[Author's Note: I'm a little edgy about posting this. I wanted to get another part of it up right away, but the completed essay is still evolving in my head, and I kinda feel like I'm going out on a limb with this part of it.]
Here in the days of my youth, I’m sitting at the controls of a bulldozer. I’m at a heavy equipment operator’s school in East Texas. In the weeks I’ve been here, I’ve operated a motor grader, a backhoe, and a number of big diesel trucks.
The trucker mythos would have you believe that there’s something special about trucking. But … no. Sure, the first time you climb up into one is a bit of a thrill. But once you get one of these monsters out on the road in rush hour traffic, and as one zippy little subcompact after another cuts you off before you can shift into even the third of your dozen or so gears, you’re one white-knuckled inch away from murder.
By contrast, a motor grader is much more demanding in terms of skill, and a backhoe is a bit more fun.
But a bulldozer? As George Takei would say, “Oh, myyyy.”
“Give me a place to stand, and I will move the world,” said Archimedes, more or less, and he was righter than he knew. Only it’s not a place to stand, it’s a place to sit, and it’s the driver’s seat of a big diesel Caterpillar bulldozer.
Belching black smoke and roaring like a lion on steroids, the huge yellow engine behind you develops power of such intensity that it can only be housed in a steel body so massive it looks like it might laugh at a nuclear blast. Trundling its bulky tonnage over the ground at a deafening two or three miles an hour, the beast has power to spare for casually shoving foot-thick tree trunks out of your way.
The seat of a bulldozer is a golden throne of seductive power. In lives measured by the subtle accomplishments of getting through yet another day at the office, or fostering your kids through one more tiny milestone of growing up, or doing yet another load of laundry, running a dozer is WAY different. A farmer might work for months to cajole a field of corn to produce, an animal trainer might labor carefully for years to produce a well-trained dog or horse, but a dozer operator essentially walks up to Papa Nature [*], grabs him by the balls and throat, and growls “Listen, shithead, this is how it’s going to go.”
Sitting up there, you realize that in one hot afternoon you could turn a field’s worth of heavy East Texas thicket into naked black topsoil, ready for blading into a farm or a ready-made pasture. With an extra hour’s work, you could scrape out the deep bowl that would put you one good rainstorm away from a pond for your cattle or catfish.
And despite your heartfelt chops as an environmentalist, you WANT to.
The most seductive part of it is that anybody can do it. All you need is the machine, that bright yellow Place of Power, a massive steel throne that can turn the confusion and inconvenience of heavy forest into a clear, sunny pastoral landscape, achingly ready for a sprinkling of grass seeds that will bring fat brangus cows with their baby calves, or sleek quarter horses lazing in the sun, or even those legions of benign destroyers, the rich, fatuous golfers.
Travel anywhere in the United States, and you will witness this kind of power. A million times over, you will see the signs of it – but you’ll actually see it in action fairly often too. Motor graders work on new sections of highway, excavating machines create deep holes from which skyscrapers germinate and grow, mindless robotic backhoe arms cut ditches through marshy areas and drain off their water, turning “useless” wetlands into housing tracts. And bulldozers push down trees: An endless queue of forest giants falls and dies to the yellow power of bulldozers.
It goes on all around you most of your life, and for all the notice and anguish it causes, it might as well be invisible. The hurricane of power that rides on a bulldozer blade blasts forests out of the way for us, and we trail in its comfortable wake sowing cities.
[ * Chalk up “Papa Nature” to artistic license. Using “Mother” Nature was going to require the use of the b-word, and I knew I’d catch hell for it.]