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WOSTER: Earth Day from Lyman County

For many years if you drove into our farm yard and parked near the machine shed west of the garage, you would see a dark patch of soil where my dad used to change the oil in the tractors.

Terry Woster

For many years if you drove into our farm yard and parked near the machine shed west of the garage, you would see a dark patch of soil where my dad used to change the oil in the tractors.

We did nearly all of our own service work on the farm. Once in a rare while there'd be something that required an actual tractor mechanic's attention, but things as simple as an oil change? Mere child's play.

When it came time to service a tractor, my dad would drive it into the yard, park it close to the machine shed and go to supper while the engine cooled. Later, he'd unscrew the cap from the oil pan and let the used oil flow out and pool below the tractor. Gradually, it would sink into the ground, leaving nothing but a dark damp spot. As far as I knew, everybody in the neighborhood did it that way.

After a good rain, that spot would shimmer with all the colors of the rainbow. Years later in a Victorian poetry class, I read a guy named Hopkins who wrote about "shining from shook foil'' and "the ooze of oil crushed.'' I thought of the place by the machine shed. Inelegant, but true.

I thought of that as Earth Day approached. That's today, by the way, the brainchild in 1970 of Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson, who saw a chance to use the activism of the time to focus attention on environmental awareness and protection.

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My dad was gone by the spring of 1970. He had been for most of two years. I doubt he'd have joined the movement had he been alive. But he did have a certain level of environmental awareness, in spite of his decision to let used oil from the tractor run off into the ground.

And, not to make excuses, but out in our country, there probably wasn't much danger of the oil seeping down far enough to reach the water table. Until we started hauling our drinking water from town, we relied on an artesian well for our household needs. I recall a couple of times when we had to pull the pipe for some reason or other. It seemed like we hoisted half a mile of pipe out of the ground, section after section after section. It was a long way to water in our country.

(I could insert a joke here about how, if the used oil had made its way into the water supply for our well, it could only have improved the taste. But that would be rather tasteless, so I won't.)

In spite of his oil-changing habit, my dad was a steward of the land in most respects.

I know he loved where he lived and farmed and raised his family. He never stepped out the back door after breakfast without stopping to look at the sky and smell the morning air. He never turned off the tractor at the end of the day without pausing to look across a landscape of wheat and alfalfa and pasture covered in purple shadows as the sun dropped behind the horizon.

He and his farm-partnership brother had enough environmental awareness to practice crop rotation and fallow-field techniques and other operations aimed at protecting the land and replacing moisture and nutrients. Sure, they did those things to maximize the productivity of the fields and increase yields in a part of the country not noted for top-grade soil or plentiful precipitation. Doing so, though, also enriched the land, and what is that if not environmental awareness?

I don't know if my dad had a clue about the science behind the way trees benefit the environment, but he sure worked hard to grow them, planting shelterbelt after shelterbelt. He might not have known that trees absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen, but he knew they provided habitat for birds and rabbits, and he knew they offered a shelter against the prairie wind and snow.

As I said, I doubt my dad would have joined the Earth Day movement. Maybe, though, he'd have started using a bucket when he changed the oil.

Related Topics: TERRY WOSTER
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