There really is nothing quite like the taste, smell and feel of hydraulic fluid first thing in the morning.
Not that there was intent to start out the day bathed in the oily liquid. Quite the opposite; great pains were taken to avoid that very thing.
But, when it comes to tractors and farm implements, let’s just say the best laid plans of mice and writers can go astray.
Late fall was a wet one after a somewhat warm and humid spell here at the top of the state. Thanks to the weather and a busy schedule, the annual mowing of about 20 acres of field had been delayed.
But last week the time had come. The weather was clear and sunny, if a touch on the cool side, and all systems were go for a few days of mowing.
Keep in mind that mowing large fields is a bit different from mowing a residential lawn. Check that; a lot different.
To begin with, we are not talking cutting lawn grass. We are talking about chopping mounds of red osier dogwood, maple saplings, alder shoots and the myriad other woody plants that had sprung up over the summer.
So, instead of a cute little riding mower, I instead turned to a 6-foot deck mower, or “brush hog” that runs off the hydraulics and power-takeoff attachment of the IH farm tractor.
This was my first year faced with mowing. Before this it had been the domain of my late husband, or contracted out. Earlier this summer a friend had taught me how to attach the mower’s driveshaft and hydraulic hoses to the tractor.
The muscle of the machine is through that driveshaft that couples with the tractor’s power takeoff — or PTO — a sort of spindle that provides power to separate implements and spins at an ungodly rate of speed in accordance with the tractor’s rpms.
Those hoses provide the lifeblood to the mower, raising or lowering it through levers next to the operator’s seat that control the pressure of the hydraulic fluid.
There are two hoses, and longtime farmers and heavy equipment operators know it’s easier to connect them when there is no hydraulic fluid pressure built up.
To release any pressure, I was shown earlier this year simply to tap the ends of the hoses on the tractor’s tires, which allows excess fluid to drain out.
Unless there is, in fact, pressure in which case all that fluid sprays everywhere, dousing everything and everyone within a 4-foot radius.
After wiping the fluid from my face, I was able to get the hoses — thanks to that reduction in pressure — fitted to the attachments and was good to go.
At the first field I did a pre-mow checklist and indeed the PTO was whirling the blades at a powerful speed and the hydraulics were doing their thing raising and lowering the mower.
Let the mowing commence.
When it comes to field mowing, there are two schools of thought, and I had asked my neighbor Andrew about this.
Some people go around and around in concentric circles, but I had remembered being told of a different pattern in which the operator drives up and down the field, creating two squares with right-angle turns.
Andrew nodded sagely and allowed as how that second method was “just like going round and round — only square.”
How could I go wrong with advice like that?
Opting for the “round and round” method, I spent the next two hours doing just that — very, very slowly as I dared not take the tractor out of first gear.
By the time about three-quarters of the field was mowed, I was feeling pretty good about things. But remember that rain? Unnoticed by yours truly, it had created an impressive wet spot right in my path.
One second I was mowing along at a snail’s pace, the next second the wheels were spinning and the engine revving, but all forward momentum was gone.
As was any backward momentum.
All repetitive gunning the tractor did — regardless of being in first or second — was dig the machine deeper into the clinging muck.
Pretty soon the massive tires’ treads and chains were coated with a smooth layer of northern Maine mud, not unlike the dinosaurs caught in the La Brea Tar Pits.
Clearly, if in 5,000 years I did not want to be excavated and turned into a “NOVA: documentary, it was time to call in the cavalry.
Forget knights in shining armor on a trusty steed. I’ll take a northern Maine woodsman on a skidder any day of the week.
In fact, it was Andrew who came to my rescue on his skidder. With instructions to hop back onto the tractor, put it in second and just drive, he assured me the skidder’s cable and winch apparatus would pull me out with no difficulty.
And you know what? It did — and then some.
His back to me as he sat in the skidder’s cab operating the controls, Andrew was unable to see the cable stuck in the “on” position, pulling the tractor free from the mud and right up the back of the skidder until it hung with the front end suspended about five feet off the ground.
Apparently my warning scream was impressive as he heard it over the combined noise of the skidder and tractor engines.
Once we determined the tractor, the skidder and I — in about that order — were fine, Andrew used a small sledgehammer to loosen the cable and put all four of the tractor’s tires back on terra firma.
Actually, back in terra firma since it was still in the mud zone.
That meant more winching. When I timidly asked whether the same thing would happen I got a patented Andrew-grin and the response, “It might — that winch is like a woman; it has a mind of its own and doesn’t do a thing I tell it to do.”
Since I was in no shape or position to make any of my pro-feminist remarks, I clambered back onto the tractor and hoped for the best.
Several deep trenches across the field later, it was free of the mud and back on firmer ground.
Last seen, Andrew was heading home on his skidder with the contrary winch.
Covered in a lovely mixture of mud and hydraulic fluid, I pointed the tractor back to my own yard. Not long after, the mower was unhitched and put away for the year.
I figure all that dogwood and other woody growth will be there in the spring. Things are bound to dry up by then. But just in case, the cavalry is now on speed dial.