Wednesday, June 16, 2021

The Horse and the Tractor


“When a horse stops work and goes into the barn there is a life and a vitality left, there is a breathing and a warmth, and the feet shift on the straw, and the jaws champ on the hay, and the ears and the eyes are alive. There is a warmth of life in the barn, and the heat and smell of life. But when the motor of a tractor stops, it is as dead as the ore it came from. The heat goes out of it like the living heat that leaves a corpse. Then the corrugated iron doors are closed and the tractor man drives home to town, perhaps twenty miles away, and need not come back for weeks or months, for the tractor is dead. And this is easy and efficient. So easy that the wonder goes out of work, so efficient that the wonder goes out of land and the working of it, and with the wonder the deep understanding and the relations. And in the tractor man there grows the contempt that comes only to a stranger who has little understanding and no relation.”        - John Steinbeck; The Grapes of Wrath

Many years back, the Green Gulch Zen Center had to decide whether to buy a horse or a tractor to help clear the land for the garden. They knew the tractor was easier and more efficient, but engaged in a practice of connection, of deep understanding and profound relationship and the restoration of wonder, they wisely chose the horse. 


Needless to say, in the culture at large, the tractor has won hands down, the enormous monoculture farm has swallowed the small multi-faceted family farm (though now some renaissance at Farmer’s Markets) and the sense of intimacy and connection to the land and to the work has suffered. Ease and speed and size and efficiency is what drives our decision-making and the warmth and vitality of the living horse is given over to the cold metal of the dead machine. Steinbeck continues:


“Nitrates are not the land, nor phosphates and the length of fiber in the cotton is not the land. Carbon is not a man, nor salt nor water nor calcium. He is all these, but he is much more, much more; and the land is so much more than its analysis. That man who is more than his chemistry, walking on the earth, turning his plow point for a stone, dropping his handles to slide over an outcropping, kneeling in the earth to eat his lunch; that man who is more than his elements knows the land that is more than its analysis. But the machine man, driving a dead tractor on land he does not know and love, understands only chemistry; and he is contemptuous of the land and of himself. When the corrugated iron doors are shut, he goes home, and his home is not the land.”


These truths resonate in worlds beyond farms. Teaching, for example. The teacher gets to know the hills and valleys and subtle contours of the child’s landscape, walks that land feeling the dirt and the coolness of the streams and the birdsong from the trees. The horse that drives the teacher’s passion continues to chew on the hay and keep its eyes and ears alert when it goes to the barn at night. It is no engine that shuts off, but is perpetually breathing with warmth and vitality. 


But the administrators who have long abandoned the classroom— or worse yet, never entered it— have become those who do not know the children and thus, cannot love them, can understand only money and power and clamor for the machines that bring the illusion of ease and efficiency (as the pandemic has taught us, nothing is more inefficient than trying to play music together on Zoom). And so they drain the wonder from the whole venture and adventure of education and with the loss of wonder comes the collapse of understanding and relationship, comes the hidden contempt for the teachers who live at the heart of the matter. Those with conferred authority lack the spiritual authority needed to lead a dead school toward a living community and they walk through the halls as mere vehicles of carbon, calcium, salt and water minus the Soul that animates it all and makes a living man or woman. 


When the caretakers of the land, the teachers in the school, are forced out by the dust and drought of an impoverished spirit, when the bankers move in to take the money and leave, then (Steinbeck again), “the doors of the empty houses swing open and drift back and forth in the wind. Bands of boys come out from the towns to break the windows and to pick over the debris… the cats creep through the open doors and walk mewing through the empty rooms… And on windy nights the doors bang, and the ragged curtains flutter in the broken windows.”


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