Forgiving the Scythe

earsgrass

To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows…

The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.
~Robert Frost in “Mowing”

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Winslow Homer’s The Veteran in a New Field

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The grass around our orchard and yet-to-be-planted garden is now thigh-high. It practically squeaks while it grows. Anything that used to be in plain sight on the ground is rapidly being swallowed up in a sea of green: a ball, a pet dish, a garden gnome, a hose, a tractor implement, a bucket. In an effort to stem this tidal flood of grass, I grab the scythe out of the garden shed and plan my attack. The pastures are too wet yet for heavy hooves so I have hungry horses to provide for and there is more than plenty fodder to cut down for them.

I’m not a weed whacker kind of gal. First there is the necessary fuel, the noise necessitating ear plugs, the risk of flying particles requiring goggles–it all seems too much like and act of war to be remotely enjoyable. Instead, I’m trying to take scything lessons from my husband. Emphasis on “trying”.

I grew up watching my father scythe our hay in our field because he couldn’t afford a mower for his tractor. He enjoyed physical labor in the fields and woods–his other favorite hand tool was a brush cutter that he’d take to blackberry bushes. He would head out to the field with the scythe over this shoulder, grim reaper style. Once he was standing on the edge of the grass needing to be mowed, he would then lower the scythe, curved blade to the ground, turn slightly, positioning his hands on the two handles just so, raise the scythe up past his shoulders, and then in a full body twist almost like a golf swing, he’d bring the blade down. It would follow a smooth arc through the base of the standing grass, laying clumps flat in a tidy pile alongside the 2 inch stubble left behind. It was a swift, silky muscle movement — a thing of beauty.

I’ve yet to manage anything nearly as graceful. I tend to chop and mangle rather than effect an efficient slicing blow. I unintentionally trample the grass I mean to cut. I get blisters from holding the handles too tightly. It feels hopeless that I’ll ever perfect that whispery rise and fall of the scythe, with the rhythmic shush sound of the slice that is almost hypnotic.

Not only am I an ineffective scything human, but I have also learned what it is like to be the grass I am unintentionally mutilating, on the receiving end of a glancing blow that misses the mark. I bear plenty of footprints from the trampling. It can take awhile to stand back up after being knocked repeatedly to the ground.

Sometimes it makes more sense to simply start over as stubble, oozing and bleeding green, with deep roots that no one can reach. As I grow back, I will sing rather than squeak, and I’ll forgive the scythe every time it comes down on my head.

 

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peekaboo

Whispering Scythe

Winslow Homer’s The Veteran in a New Field

To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows…

The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.
~Robert Frost in “Mowing”

I grew up watching my father scythe our hay in our field because he had no mower for his tractor.  He enjoyed physical labor in the fields and woods–his other favorite hand tool was a brush cutter that he’d take to blackberry bushes.   He would head out to the field with the scythe over this shoulder, grim reaper style.  Once he was standing on the edge of the grass needing to be mowed, he would then lower the scythe, curved blade to the ground, turn slightly, positioning his hands on the two handles just so, raise the scythe up past his shoulders, and then in a full body twist almost like a golf swing, he’d bring the blade down.   It would follow a smooth arc through the base of the standing grass, laying clumps flat in a tidy pile in a row alongside the 2 inch stubble left behind. It was a swift, silky muscle movement, a thing of beauty.

This work was a source of his satisfaction and “sweetest dream.”  I know now what he must have felt–there is a contentment found in sweaty work showing visible results.   I understand that “earnest love” that drives us to work, and tangibly leaves the evidence of our labors behind.

Harvest work is not for sissies.   I learned that watching my father’s continual sweep across the field and hearing his whispering scythe.

I wish I too could work with a whisper.

The Grass Forgives the Scythe

Winslow Homer's The Veteran in a New Field

The grass around our orchard and yet-to-be-planted garden is now thigh-high.  It practically squeaks while it grows.  Anything that used to be in plain sight on the ground is rapidly being swallowed up in a sea of green:  a ball, a pet dish, a garden gnome, a hose, a tractor implement, a bucket.  In an effort to stem this tidal flood of grass, I grab the scythe out of the garden shed and plan my attack.  I have hungry horses to provide for and there is more than plenty fodder to cut down for them.

I’m not a weed whacker kind of gal.  First there is the necessary fuel, the noise necessitating ear plugs, the risk of flying particles requiring goggles–it all seems too much like war to be remotely enjoyable.  Instead, I’m trying to take scything lessons from my husband.   Emphasis on “trying”.

