In our old stanchion barn there was a large fan built into the wall. The blades turned quickly and the image of the calf hutches outside flickered in front of you. One of the first lessons I remember as a child was being told not to stick my hand in it. At the same age I also recall sometimes finding pieces of cat next to the fan. It was more puzzling than upsetting, even at that age. I had always considered barn cats to be a steady, grounded subculture of animals that were still around because of their savvy and will to survive in a tough environment. Nonetheless, every once in a while one would feel compelled to jump through the fan and all that would come out might be a head and a front leg.
“Cat,” I would say, as I bent over the remnants. “What were you thinking?”
There’s a video that’s been floating around the internet for the last several years of a man baling himself into a large square bale. The resolution is low and it’s shaky, which somehow makes it more convincing. He sets the tractor in gear, jumps out of the cab, takes his pants off and flings them into the air. Then he climbs into the baler and disappears. In a few seconds the bale rotates out with him inside it, only his limbs sticking out. He runs around flapping his arms while the cameraman giggles uncontrollably.
“Man,” I said out loud to my computer screen. “What were you thinking?”
When I was younger another enigmatic event occurred. I knew it must have affected me back then, because I remembered it, and it was eventually part of one of the first stories I wrote. Our family was going out to do chores, as we did every day at that time. My sister’s bike was sitting on the porch. It was small and pink, and probably had the word “princess” or something like it painted on the frame. There’s a three-foot drop off from the end of the porch to the lawn.
Spontaneously, my father jumps on the bike and starts pedaling as fast as he can. He grits his teeth, hunched over, his knees sticking out. The handle bar streamers flap wildly around him. Then he rides the bike off the porch.
He landed squarely—for the briefest moment we thought he would be ok—until the momentum of his weight flung him over the front tire. He laid in a pile on the ground. The rest of us gathered and stood over him silently.
I knew right then that farming is a complex act.
Farming is a predictable rhythm of milk and feeding, milking and feeding, and doing everything else in between every day. It requires a stable, composed man to hold up under the weight of such consistency. This person must also make logical decisions daily, without much margin for fancy or whim. As humans, we create structure to participate in, but at the same time can be overwhelmed by it. That same rhythm of farming can wear a man down. Some people turn middle-age and buy a convertible. Unfortunately, it’s a cliché that most farmers don’t have access to.
I never had much of a mechanical mind, but eventually I had to reason that a man could not survive going through a square baler. The video is probably a fake. Still, for a few moments I allowed myself to believe that it was real. While the comments below the clip mostly capture the ‘what-the-hell?’ feeling in a variety of languages, I could picture a man that was baling hay, as he did throughout the last few weeks and the last few decades, become overwhelmed with a feeling that he had to do something ridiculous.
I can’t claim to know what would send a steady man off the porch in a pink bicycle any more than I do of the psychology of dead cats.
Still, I can imagine the need to act out and resist, in a simple and absurd way, before going back to milking and feeding, milking and feeding.