The Tiller, the Van, and the Typewriter

When the union moved into the university where I worked (moved in, may I say, by hook and by crook), I looked down the road and foresaw a collision course. So, on the side, I made plans.

I had already bought and joyfully used a genuine six-horsepower electric-start Troy-bilt rototiller with excellent results in my own garden. Could I, at my age, till gardens for others for money? I could try.

But how to get the tiller from here to there?

I studied the problem of trailers versus vans versus pickup trucks from front to back and back to front and sideways to see what was best for me. I decided, in the end, on a van. It would transport the tiller and anything else I wanted, plus providing me with a camper for traveling. You can get from front seat to rear, or vice versa, in a van, without ever stepping outdoors, a prudent thought if you should land in rough company and need to get away.

Further, if the economy should continue its downward plunge, the van could even provide desperation housing.

I invested in a van. Just about the time it came, so did the first strike. Not in favor, yet in sympathy with my friends, I did not picket but I respected the lines and stayed out. I put an ad in the paper and got out there and tilled gardens.

There was usually a look of apprehension as a gray-haired grandmother wheeled up and unloaded her tiller. But as the earth pulverized to a remarkably workable consistency, and no heart attacks seemed imminent, the customers relaxed and were delighted. Most paid in cash. One person paid an equivalent amount in meat from her freezer—most welcome.

The strike was settled. Work resumed. Then I was told that I must either join the union and pay dues or not join and pay dues anyway (due to an agency agreement). In my ignorance, before then I had not even heard of "agency shop." What! I was outraged. Pay to keep the job I loved and had essentially created! Pay for a service I neither needed nor wanted! Pay protection money!

No! I set my grandmotherly heels and said, "O.K. Do your worst." Time passed. I made a third investment, a typewriter—a sturdy, upright model that could be used anywhere, electricity or not. Off and on over the years I had been writing, occasionally selling. I hoped to do a lot more of both.

So, when the union cracked the whip, I was ready.

Let me diverge here, to say just why I opposed the union’s demands. I’ll try not to go on too long about it, but if you are to understand why I took such a strong stand, I have to explain the situation.

Many people join the union, not thinking too much about it, as it seems the only reasonable thing to do at the time. I read the pledge card, all the fine print, and was not about to sign that—to pledge my honor equally to the union and to the United States of America; to sign over to the union the sole right to represent me in any and all matters relating to my employment; to swear not to divulge any of the secret proceedings of the union (what if I were a member and had a disagreement with union policies?); to agree that, should I resign from the union I would automatically lose my job. Not only did I refuse to join, I refused to pay to the support of an organization which exacted such a pledge.

Union promoters say over and over again that those who share in the benefits should share in the cost—hence "agency shop" agreements. What if the union does not bring benefits? Money is not everything on a job. It had been my observation that when a union comes in, strikes inevitably follow. I don’t like the method. My way of getting ahead on a job, which has certainly always been effective, has been to consider that I am there to get the work done. The result of strikes is disruption of necessary work, polarization of employer and employees, antagonism between employees, regimentation and virtual loss of merit pay, and loss of income both to individuals and to the community at large.

It is my strong contention that anyone should be able to join a union, even to strike if they so wish, but not be able to force others to do the same. The right to join must be balanced by the right not to join—or to pay.

There. That sums up my position.

The crisis came in the fall. I had been receiving epistles from the union which I mentally, if not actually, threw in the wastebasket. I assumed I was working for the university. On September 15 I was called to the personnel office and told to pay up or be "terminated" on September 21. Six days’ notice!

I was stunned. Six days to phase down a complex operation!

My work was as curator (a sort of librarian) of preserved plant and insect collections. These specimens had been assembled over the years, some being a hundred years old, and were a most valuable record of the plants and insects of different areas. There they were, not just a picture or description of a given plant or insect, subject to the artist or author’s error, but the actual organism, always capable of being taken out and restudied. The specimens were used in teaching, in research, and as historical vouchers. Because it was a relatively small collection (about 20,000 plants), and I was the only worker, I did a variety of tasks—collecting, pressing plants, pinning insects, mounting, cataloguing, making up special teaching mounts, assembling displays for classes on request.

All that, clubbed down in six days, solely because I could not in conscience pay to an organization which intervened between me and my employer!

