The tree eaters

Video link.

Last Saturday at an antique farm machinery show I fell in love with steam engines: the shiny copper complicated piping, the valves, the pistons, the throaty puttputtputting as the great iron beasts rolled into place. They ran on firewood and smudged the bucolic sky with their hoary breath, part smoke, part vapor. And here I was, tree-lover and conservationist, cheering them on.

One venerable steam engine powered an entire sawmill with a single, long belt. Three men helped feed a tulip poplar log to the screaming blade while below, an auger laddered the yellow chips onto a growing mound. The next engine over ran a cider press, carrying apples up a conveyor to be chopped and crushed by slow screws as big around as barrels. While one vat filled, the other sent fresh cider gushing through a hose — plastic, like the jugs that sold almost as fast as they were filled.

But for that detail, this could have been a vision of a post-oil future. I had some idea of what that might mean: the long sinuous ridges would go bluer in the thicker haze, and maybe we wouldn’t notice as their wooded slopes thinned into pasture for draft horses, and the remaining woods went back to woodlot, a “working forest” in the Nature Conservancy’s 21st-century euphemism, prized only for what’s of use to people: timber. Fuel. Pulp. Maybe chemicals again. Wild game. Water for steam and for mills. I thought of Shel Silverstein’s fable The Giving Tree, and the selfishness of that boy who grows old without ever growing up. The impossible contradictory demands he makes on the tree, both to go on nurturing and to sacrifice herself.

The men who tended the steam engines and the other old machines grinned and sweated like boys at play, breathing hard. It began to rain. We made our way quickly back to the car.

7 Replies to “The tree eaters”

  1. nice! thanks for showing this. also gives me more of an appreciation for the whole steampunk mythology, if not aesthetic.
    so did you get the sense that these machines see much use throughout the season? they look like a lot of fun.

  2. Oh, good point — I totally forgot about steampunk. (I’ve fallen way behind in my BoingBoing reading.)

    The shinier ones probably get lots of TLC in the course of a year, and this group does have a spring show also, but it’s not clear to me whether they are used for anything other than exhibitions. If I go back there next year, I’ll try to get some interviews. My brother who used to live in Nebraska tells me that keeping old farm equipment in working order is a hobby shared by many, many farmers in the Midwest — and I gather in the U.K. too, from what Dick is saying. It’s interesting that so many would use the leisure time created by modern combines, etc. to care for their predecessors!

  3. So, you have something I think: Post Oil being not so much survivalist gamma world dystopia as just a sort of worse version of things we’ve seen in the lives of those still living.

    I’m investing now in “horse futures” and bullish on beasts of burden.

    And steam, what a precious convention. Seems so un-portable. Thank God for enthusiasts and the obsessed.

  4. Jarrett – I’ve always thought so, yeah.

    Evan – In this version of the future, the rich will still come out ahead because apart from the Amish they’re the ones with most of the intact horse infrastructure. Horse futures, they got ’em. Sort of.

  5. There’s something satisfying about seeing the machines at work. Watching te video reminded me of the pterodactyl under the Flinstone’s kitchen sink, sort of innocent and quaint, giving us an insider’s view.

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