Timely travels with techno-savvy Hutterites

The advent of spring finds me reflecting on the changing of the seasons and the resistless progression of time...

By Ken Anderson

The advent of spring finds me reflecting on the changing of the seasons and the resistless progression of time. And on how time changes things and people.

Spring two years ago found me pausing east of Camrose, Alberta to watch a huge sprayer working land once owned by my aunt and uncle. When the sprayer stopped to refuel and take on more chemical, I talked to its operator and two of his brothers. They were Hutterites.

The operator offered to take me along as he resumed his spraying. His black shirt, pants and brimmed hat would not have looked out of place in the West of the 1800s. But within moments I saw the superficiality of that observation. The number and variety of electronic devices in the sprayer cab was impressive, if not daunting – smart phone, radio receiver, two way radio, computer with GPS and display screen, air conditioning. Beyond that, I learned that he programmed computers and installed the equipment for the colony to communicate with its members wherever they were working.

He kicked off his boots as the sprayer drove itself down the field, spraying herbicides in 120 foot swaths, its progress displayed and recorded on a screen in two shades of blue. At the end of the field, he turned the machine around, took his hands off the steering wheel, and let the sprayer’s computer take over guiding it in its work.

I told him how I had sprayed this field years before with a small tractor pulling a sprayer loaded with much more toxic chemicals. No cab on the tractor. No form of protection of any kind. He told me what he was spraying was so benign that a person could drink it with no harm. Despite my skepticism, I was left with the inescapable conclusion that things have dramatically changed and that the type of farming we did in the past involved so much that was unsafe for the worker and the environment.

Before I left him I asked him if I could take his photograph. He declined, citing the Commandment which forbids the making of a graven image.

Besides his expertise with farm equipment and electronic devices, he was also a minister.

I then met my friend, Bob, in our hometown and we ended up travelling south together.

Entering Montana, we continued south and east, through Judith Basin, to the Custer Battleground near Hardin. We drove and walked the site, white crosses marking the locations where the cavalry soldiers fell, and other markers detailing where some of the Cheyenne and Sioux warriors died defending their homeland.

At Mammoth Hot Springs, we talked with an American couple about the hockey playoffs. None of the television we had watched since crossing into the States had mentioned hockey. The man laughed at the improbability of being in Yellowstone, talking hockey with Canadians.

Throughout our trip, Bob and I talked of adventures we’d shared and people we’ve known. Of being in air cadets together, hunting deer and waterfowl with his father and grandfather, sharing an apartment for a time in Calgary, hitchhiking around western Canada, swimming the cold sweep of the Red Deer River in spring, sleeping in the frigid air near Grand Coulee Dam, scrambling up trees to escape the charge of an irate sow grizzly protecting her cubs in Alberta’s Kananaskis Country.

Unusually for us, the conversation turned to our mortality and the prospect of one of us predeceasing the other. After telling him that should I survive him, the day of his passing would be a tough one for me, he paused momentarily before replying, “Yeah, I guess it will.”

I saw him last year and noticed his gait is slower and more deliberate. His sister told me he has Parkinson’s, along with the diabetes I knew about.

Maybe the trip we took in 2013 will be our last one together. If so, it was a memorable one.

But once again, spring has reawakened in me that old urge to get out and move. I think I’ll go see how Bob is doing. I’m sure it will do us both a lot of good.

Ken Anderson is a lawyer living in Terrace, B.C.