippe, carpenter, joiner and all-round general handyman had joined us and there we stayed until 6.30pm until, through mechanical Anglo-French cooperation and heralded by cheering and clapping of hands, the filter unscrewed.

Neither of them had seen the film Apollo 13, so I tried to explain how three men had to deal with a mechanical problem, much as we had, but crammed into the equivalent of the tractor’s cab and thousands of miles from Planet Earth and its delicious oxygen. Considering Philippe’s flatulence, I think it might have tested our friendship.

Whilst the top photo shows three happy, smiling, brothers-in-arms (L-R: me, Paul then Philippe) the reality was that Paul had lost a complete sunny day’s work on the farm, which, especially with the abnormally wet weather we’re having, is critical. Living here in the countryside I’m understanding more and more how our food is produced, how hard the farmers work and how thin their margins are. Never thought you’d find a defence of the industrial farmer on a permaculture blog, eh? More on that later …

Next blog: all you ever wanted to know about comfrey as permaculture animal fodder.