The fields of November have come to the country. Fields are stripped of their lush verdancy as crops continue to be taken to bins and dryers that rise up from country roads. Across the fields combines swallow rows of corn and soybeans. Grain rises to the hopper while the chaff goes back to the stubbled landscape. Whether it’s green, red or silver, a combine does three things as it inhales whole plants. It cuts the crop, threshes the grain and separates the chaff – hence its name combine. A combine is really a well-planned combination of simple machines in one impressive package.

Consider simple machines. In terms of physics a simple machine is a mechanical device that changes the direction and-or magnitude of a force. A combine is essentially an engineered assemblage of six simple machines as defined by Renaissance scientists. The combine header drops in a pulley-like fashion. A lever throws more pulleys and belts into action, engaging finely sharpened knives that are essentially modified wedges to cut the crop. Once the crop is cut it runs up an inclined plane. A good old Archimedes screw, otherwise known as an auger, carries the crop to the feeder house where one or more rotors threshes the grain from the plant. That’s all while the operator sits in comfort watching over the process, checking yield monitors while the final simple machine – the wheel and axle – propels him across the field.

I recently had a field day with simple machines – in particular wedges. It was Oct. 23; a stubborn snow crusted the ground at our cabin property. In the morning before family arrived to help with a weekend of wood splitting and stacking, a small irregular layer of ice began forming on the lake. That’s the North Country, where long-johns and coveralls are never far away from where we left them after the past spring’s final victory over winter. It’s where the smell of woodsmoke is a common thing, sometimes even in July. The conditions were classic and I was ready for a big family work day.

Operating a powered wood splitter is just flat out enjoyable. Thank goodness for the slow methodical travel speed of the hefty wedge attached to the hydraulic cylinder. It can be mesmerizing watching the chunks of wood open with a cracking pop, exposing their beautiful grain patterns. One of the stacks to be split was from an old popple we cut down to give our solar panels more opportunity for sunlight. Although popple isn’t prized for its output of British thermal units, the creamy-yellow interior of the wood was a joy to split. It will serve to heat the cabin and our new lakeside sauna for a season or two.

Everyone kept busy, taking turns at the different tasks required to do the job. At mid-day we ate chicken and dumplings outside around a fire. After lunch the guys took turns hand-splitting with a maul and did an admirable job keeping pace with the power splitter. It’s not something I’ll be doing any time in the future; it hurt my back to watch them. We worked together until dark and then went right back at it the next morning, splitting wood. We wheeled and stacked it for future use. It was a harvest process in itself, not much different from laying a grain crop by for the winter.

When our long-anticipated barrel sauna arrived from a family company in Upper Michigan more simple machines were put to action. Levers raised the cradle the barrel fits into. Cylinders placed beneath it allowed the unit to roll off the trailer readily. The small family-run business has experienced a big increase in orders stemming from the pandemic. But the disruption in transportation and infrastructure brought on by COVID-19 caused a delay in availability of a major component of the saunas, western red cedar. They have a long list of orders ahead of them.

Here’s to the six original simple machines – wedge, inclined plane, lever, wheel and axle, screw and pulley. We use them every day looking for a mechanical advantage when the need arises. Here’s to family, fellowship and work in the North Country. Here’s to the fields of November where the crisp air makes us feel doubly alive. Enjoy it, friend.

Greg Galbraith, a former dairy farmer who owns woodlot property in eastern Marathon County, Wisconsin, writes about the rapidly changing nature of the agricultural landscape. He has built a lifetime connection to the land and those who farm it.