Beijing, 14 September 2013
In the trip to Xinjiang which I mentioned in my previous post, we were also taken to see a tractor manufacturer. Row upon row of bright new tractors greeted us as we walked into the factory’s yard
but we ignored these, headed as we were for the shed where they assembled the tractors.
It was with some relief that we exchanged the heat and light of the yard for the cool darkness of the shed interior. There, we were introduced to the plant manager, and after a hearty shaking of hands all round he launched into his exposé of all the wonderful things his factory was doing. I let his voice wash over me as I took in a yellow tractor, newly assembled, standing proud and tall before me.
And suddenly I was 14 or 15 again, standing, on a beautiful summer’s day, by the side of a tractor. I was out on the plains of Manitoba, an hour or so’s drive from Winnipeg, on a farm owned by the parents of a friend of my sister’s. The farmer was asking me if I wanted to try ploughing a field and I was saying yes. Why not? Everything is possible when you are 14 or 15.
So he gave me a quick lesson in tractor driving and ploughing, and sent me off to a distant field. And off I went, my hat cocked at a jaunty angle as I surveyed the surroundings, Lord of everything I beheld. After 10 minutes, I arrived at the field – the North American plains are very big and tractors are very slow – and there I found myself faced with an unexpected choice: there were actually two fields, one to the left and one to the right, and no fences. Which one? I hesitated, trying to remember my instructions – no mobile phones in those days, no way to check back – and eventually plumped for the field to the right.
So I started ploughing, starting as instructed at the field’s edge and going round in ever-decreasing circles until the middle was reached. By the end of the first circle, I noticed a man standing on the edge of the field. By the end of the second circle, he had walked over and signaled me to stop. He asked me politely what I was doing. Well, I was ploughing the field, I replied lamely. Yes, he responded patiently, but on whose instructions. Well, I said, and here I named my farmer host. Ah, he said, but the fact was that I was ploughing HIS field. Not that he minded, he added quickly, the field was fallow (thank God! I screamed inside of me) and no doubt it would benefit from an extra plough, but still … He pleasantly instructed me to stay still while he phoned his neighbour.
I sat there, on the tractor, with my hat at not quite such a cocky angle now, with a sense of impending doom. And indeed my farmer host came scorching over like a bat out of hell. He covered in 10 seconds in his battered old car what had taken me 10 minutes with the tractor. He bounced out, glared at me, and excused himself profusely with his neighbour, but the offended party was very gracious about it all and the situation resolved itself pleasantly.
My farmer host next turned to me and in that very deliberate and slow tone one reserves for the village idiot told me that I was meant to be ploughing the LEFT field. And to make sure that the village idiot had understood he pointed very insistently at the field in question. Suitably chastened, with my hat drooping about my ears, I headed for said field, and started again.
So there I was, circling the field, spiraling slowly – EVER so slowly; the field was very big – towards its middle. I have to tell you, ploughing is pretty boring. After about the fourth circle the novelty of it all had worn off and I was wondering how to pass the time. I tried singing, but the noise of the engine drowned out even the lustiest of my songs. I tried driving with one hand, but that palled after 2 minutes. I tried driving with one leg up on the dashboard, but that was uncomfortable. In a moment of desperation, I even thought of trying to drive sitting backwards but luckily good sense prevailed. So I was reduced to just driving, driving, driving in ever decreasing circles as the sun slowly dropped to the horizon of the endless Manitoban plains.
Ploughing the plains may be boring but the plains themselves have a strange beauty. As a boy brought up in undulating landscapes, used to cresting land-waves and finding hills rising up before me, I initially found the plains disorienting. Whenever my parents took us out for drives I never knew which way to look. But after a while I began to appreciate the way the sky was so close to the land, seeming to press down on it and you, and how you could really enjoy cloud formations in the vast, uncluttered sky of the plains. I could never get over those fields of wheat stretching off as far as the eye could see, registering on their waving surface every meander of the passing breeze …
I was nudged, the plant manager had finished his peroration. I came out of my reverie with a smile playing on my lips, which no doubt delighted the man, reinforcing his conviction that what he did was incredibly interesting. With another round of hearty handshakes, we emerged blinking into the strong sunlight and headed for the car and the next factory.
tractors inside and outside: GUO Li
tractor and the sunset: http://farm5.staticflickr.com/4045/4482416778_f1fc6db355_z.jpg
wheat fields: https://farm5[dot]staticflickr.com/4127/4975335245_a2e33916c3_z.jpg