Men & The Art of Tractor Maintenance

by Kate Tvelia Athearn

Men & The Art of Tractor Maintenance

Elizabeth Cecil

On a 1969 ford tractor painted the same bright blue as the summer sky, Danny Whiting maneuvers between the narrow rows of arborvitae like he’s been doing it all his life. And he has. Well, almost. He wasn’t allowed to drive until the ripe old age of 6, when he was finally able to reach the pedals and see over the steering wheel at the same time. Danny learned to maintain tractors by watching his father, Everett, during his childhood on the Whiting Farm in West Tisbury. They were farmers and like their parents and grandparents before them, they needed equipment for tilling and harvesting, and they had to know how to keep it running. There were no classes to take or books to read, just a rich kinesthetic tradition passed down through the generations, absorbed while following Dad around and trying to be helpful. In true farm-boy fashion, Danny is remarkably humble about his mechanical abilities—as if everyone knows about pistons and camshafts, and how to tell if the oil level is low in your gearbox.

Even though they’ve never met and there’s no genetic connection between the two, when Danny talks, I feel like I’m looking into my younger son’s future. They are cut from the same vulcanized rubber, painted the same John Deere green, and share a desire to be bigger than they are, to make the impossible possible. Dig deeper and pull harder and pile higher.

At six-and-a-half years old, Emmett’s idea of play is building a chicken coop or tightening a sheep fence with Dad. He prefers tools to toys and has an intense need to know how things work. He wants to do more, to be more, than he is naturally capable of. But it isn’t merely the manly bigger-better-faster-more complex at work here—Emmett is driven and persistent. He has a focus that I sincerely lack, a confidence that puts others at ease just being in his presence.

It seems to me that, in this way, modern-day farm boys are similar to their cowboy predecessors. They are capable. Dependable. Hard working. Practical. Instead of Stetsons, they wear ball caps, and the steel toes of their boots are rounded instead of pointy. But today’s farmers ride with that same cowboy confidence, the gears and hydraulics an extension of their own sturdy limbs.

Danny still maintains the machinery for his family at the Whiting Farm and at L&W Tree Farm, which he co-owns with Norman Lobb. Danny and Norman both have day jobs, so they run their tree farm on the weekends. What they can manage with tractors in a few hours a week, with just a handful of laborers, would otherwise take 20 full-time workers to do, Danny estimates. Digging out a single tree by hand would take hours instead of the five minutes it takes with a tree spade and skid loader. Danny can’t imagine agriculture without tractors. Thinking of undeveloped countries where they “scratch in the dirt with sticks” to plant seeds, he gets a faraway look in his eye.

“I feel sorry for ‘em. They don’t have a prayer.” With that, Danny tips his hat and mows off into the sunset.