I have never particularly subscribed to the view that animals act much like people, but no sooner did my horses get out of the barn after three days of being cooped up during last week's blizzard than they started plowing paths around the field to nowhere in particular. That, and annoying each other.
I kept reading newspaper stories over the past few days about everyone in Washington frantically digging out their cars so they could frantically get back to work doing the nation's business of lobbying for pork-belly subsidies and issuing new duct-tape advisories. An editor at a certain urban newspaper called up and suggested that out where I live people must, by contrast, be viewing it all with a simple grace, throwing another log on the fire as we gaze placidly out on a snow-softened landscape, taking it all in as part of nature's wonder and majesty. What a contrast, she said, to the high-pressure, helter-skelter, can't-stop-a-minute, got-to-get-back-to-the-routine imperative of Washington.
I laughed. I laughed derisively, I might add. Digging out of snowstorms is a primal urge. It has nothing to do with necessity. You want to know what people out here in touch with nature do? They go to war with nature, that's what. Digging out is as instinctual and automatic and inevitable a reaction to snow as my kids whacking each other over the head with videotapes after two days of fighting about what they'll watch when school's been canceled. It's ancient, it's probably genetic. I read last week about that archaeological find in China where they just unearthed another army of terra-cotta soldiers from 2,000 years ago. I'm sure the archaeologists are going to find a stash of terra-cotta snow shovels there if they look carefully. The only reason they never found snow shovels in King Tut's tomb is that they didn't have snow in ancient Egypt. If there had been snow in ancient Egypt, there'd be entire temples dedicated to some snow-shoveling god (I am picturing a sort of half-man, half-crow, with a shovel under one wing). Pharaohs would have been buried with little miniature snow shovels to help them shovel snow in the afterlife.
I certainly didn't have anywhere to go on Monday. Or on Tuesday. Or even Wednesday, for that matter. In fact I haven't had anywhere to go for five years now -- since I started working at home. At least I call it work. My 16-year-old daughter calls it sitting around in my bathrobe. Not that she had anywhere to go either, what with school already canceled for the whole week. Even the mall was closed. But that didn't stop me from putting on boots and sweatshirts and getting out there and digging even while the snow was still falling. Don't think this is some vestigial helter-skelter Washington-can't-stop-for-a-minute instinct left over from my previous life either. This was the genuine primal instinct.
The more primal you are, the stronger the instinct. We're pretty primal out here. You know the saying about how there's no zealot like a convert: Well, nobody wages unnecessary combat against snow like a farmer and that's the dirty truth, and nobody's more determined to act like a real farmer than an ex-suburbanite like me. I had the farmer cap, everything. So did everyone else. It sounded like a demolition derby out there with all the tractor engines roaring away. Every man his own trailblazer, that's what it was: Pioneers! Lewis and Clark heading west on tractors! Scott of the Antarctic's expedition to the South Pole on tractors! Stanley and Livingstone meeting up from opposite directions on tractors!
Then once we'd escaped from our driveways we all drove our tractors up and down the road. It looked like a protest by French farmers. All we needed were a few tires to set fire to.
Give a man a tractor, a bucolic landscape, a snowstorm and nothing else to do except annoy his family and you think he's going to spend his time meditating on the rhythms of nature? Tell it to Jean Jacques Rousseau. You want to know what oneness with nature is really all about? Forget the noble savage. Remember that routine Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner used to do -- the "2000 Year Old Man"? The 2000 Year Old Man explains that one of the jobs back then was to take a piece of wood, and rub it, and hit a tree with it. Straight man Reiner asks, "For what purpose?" "Just to keep busy," Brooks answers.