As a teenager I had a lot of experience with bush hogging. Sometimes it was scary, occasionally dangerous, but always carried out with a feeling at the end that I had accomplished something, even after I suffered an injury from bush hogging.
My parents bought the farm that Daddy and his six siblings grew up on when I was about ten years old, land that my grandparents owned pretty much all their adult lives. Their farm was about a mile from the farm where my brother Nolen Robert and I grew up in Middle Tennessee, northwest of Nashville.
In the first couple of years after my parents bought the farm, Daddy kept Nolen Robert and me busy building fences when we weren’t planting crops and improving pastures for our expanding cattle herd. Those fences generally surrounded the entire farm, including wooded areas, with various cross fences to divide pasture areas. As my grandparents had aged, they cared for smaller and smaller parts of the farm, while other parts of it that had been pastures or cropland years earlier grew up in weeds and young trees.
Much of that grown up, thickety land was of keen interest to us and we talked about plans for it as we continued to build fences and do other farm work. It provided potential for substantially expanding the productive area of the farm.
It took three or four years to get the fencing and other improvements completed before we had time to deal with the land we wanted to reclaim. By that time Nolen Robert had married and moved away to begin his adult life, and I was now Daddy’s chief tractor driver when I was not at school.
Daddy bought a heavy-duty mower to pull behind the tractor. The brand name was Bush Hog and the company is still making heavy-duty mowers. They are similar in appearance to mowers often used by highway crews to cut weeds and small brush along roadsides.
We and other farmers in the area who owned Bush Hog mowers referred to the work we did with them as “bush hogging.” Usually the largest young trees that people mowed with Bush Hogs were 2-3 inches in diameter. Usually.
Our newly acquired land had young trees that were larger than that, some too big for bush hogging that required cutting with a chain saw. In those cases we typically mowed around the too-large trees, making it easier to get to them later when we had cleared the surrounding areas.
But when Daddy dispatched me to bush hog one grown-up field or another, he worked on other parts of the farm or took care of business in town. This gave me complete discretionary judgment on which young trees to mow down and which ones to mow around for later chain sawing. Sometimes I questioned my own judgment in the moment before I drove the tractor into a young tree to chop it into bits.
Our tractor was a Massey-Ferguson with front wheels the same distance apart as the rear wheels, making it feasible to push young trees over with the momentum of the tractor and Bush Hog before they reached the large rotating blades behind the tractor. When the blades made contact with young trees they made a thunderous sound as small pieces of each tree flew out behind the mower. Shards of trees flew out the front of the mower on occasion, bouncing off low parts of the tractor. None of the fragments ever hit me, except as little ricochets that didn’t hurt.
Over time, as I got a little older and more experienced with bush hogging, I began testing the limits of the size tree I could drive into and push over for mowing. I gradually moved up from 3-inch trees, to 4-inch trees, and later to 5-inch trees. The largest of these trees often raised the front wheels of the tractor off the ground, but as the tractor quickly slid up the trunks they gave way and the tractor wheels lowered themselves back to the ground. Oak trees were more difficult to push over than softer trees such as sassafras. A 5-inch oak tree met the tractor with quite a jolt and they always resulted in the front wheels of the tractor rising off the ground three or four feet before the tree gave way. These experiences led me to conclude that it would be very risky to try to bush hog trees larger than about five inches at the stump.
Daddy never said anything that sounded like a caution about the larger shattered stumps in fields that I bush hogged. He just seemed pleased with the result, a field where we could then disk the soil and sow grass seed for expanded pastures.
One day on a more remote part of the farm, I was bush hogging some land along the edge of a wooded area where several of the young trees in the path of the tractor were too big to push over with the tractor. As I wove among these trees, chopping smaller ones, I did not see a small pile of rocks that passed directly under the tractor. When the Bush Hog blades struck the rocks there was a huge noise, much louder than the blades striking a young tree. The tractor seemed to shake all over, and a sharp pain came from my right anklebone. A broken piece of rock had flown out the front of the Bush Hog and struck me on the backside of my ankle, right over my leather boot. The boot gave me some protection.
While I had nothing more than soreness in my ankle for several days, the experience was so vivid I could go back to that spot now and show you where it happened. I suppose it was the combination of fright and pain that locked the image of the place in my brain.
Luckily I never was more seriously injured while bush hogging and never had a major equipment breakdown from driving the tractor into substantial young trees. But I believe I was working at the boundary between success and serious trouble. Yes, I was lucky.
Every time I see a crew mowing roadsides with large rotary mowers, I see the image of the place on our farm where I hit that pile of rocks when I was a teenager. That image always gives me a little shudder, and a simultaneous moment of appreciation that something worse didn’t happen.