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The Rural Life

I was raised in the city by a former farm boy, but, to his chagrin, my father’s farm-forged values were not always enthusiastically embraced by his citified offspring. It drove my daddy to distraction, for instance, that his teenaged daughters did not share his aversions to sleeping late, “rotting our brains” with TV or spending summer afternoons prostrate in the backyard with an AM radio and a bottle of Coppertone.

Rising early and working hard weren’t the only farmer’s virtues my father tried to pass down to the next generation. He also believed, no matter how successful he became in his city career, in fixing what is broken, wasting not so you want not.
Today, that might be described as reducing your carbon footprint. In those days, we called it making do.

I vividly remember my father huddled over some malfunctioning household item with his collection of mismatched screws and leftover washers and two-part epoxies spread out on the kitchen table. If our electric hot rollers went on the blink, Daddy spliced and patched until his daughters were back in Farrah Fawcett curls again.

When the knobs kept falling off of the shift levers of the hand-me-down Malibu we drove to school, Daddy replaced them –– not with anything from the auto parts store but with some huge, glossy wood-grain things that looked like bizarre, lacquered billy clubs sticking up over the dashboard. To this day, I’m not sure what they were, where they came from or why he put them there. I only know my sisters and I were in a tizzy about the potential collateral damage to our image. These concerns, however, left our pragmatic patriarch utterly unfazed. Despite our protests, the billy clubs stayed.

Back then, I failed to appreciate a fundamental truth that 16 years of marriage to another practical-minded farmer have made perfectly clear. For better or worse, farmers are the original reducers, re-users and recyclers.

I know what you’re imagining when I mention farmers and recycling. You’re thinking cool stuff like ethanol-burning tractors, organic composting or innovative processes for turning cow manure into energy. That’s not exactly what I’m getting at, although we have tried a few earth-friendly agricultural practices here on our Washington Parish hay farm.

From time to time, we have foregone traditional fertilizers in lieu of organic ones such as chicken manure (talk about being popular with the neighbors) or recycled ones, such as the pure lime created as a manufacturing byproduct at a nearby paper mill. That was pretty darn green of us, even if, in all honesty, it was motivated more by saving money than by saving the planet. Then there was the oxidation lagoon that trapped manure from our old dairy barn and prevented it from washing into the Bogue Chitto River and downstream to Lake Pontchartrain. The lagoon system also enabled us to spray the liquefied waste back onto our fields for fertilizer and irrigation. Definitely an Al Gore kind of moment. Yet again, I have to confess, we built the poo-poo pond only because the government forced us to and a Lake Pontchartrain environmental organization paid for it.

Frankly, the vast majority of the recycling that goes on around this farm has very little to do with keeping the earth green and a lot to do with keeping our pockets green. Or as my farmer puts it –– with a certain perverse pride –– to being a tightwad.

An appreciation for what the less discerning might call “junk” is a major aspect of my beloved tightwad’s personal recycling crusade. Not surprisingly, there’s almost nothing he digs more than a pawn shop. Department stores and fancy malls hold little allure for my thrifty man of the soil. But show him an establishment that sells second-hand hydraulic jacks or hocked socket sets and he’s all over it. Ditto for a junkyard (a farmer’s idea of a flea market) or every rusty, worn-out farm implement he sees for sale on the side of the highway. (On second thought, anyone who’s familiar with the staggering price of new farm equipment will be inclined to cut him some slack on this one.)

Harvey’s attraction to society’s castoffs has, in fact, resulted in quite a few killer deals: perfectly good miter saws purchased for a song; leaf blowers that just needed a capacitor; the two identical riding lawnmowers he plucked out of an equipment dealer’s junk pile for $50 apiece, then patiently cobbled together to make one like-new lawnmower easily worth $2,000. (We’ll skip the tragic ending where the farmhand ran it out of oil and burned up the engine.)

He routinely works the same magic on our personal vehicles and even our kids’ bicycles, which get run over in the yard on a monthly basis. I don’t know how may times I’ve been poised to say last rites over an ice maker or dryer when my talented improviser rode to the rescue with a volt meter in one hand and a Phillips-head screwdriver in the other. Rarely has he failed to solve any repair problem, right down to an electrical mystery at our barn that even had the power company stumped.
Most of the time, I count myself lucky to have married a scrappy farm boy with a knack for fixing and making do  –– just like the scrappy farm boy who raised me.
And then, I have to admit, there are those occasions when I wish Harvey was a bit less skilled at keeping trash out of America’s landfills.

No, it’s not such a terrible sin that he sometimes takes the dirty air-conditioning filters from our house down to his workshop and blows the dust out of them with his compressed-air nozzle. It was an only slightly egregious offense the time or three I caught him dumping the garbage out of the garbage bag and putting the smelly bag back into the kitchen can. I managed to laugh about the fact that we spent hundreds of dollars and several days replacing the Katrina-damaged ceiling in our den and he wanted to put the crown molding back up using the original 40-year-old nails.

But the other day, when I asked my frugal Mr. Fix It to pick up some new hinges for the piano bench and he suggested hammering out the old hopelessly twisted ones instead, I put my foot down. Call me a selfish, ugly American hogging more than my share of the earth’s resources, but I wanted my brand-new hinges, and damn the $2 expense.

Hey, I care about the future of our planet as much as the next farmer’s wife. But I think I speak for all of us when I say that no matter how bad things get, I will always draw the line at wampy-jawed hinges or Billy clubs on my steering column. I just hope the polar bears and the farm boys will forgive me.

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