I grew up watching my father scythe our hay in our field because he didn’t have a mower for his tractor.  He enjoyed physical labor in the fields and woods–his other favorite hand tool was a brush cutter that he’d take to blackberry bushes.   He would head out to the field with the scythe over this shoulder, grim reaper style.  Once he was standing on the edge of the grass needing to be mowed, he would then lower the scythe, curved blade to the ground, turn slightly, positioning his hands on the two handles just so, raise the scythe up past his shoulders, and then in a full body twist almost like a golf swing, he’d bring the blade down.   It would follow a smooth arc through the base of the standing grass, laying clumps flat in a tidy pile alongside the 2 inch stubble left behind. It was a swift, silky muscle movement, a thing of beauty.

I’ve yet to manage anything nearly as graceful.  I tend to chop and mangle rather than effect an efficient slicing blow.  I tend to trample the grass I meant to cut.  I get blisters from holding the handles too tightly.   It feels hopeless that I’ll ever perfect that breezy rise and fall of the scythe, with the rhythmic shush sound of the slice that is almost hypnotic.

Not only am I an ineffective scyther, but I also am learning what it is like to be the grass I am unintentionally mutilating, on the receiving end of a glancing blow that misses the mark.  I bear footprints from the trampling.  It can take awhile to stand back up after being knocked repeatedly to the ground.

Sometimes it makes more sense to simply start over as stubble, bleeding green, with deep roots that no one can reach.   As I grow back, I will sing rather than squeak, and I’ll forgive the scythe every time it comes down on my head.

Loosening the Ties

Man Scything Hay by Todd Reifers
Man Scything Hay by Todd Reifers

The small farm outside the village of East Stanwood, Washington on which I spent my first four years had three milking guernsey cows and a large crippled paint horse. In addition to ten acres of woodlot, we had about 6 acres of pasture, some of which was used to grow our winter hay supply.

My father was a small town high school agriculture teacher, supervising FFA kids and working far more hours than he was paid for.  He was determined to help make ends meet for his growing family by being as self-sufficient as possible on our few acres. Our own milk was pasteurized on our wood stove, we raised our own  beef, pork and chicken/eggs, and grew and stored as much forage as possible.  We had a large hay barn, but could not afford much more than the old tractor that my father kept patched together with gum and baling wire.  We certainly didn’t have baling equipment so our hay had to be put up loose, usually cut by a sickle bar attached to the tractor.

For reasons known only to him, my father often preferred to cut our hay with his hand held scythe.  Perhaps it was out of necessity, or more likely he enjoyed the rhythm of the physical work.  I can still see and hear him slashing through the grass, laying it neatly in a pile as he moved through the field.  In fact, I was so interested in watching him that I came up behind him one sunny day, wanting to follow his path in my own dreamy three year old way, and he reached back with the scythe handle to cut his next big swath, not aware I was behind him and the handle bumped right into my face, slicing my eyebrow open and laying me down neatly right along aside the nice pile of grass. I must have wailed hard and bled profusely as I remember him scooping me up, his face a mask of worry, and rushed me into the house, and then downtown to the kindly old lady doctor who butterflied my face back together.  I still can find that spot in my eyebrow when I look closely–a testament to the dangers of being too curious and too quiet.

The work of putting up loose hay is significantly different than baled hay.  It is much slower and deliberate, not nearly the frenetic activity of today’s hay crew.  When the hay is ready to be brought in,  it must be scooped by the pitchfork load onto the hay wagon, piled high as possible without much toppling off, and then slowly brought to the hay barn where the large hay fork would be let down on its pulley, opened and closed over the pile, hauled back up inside the hay mow to be released into a big pile.  There it would be in a fragrant mound waiting to be forked down into the mangers every morning and night as the cows were milked.  It never gets packed tight, it remains loose and fluffy and often not as musty as the baled hay can be.  However, there is more loss in the harvesting process, it blows in the slightest breeze and has a life of its own while bales sit where you put them and stay there until retrieved. Predictable, efficient, easy to store and move but without give or flexibility.

Jumping into loose hay is a feeling of being enveloped and cushioned.  The occasional broken bale I find in the loft softens in my hands as I scoop it up–what a delight.  One of the joys of doing chores is breaking the twine on the bales and freeing the hay into flakes as the portions are distributed to each stall.  Would I find carrying pitchforks of loose hay as gratifying?  Perhaps, but harder work indeed and much more lost along the way.

Is each day lived in tightly bound bales or as free-spirit loose hay?  I experience both, stretching against the cords that bind me at times, but needing the ties that keep me from blowing away at the slightest puff of wind.  Life stacks us up, builds us and grows us, but too soon pulls us apart and we are dust again.  We must thrive with our covenant “ties” –the twines that keep together our faith, our relationships, our children.  But we can overdo, sometimes binding too tightly, and not unlike our children who must eventually be free, we must loosen our ties, let them breathe and avoid the “mustiness” that can develop over time if they never are opened up.

It is time to celebrate the hay stack and know that we belong, bound or loose, to the dust from which we arose.

children-playing-in-hay-loft