Politics & Policy

The Roots of Progress?

“It looks so uncomfortable,” Granny murmurs apprehensively. A pair of yoked oxen jingles slowly into the ring. Three men in dirty t-shirts follow the team, one holding a chain that leads from the yoke. He hooks it to a metal sheet holding concrete weights. Granny sucks in her breath.

It is a glorious morning at the Union Fair, a mainstay of the agricultural calendar that officially spells the end of summer for people in our part of Maine. I saved my pocket money to spend on the Union Fair midway when I was a girl; now my children are doing the same.

Alas for them, the fair, like Maine itself, has in the intervening years been gentrified. Today the first stall we encounter sells jasmine rice and Thai curries. Next to it is a charming shack selling fruit smoothies and “udderly delicious” organic cream sodas. There’s even a tiny mobile espresso bar. Fair-goers can still buy fudge and cotton candy and onion blossoms, but the caravans selling them have become depressingly hygienic, with none of the flies and grease puddles that used to give ordering fried dough such a frisson.

Somewhere along the line the freak show disappeared, taking with it a memorable mustachioed fat lady, a man who lit kerosene in his mouth, and a two-headed calf bottled in amber fluid. Gone is Stormy Winters, the hootchy-cootchy girl whose caravan illustrations depicted her as a kind of erotic snow queen with ice crystals sparkling on her Alpine breasts. Gone too is the booth where you could pay money to look at an actual, breathing, recovered drug addict. I used to make my father laugh by imitating the carney’s patter: “Alive, alive, yes he is still alive…”

The midway has been cleansed of impropriety, disability, and addiction. The only hint of its daring past is one stall where later in the day Molly wins a rubber snake by firing a cork out of a gun. (“I got Osama!” she rejoiced, as the carney replaced the aluminum can she had knocked over. The Saddams were much faded, and nobody bothered to aim at them. Interestingly, this was by far the busiest game stall at the fair.)

Right now, though, we’re in a strictly agricultural arena, and this part of the fair has not changed. Two hundred yards away the Ferris Wheel is turning, and children are already shrieking on the teacup ride, but inside the large, corrugated steel shed where we are sitting and the oxen are waiting, all is quiet. In contrast to the catcalls of the midway–”Two dollars, every player wins!”–there is no countdown or pistol shot to signal the start of a pull. There is a sudden moment of concentrated energy, the whack of a cane, and it has already begun.

“Huh Jerry! Huh Tom!” yells the ox driver, a teenaged girl in braces and rubber boots. She urges the team forward, dancing beside them, shouting and whacking. “Gee Jerry! Gee Tom!” The oxen pull. They do not seem to mind the blows, but poor Granny does. Her hide is not so tough, and with each stroke of the stick in the dirt-floored ring, one elegant gray-haired woman in the stands winces and flinches and turns a whiter shade of pale.

The children watch, mildly curious. “Why is the girl hitting the cows?” Phoebe asks, and Molly says, “What’s wrong, Granny?” and Granny mutters, “I would think you’d get points for not using the whip.”

The oxen are straining forward to loud blandishments from the girl, delicate silver ribbons of saliva unfurling from their mouths, when suddenly they jackknife and come to a jolting halt, like a bewildered bovine tractor trailer. The shed goes quiet again.

After a moment, the judges come up and remove the weight. It is too much for the oxen. It is also too much for Granny.

“I’m going to look for the others,” she says, standing up abruptly and clutching her Styrofoam coffee cup as if it is a talisman from the modern world, which I suppose it is. “I’m not very good at this sort of thing.”

“It doesn’t seem fair, hitting them,” Molly says, taking up the theme as Granny disappears into the benignity of the fairgrounds. I know what she means. You watch a farmer whacking and yelling at a pair of dull-witted beasts, which stumble and pull over a short distance a weight so massive that its passage leaves a hard shiny streak along the dirt floor. And you think to yourself, poor oxen, why isthis yokel whacking and yelling at them? Don’t these people have tractors?

In a flash, I see how to explain it. “It may look cruel, but what you’re seeing here, children, is the origin of our incredible success as a species,” I say. “It was man’s discovery that he could harness and domesticate creatures such as these oxen that allowed us to develop agriculture, and it is farming that over many years permitted the growth of towns and cities.”

“Wow,” Molly says, her eyes following the disgraced team out of the shed past a line of oxen blinking in the sunlight and waiting for their turn.

“So what you’re looking at here,” I continue, “is the first great technological development in humanity’s progress to where we are today.” I sit back, triumphant, ready to take questions. A question is quick to come.

“Why,” Molly asks, gazing at the row of animals, “do oxen stick their tongues up their noses?”

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