Well, I had been terminated. What now?

Back to my three allies, the tiller, the van, and the typewriter. I tilled gardens. I baby-sat. I typed furiously, completing a book and some shorter works. I balanced through the winter on half-time employment elsewhere—that bitter winter of 1976-1977. I acquired another responsibility: My eighty-nine-year old mother came to live with me, I being the only child who was at home enough to have her. While I was at it, I completed the requirements for my M.S. in biology.

Came the spring. Time for decision.

I had one more security, a major one. Several years earlier I had seized the opportunity to buy a small farmhouse and farm in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I had always planned to move north one day, after giving adequate notice to the university (six months to a year) and turning the work over to a successor in orderly fashion.

I weighed all the factors: my mother, who needed increasing care; my ambition to write; my refusal to work any place where I must join a union; the rising cost of living in Ann Arbor, where half-time work was not enough to keep my head above water; my love for the north country. On the negative side: moving away from friends and family (but they could come to visit); the hazards of no certain income. The answer, I decided, was to move north, to take my chances on my writing, to consolidate everything in one grand effort.

Then followed the exhaustion of packing and sorting, of selling off, of breaking the myriad threads—getting change of address cards from the post office; phoning the gas company, the telephone company, the Edison. Saying goodbye to friends. Be sure to write. Yes, of course, I’ll write.

When I moved to the farm, I went in faith and hope and terror. There I would be, launching into the unknown. I alone would be responsible for plumbing, repairs, getting around in the severe winters. No family nor close friends would live near.

We came on Memorial Day weekend, by U-Haul. Two sons drove the truck up and unpacked everything, while I drove more slowly, bringing my mother. Small granddaughter came along for the ride. A week before the move I was sure of only one person to help with the loading. On the day, eleven people appeared and packed and loaded me out of there.

It has been like that all the way. I would set my sights on something and work toward it and somehow, incredibly, it would work out. I’ve forgotten who said it: "The steps of faith fall on the seeming void and find the rock beneath."

There we were.


As soon as I had a narrow channel cleared from sink to stove to refrigerator, I set up the typewriter in my bedroom/office, and tilled and planted the garden. Life was going to be frugal, and every carrot would count.

There was, to begin with, a commission to write a booklet on plant collecting and preservation for a biological supply company—a good solid commission. That was first writing priority. Every day I put in at least four hours at the typewriter. The rest of the day I unpacked, sorted, cooked, cleaned, gardened, made repairs.

At first the electric pump did not work, so I pumped and carried from the hand-operated one in the yard—marvelous for exercise. We have excellent fall-back systems here. If the electric pump (now installed) does not work, I just take a bucket and go out and get water. The kitchen range burns wood in one end but also has electric burners. The main heat comes from an oil space-heater. If that goes out, the kitchen range will hold off the cold. If the drains freeze or otherwise stop up, there is a wooden privy beyond the windbreak. The electric water heater did freeze last winter, but we heat water on top of the stove or else use the sauna—the most efficient, warmest, most civilized way ever devised to take a bath in a cold climate.

Repair of the electric pump and of a crumbling foundation neatly cleaned out the savings account. Since then I have existed on a series of fortuitous money sources: the sale of the plant-collecting booklet; a few days’ work back at the university, instructing my successor; a completely unexpected gift from my sister; repayment of a long-standing loan.

The garden was not the greatest, but I utilized every vegetable that reared its head, and canned and froze vegetables and fruit from there, from gifts from visiting friends, and from purchases. I have studied the gardens of my neighbors, learning much, so that next year that department should show improvement. Perennial fruits and vegetables already started are asparagus, strawberries, red and black raspberries, rhubarb, multiplier onions, Hansen bush cherries, and apples.

To improve the garden soil, every drop of dishwater, with its phosphates and bits of refuse, as well as the wood ashes and every scrap of garbage, go on the garden. Also two lovely loads of manure were applied. The tiller will churn the soil deeper and deeper as time goes on, making the garden better each year.

