Jim Buchanan

Jim Buchanan

As the ground slowly warms, the smell of freshly-turned earth begins to waft over the mountains. It’s hard to describe – a mix of the smell you get when earthworms surface after a rain and of, well, life lying dormant ready for another season.

Turning the soil is a long tradition in the mountains, and long a necessary one for many a family heavily dependent on subsistence farming to provide fresh produce for both the long and short haul.

The family garden is sort of going by the wayside, but they’re still out there in spots. Thus the soil is still being turned, and to turn a garden of any size you need a tractor.

Pulling that off in the mountains takes skill.

After one of Daddy’s heart attacks he asked the doctor if it was OK is he continued walking. The doctor agreed, recommended it, in fact, but only on level ground.

To which Daddy replied “I ain’t got no level ground!’’

(Mind you, I know good and well Daddy was already thinking about getting back out in the woods to bear hunt and was going to do so regardless of doctor’s orders. He wasn’t asking for permission. I’m not sure why he asked at all, outside of some sort of theoretical curiosity).

At any rate, Daddy was right about the lack of level ground. You could drop a golf ball on just about all of the property and watch it merrily bounce away toward the creek. The 5 or so acres on East Fork was nearly all uphill or, if you turned around, downhill, and that included the garden.

Grover Cabe and later his son, Andrew, would come break the soil every spring with a tractor, and it was pretty impressive to watch. It’s easy to understand why you hear about tractor and riding mower accidents here in the hills. Gravity don’t fool around.

Breaking the garden with a tractor is a graceful thing to watch, but what comes after often isn’t: Setting the rows with a tiller.

Daddy and my brothers were good with a tiller, but I never got the hang. When I was 5 years old I still believed you could dig to China if you really put your mind to it. I no longer believed that when I was 15, but almost pulled it off with the family tiller.

Tillers seem to want to do one of four things: Not start, not stop, burrow like a groundhog or take off like a startled horse. I’ve seen more than one person laid out behind one, being dragged along before it dawned on them they were hanging on by the throttle and should probably just let go (although with our property it wasn’t certain you’d ever see the tiller again if you left it to its own devices).

In pre-tiller days, the garden rows were laid out by mule. Neighbor Early Deitz used one every spring up into his 90s.

The trick to getting a straight row, I’ve been told, was to pick out a target between the mule’s ears and fix on it, sort of keeping it lined up like a gunsight and following to the end of the row.

Of course, after getting the first row or two straight, there was no longer a need for that as you simply follow the plowed paths.

But a lot of people kept sighting between the mule’s ears anyway, the consensus being that if you simply looked ahead at eye level you’d be staring at the less flattering end of the mule, a view that got old pretty fast.

Buchanan is editor of the Sylva Herald.