Since we’re stuck working from home and/or trying not to watch the death counts, or heaven forbid are unemployed and wish we were working from home, here’s a little diversion, and nothing makes for a quality diversion like a bunch of old farming stories. And while tales of chickens and dirt and combines are inherently rewarding in and of themselves, they also bring a pertinent lesson about today’s dire situation.
There is a fascinating aspect to rural life; it is oppressively quiet and pastoral, yet intermingled with violent little starbursts of intense experiences that shape you for life and bring to consciousness a resilience that we had no clue we were capable of. What makes farm life so fascinating is that it can be a very solitary and boring experience, but also one that is right on the razor’s edge – a life full of big machinery that can kill a tired stubble-jumper in the blink of an eye, or big dangerous animals, or any number of life-and-death situations including simple things like hydraulic hoses that can do serious harm if they leak at you the wrong way. While farming life is getting more business-like and automated, there is a reason many farm folks greet you with a missing-digit wave. Most have a harrowing tale to tell of some sort, and some have many.
A friend of mine was working in a field by herself and unhooked a tractor from a set of harrows, and there was still an upward load on the hitch, and it hoisted her in the air dangling by one leg until her dad came to see why the tractor wasn’t moving.
Some neighbours were once partaking of a rural winter pastime – harvesting logs deep in the forest, in typical minus -25 weather, and a motor imploded, requiring a new crankshaft. They simply put a tarp around it, got propane heaters, and dismantled the beast right there in the forest, using some ingenious strategies to move crushingly huge engine parts here and there.
Many have had equipment die in brutal temperatures, or have some malfunction in the middle of nowhere, and been forced to find solutions regardless of the conditions. Some lost limbs or digits and still made it back to civilization, or, like my high school friend that shot himself in the hand, through the hand’s bottom and out the thumb, while out on his after-school trap line (tip: don’t hold a loaded gun by the barrel and use the other end for support in deep snow), and who simply made his way back to his truck and drove home and went in the house and announced “Mom I shot myself” and then rolled his eyes at her here-we-go-again commotion.
Here at long last is the point. Out of all these experiences, if you’re “lucky” enough to have one, you learn the most incredible life lesson ever: there is always a way out. It may not seem like it, and when you’re, say, looking with one eye at a tractor that won’t start in minus-40 temperatures and with the other at a herd of cows impatiently awaiting dinner, there is no value in panic, and there are no external options. You can, and will, find a way forward. Short of being physically incapacitated in a decisive way, there is almost always a path forward.
This doesn’t have to be about farmers of course (and all those stories are true…understandably un-hyperlinked though). A few years ago, a hiker got his hand caught between boulders in the US and ultimately had to perform some simple and brutal surgery to get free. But he did it. And surely many of you have your own versions that are non-agricultural but just as stark and clarity-enhancing. “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result,” said Winston Churchill, and he’s probably right. Many aren’t physical at all; perhaps some escape abusive situations with nothing, or suffer childhood trauma like no one should. Or maybe you survived a life-threatening illness. Though brutal, such stressful situations can ultimately be empowering and transformative.
Thanks to the twin gut-punches of the coronavirus and a commodity price crash, we are in such a situation now. For many, the feeling is what I’ve been describing: a hellish situation with no help or hope on the horizon and no apparent way out. The economy is crashing, life-savings are vaporizing if in the stock market, jobs are precarious or gone, and our health is at unknown risk. We are figuratively lying face down in the gutter.
But we don’t know what the future will hold, and there will be a path forward. We can’t necessarily see it, and it might be long and hard, but there will be one.
There are paths forward for us, and the greater population, and possibly even silver linings. If nothing else, this experience has reminded us of what is frivolous and what is not, and how unfathomably critical our supply chains are, starting with food. Think about the oil price crash for a second, and maybe a bigger, broader upside appears. While annihilated oil prices are punishing the world’s fuel suppliers mercilessly, think of those farmers, the providers of all that food that is key to our very existence. Farmers will be massive beneficiaries of lower gasoline and diesel prices and will be grateful for them even if they are hanging in the air by one leg. In other words, what is harming the hydrocarbon industry may turn out to be a massive contributor to us getting through this crisis as a country, or the world for that matter.
Further, since increasing fuel costs are like a tax, falling ones are like tax relief, and that might help kick start the economy when it needs it most. That good feeling may not help you pay your rent, but feeling good about something might mean the difference between curling up on the couch waiting to die and heading out into the world with a sense of enthusiasm to see what’s next (when we can head out into the world again). And if you can’t pay your rent, remember that tens of millions of North Americans are in exactly the same boat, and society will not make you all homeless. Paths will appear, perhaps not perfect ones, but they will, and we will get through.
We live in a time where we are incredibly exposed to things like viruses, yet unbelievably lucky to have a robust mechanism in place to keep the machine running. Any given piece is fallible – a road can wash out, or a pipeline break, or a transmission tower go down – but we have options to move goods and services by other means. We don’t rely on one source of food; we have a vast array of options and if one goes down, there are many others. The same goes for people; there are options to deal with what seems insurmountable.
There are of course incredible challenges, and there will be hardships. But we won’t curl up and die, or, at least no one in the energy business that I know will. Hang in there, take one day at a time, and one step at a time, and this too shall all pass. In the meantime, take a 5-minute break and go find something really funny on the internet.
For more farm tales, energy talk, and blistering uncalled-for attacks on dentists, pick up “The End of Fossil Fuel Insanity” at Amazon.ca, Indigo.ca, or Amazon.com. The time will fly by, you’ll learn about energy challenges, and get more than a few laughs. And I know you need them.