Just living, day by day, has been a rich experience. The air here is fresh and sharp, the sky a brilliant blue, with white clouds like great puffs of steam moving in off Lake Superior. Clouds of birds utilize the evergreen windbreak for nesting in summer. One day I counted twenty-eight swallows, mixed barn and tree swallows, on the electric wires. My yard, in May, is starred with blue forget-me-nots. The roadsides are a riot of wildflowers all summer—oxeye daisies, yellow buttercups, orange hawkweed, pink and white mallows, white everlastings and yarrow. Later goldenrod and tansy and the varied blues of asters signal the approach of fall. The cooler season transfigures the landscape in late September and early October, and even after the peak of the red maples against yellow poplar and green conifers passes, there is a muted succession of smaller splashes of color. In mid November (rather late this year) the snow began to fall, a beautiful, clean snow, piling to drifts a foot deep the first snowfall. Since then it has snowed nearly every day. The place looks like a Christmas card, with the little farmhouse set against the forest green of spruce and pine. Each day I go out and use my ingenious Finnish snow scoop. Imagine a squarish, galvanized metal scoop, on runners which extend upward to form handles. You never lift the snow; you push it, dumping it off the scoop in some un-walked spot. I can make paths all over the yard and never puff.

My new neighbors have been unbelievably kind, helping me with all sorts of problems, from lifting heavy things (like the new oil heater), to selling me good cord wood at a modest price, to giving me precious practical advice. "There’s going to be a frost tonight [mid-August], better cover the garden."

Out came odd tubs, bedspreads, rugs, even cardboard, to cover the tender tomatoes, squash, beans, and cucumbers for that night and six subsequent nights, after which the weather warmed up again and all was saved.

Snowshoes were a going-away present. I’ve tried them and they work! No particular effort. Just don’t try to turn too rapidly, and think like a duck. Some women near here go on showshoe hikes. I’ll try that some day, when I have a companion to stay with my mother.

My mother finds the country beautiful, exclaiming over the number of trees, the blue of the sky, the cloud formations, the length of theicicles pendant from the roof, and the depth of the snow.

Of course there have been problems. Lawnmowers which won’t start. Leaky plumbing. Storm windows to putty and put up. Getting stuck in the heavy red clay soil, which my neighbor describes as being like wet soap. The howling wind storm in early winter, following unseasonably warm weather, when the power went off for an hour and an half, which gave me a chance to assess the performance of my systems under stress, and to make changes before the weather got colder.

The van carts everything: storm windows, a used oil tank from a salvage place, groceries, junk, straw. In time I hope to build a handy in-and-out-going cart so I can haul dirt and manure.

There have been rejections of my writing. Oh, my, yes, there have been rejections. Back and back have come the fat envelopes, returning my manuscripts. "We are sorry but this does not meet our present needs." "Our refusal in no way implies criticism of its merits." "We wish you success in placing it elsewhere." I have even begun to study the variations in the form of the rejections, with an eye to their courtesy and ingenuity. Perhaps there should be an award, "The Rejection Slip of the Year."

Doggedly I keep on writing and sending out. The post office knows me well. I buy sheets of stamps, which disappear alarmingly. (Some day, somewhere, my work will catch.) Each day, the eighth-of-a-mile walk to the mailbox brings a feeling of suspense. Will today be the day of a sale?

Today I sit at my typewriter, looking out over the top of the parked van to the snow falling softly down on the pointed conifers, the fields beyond. I think of the tiller, parked snugly in the shed, waiting to do its turn, come spring. I feel content, confident that I will survive, taking pleasure in my day-to-day life and in my work.



Power Politics

With government controlling more and more of our economy, the fact that crooks have to go where the money is causes more and more of them to turn to government employment.

However, there is probably an even stronger reason for individuals to become politicians.

That is the power which accompanies political office.

Many idealists think they know better than the ordinary person what is good for that person. They consider themselves a cut above the ordinary individual who just isn’t smart enough to know what he or she should do.

Idealists seek government power to impose their ideas upon the rest of us. They may be personally honest insofar as not thinking of lining their own pockets with money but have little compunction about bolstering their egos with government power.

This attitude explains the environmentalists, the do-gooders, and others whose ego causes them to seek government power to impose their ideas upon those of us who just want to make our way in a free market in open competition with everyone else. They don’t believe in a free market or voluntary actions. They do believe in controlling others by means of government power.

HARRY HOILES, editorial from The Register, Santa Ana, California, June 2, 1979