Fears, Learning and Machines

Being around machinery is all new to me- the various parts, learning about power capacities, the size and even the level of noise. Sure, I have seen all kinds of massive machinery (from afar) when the roads are rebuilt and buildings go up in the city, but I have never been the one working one. The Learn to Farm Program starts all of their introductions to the various tools and machinery with multiple safety classes. So even before we start using any of the various shop tools, timber hand tools, chainsaws and tractors we are given ample classroom time, followed by demonstrations with various instructors and side-by-side guided instruction.

I did not know that I had a strong fear of being around machinery until my time came to use them. I was not expecting to have my body tense up by just hearing about the various parts and functions. I started to fear that something might go wrong. I imagined everything from the improper functioning of the various parts to my own mishandling of a piece of machinery. Our classes, in addition to the numerous safety precautions, also had their share of horror stories from severe injuries to death. At first, hearing all of these stories, further my fear of machines. When it was time to use drills, circular saws, chainsaws and tractors, I was sure something was going to go wrong.

The first class encompassed an entire day of drills, hammers, and table and circular saws along with triangle squares and chalk reels. Our instructor, Greg, arrived hours before our class to arrange all of the tools in what I can only describe as a picturesque organization. The tool set-up itself provided a glimpse of Greg’s dedication to ensuring that everyone felt comfortable and safe in using all of the tools that were laid out on that table. The first step, as with almost all the machinery at the Farm School is safety glasses and ear protection. As part of our class, we were going to work on making sawhorses for our near future timber frame classes.  

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In every step of the way, we were guided in each measurement and cut. I asked Greg many kinds of clarifying questions about the basics of using claw hammers to adjusting the height of a circular saw. My questions were met with interest and answered with clear demonstrations of and on a one-to-one basis. By the end, my fellow classmate, Jaye, and I finished our very own sawhorse. Even though I am still working on making straight diagonal lines using a circular saw, I feel that this day provided a solid introduction for exploring more on my own. My first step in this direction was completing a two shelf shoe rack.

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Up next came three days of classes of using and maintaining chainsaws. One of the first facts that I remember being informed on the chainsaws was that the rotation of the chain (with all of its sharp teeth) around the bar was approximately a mile per minute. Our instructor, Bill, made it clear that wearing rubber boots would not provide any kind of protection neither would any leather compacted toe shoes. I looked down at my shoes and right away decided that I needed a  pair of steel-toed shoes.

We made it to our site for felling trees, and I felt on edge and hesitant at the thought of being the first participant. I was spared as a couple of my classmates agreed to go first. Felling a tree safely is not this one-step process that I had conceived of in my mind. Most of our time was devoted to walking through the felling planning process of each individual tree even before starting the chainsaw. I tried remembering all the steps, but the whole process felt immense in size.

I fell my first white birch with fear and with physical guidance from our instructor. It was not an easy process to do for me. I don’t know what made me more uneasy about my first tree felling- the time it took in understanding every step of the planning process, the height of the tree or the power of the chainsaw. I felt tense throughout the day, even after the white birch had safely landed on the grazing field.   

The following day, I felt more at ease felling my second tree, and by the second half of the day we were on to limbing and bucking. Limbing and bucking required a new understanding of the implications of compression and tension. We walked alongside the fell tree and looked at the various branches that were holding the tree above ground. The concept seemed pretty  straight forward, but when it was my turn to practice, I got my chainsaw pinched not just one but several times. Our three-day introductory course came to an end and I still felt a sense of insecurity. Our instructor assured me that having a safe level of fear is probably safer than having none.

One of the greatest aspects of the Learn to Farm program is that it provides ample opportunities to practice in various capacities with multiple instructors many essential farm skills. In the case of using chainsaws, a couple of weeks had passed by since our introductory class prior to another round of bucking one-on-one with a different instructor. This time, the logs had already been limbed and the sole purpose of these was to practice bucking. Tyson, my instructor, reviewed once again (in great-detail) the safety measures of checking the chainsaw, wearing the proper gear (chaps, eye and ear protection), proper techniques for moving logs, and reading compression and tension on a log.   

On my first day of bucking with Tyson, I lost count of the number of times I pinched my saw. It is a new way of being for me- the process of stopping for a second and analyzing the compression and tension prior to every cut. Had it not been for Tyson’s consistent patience and kindness in his guidance, I probably would have become overwhelmed and too embarrassed to continue building this skill. Instead, I asked questions prior (and sometimes after) to making my cuts. I also asked for help in unpinching the bar of my chainsaw. Throughout the whole day, I felt supported. I felt significantly more comfortable with the chainsaw this time around. The following day, I made a point of stopping, thinking and trying predict the outcome of my cuts. This significantly helped in pinching my chainsaw less than the previous day.  

I will probably always carry a little fear of machinery. My hope is that as I start accumulating more hours of drilling, cutting, felling trees and using tractors that this fear will serve only as an automatic reminder of living with safety precautions as a way of life. Having had various instructors, as well as the days, for building upon the same skill have been so essential for my own learning. The patience and understanding that my instructors here have provided have also allowed me to take a moment in working with my own emotions in the process of learning a new skill. As I write this, I recall hearing multiple times in class that if we did not feel comfortable on the day of our tractor practice that we could always reschedule to another time. Examples like these go a long way for building comfort for me and most importantly, feeling cared for and invested as a student. The Learn to Farm Program is truly an amazing educational opportunity serving as a model for creating a supportive learning environment and at the same time building upon a multitude of farm skills.  

Note: A special thank you to classmate, Jaye, for providing pictures for this blog post!