Sunday, July 20, 2014

Making hay while the sun shines

Have you ever heard from old folks that life used to be harder? Well, it's probably true. As I looked at my overgrown fields earlier this summer, I had the romantic notion that I would use a scythe to mow them. Since we acquired horses, there is far less mowing to do than I had expected. Nonetheless, when I was in Wisconsin a few weeks ago, I asked my Grandpa if he would give me the scythe I remembered watching him use when I was younger. He balked at first since he uses it once a year or so just to prove that he still can, even though he is in his mid-eighties. But eventually, after giving me a few lessons and making me mow part of the back field, he decided to send it back to North Carolina with me after all.

I finally put the scythe to use yesterday, mowing the right of way between the front pasture and the road. The picture immediately below shows bad technique, as I'm raising the scythe far too high and expending far too much energy. Oh well.

In addition to remembrances of my Grandpa mowing with a scythe, another primary inspiration was Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, probably my favorite Russian novel. The character of Levin, an idealistic land-owner, is a breath of fresh air in a novel better known for its darker title character. He's a bit of an odd duck, even out in the country where he lives, and one memorable scene depicts how he works out his problems by working alongside the peasants in the fields mowing hay. I'm in good company, since Levin also had bad form:
Levin took the scythe, and began trying it. As they finished their rows, the mowers, hot and good-humored, came out into the road one after another, and, laughing a little, greeted the master. They all stared at him, but no one made any remark, till a tall old man, with a wrinkled, beardless face, wearing a short sheepskin jacket, came out into the road and accosted him.
"Look'ee now, master, once take hold of the rope there's no letting it go!" he said, and Levin heard smothered laughter among the mowers.
"I'll try not to let it go," he said, taking his stand behind Tit, and waiting for the time to begin.
"Mind'ee," repeated the old man.
Tit made room, and Levin started behind him. The grass was short close to the road, and Levin, who had not done any mowing for a long while, and was disconcerted by the eyes fastened upon him, cut badly for the first moments, though he swung his scythe vigorously. Behind him he heard voices:
"It's not set right; handle's too high; see how he has to stoop to it," said one.
"Press more on the heel," said another.
"Never mind, he'll get on all right," the old man resumed.
"He's made a start.... You swing it too wide, you'll tire yourself out.... The master, sure, does his best for himself! But see the grass missed out! For such work us fellows would catch it!"
Sir George Clausen, The Mowers (1885)

My mowing probably attracted as much attention as Levin's. A few people slowed down as they passed by on Cheves Rd. in their cars. One of the neighbors, whom I hadn't yet met, also drove by slowly in a pick up truck, and then stopped and turned around to ask if I'd like to use her brush hog. She looked at me skeptically when I told her I was having fun. I explained further that I wanted to see what it was like to use a scythe, and that it had belonged to my Grandpa. Though still clearly skeptical, she said it made a little sense but made me promise to ask if I needed anything. North Carolinians tend to be very nice people!

My experience pretty much matched Levin's, so back to the novel:
[Levin] felt as he swung his scythe that he was at the very end of his strength, and was making up his mind to ask Tit to stop. But at that very moment Tit stopped of his own accord, and stooping down picked up some grass, rubbed his scythe, and began whetting it. Levin straightened himself, and drawing a deep breath looked round. Behind him came a peasant, and he too was evidently tired, for he stopped at once without waiting to mow up to Levin, and began whetting his scythe. Tit sharpened his scythe and Levin's, and they went on. The next time it was just the same. Tit moved on with sweep after sweep of his scythe, not stopping or showing signs of weariness. Levin followed him, trying not to get left behind, and he found it harder and harder: the moment came when he felt he had no strength left, but at that very moment Tit stopped and whetted the scythes.
So they mowed the first row. And this long row seemed particularly hard work to Levin; but when the end was reached and Tit, shouldering his scythe, began with deliberate stride returning on the tracks left by his heels in the cut grass, and Levin walked back in the same way over the space he had cut, in spite of the sweat that ran in streams over his face and fell in drops down his nose, and drenched his back as though he had been soaked in water, he felt very happy. What delighted him particularly was that now he knew he would be able to hold out.
His pleasure was only disturbed by his row not being well cut. "I will swing less with my arm and more with my whole body," he thought, comparing Tit's row, which looked as if it had been cut with a line, with his own unevenly and irregularly lying grass.
The first row, as Levin noticed, Tit had mowed specially quickly, probably wishing to put his master to the test, and the row happened to be a long one. The next rows were easier, but still Levin had to strain every nerve not to drop behind the peasants.
He thought of nothing, wished for nothing, but not to be left behind the peasants, and to do his work as well as possible. He heard nothing but the swish of scythes, and saw before him Tit's upright figure mowing away, the crescent-shaped curve of the cut grass, the grass and flower heads slowly and rhythmically falling before the blade of his scythe, and ahead of him the end of the row, where would come the rest.
I found myself resting more and more as I got closer to the end, using whetting the scythe as an excuse to rest. At least I didn't have anybody to keep pace with! Eventually, soaked with sweat and tired to the core, having cut probably the length of the first of Levin's many rows, I did finish. The result was definitely uneven and high, but I did get a little hay out of it:

Here's a portion of my hay.

Here's all of it stacked up in the feedroom in the barn. It's at least a few bales worth. Given the labor involved and how cheap a bale of hay is, I don't think I saved any money!
For me, this was the end. I had mowed enough, and I'm sore and tired even today. I'm thinking I'll mow part of the back pasture later on and let it grow fresh before we transfer the horses and the goats thre in a week or two. They're eating down the front pasture rather rapidly. But for Levin, there was more mowing after lunch, and with it came exhilaration and blissful pleasure that perhaps I'll feel next time:
Levin kept between them. In the very heat of the day the mowing did not seem such hard work to him. The perspiration with which he was drenched cooled him, while the sun, that burned his back, his head, and his arms, bare to the elbow, gave a vigor and dogged energy to his labor; and more and more often now came those moments of unconsciousness, when it was possible not to think what one was doing. The scythe cut of itself. These were happy moments. Still more delightful were the moments when they reached the stream where the rows ended, and the old man rubbed his scythe with the wet, thick grass, rinsed its blade in the fresh water of the stream, ladled out a little in a tin dipper, and offered Levin a drink.
"What do you say to my home-brew, eh? Good, eh?" said he, winking.
And truly Levin had never drunk any liquor so good as this warm water with green bits floating in it, and a taste of rust from the tin dipper. And immediately after this came the delicious, slow saunter, with his hand on the scythe, during which he could wipe away the streaming sweat, take deep breaths of air, and look about at the long string of mowers and at what was happening around in the forest and the country.
The longer Levin mowed, the oftener he felt the moments of unconsciousness in which it seemed not his hands that swung the scythe, but the scythe mowing of itself, a body full of life and consciousness of its own, and as though by magic, without thinking of it, the work turned out regular and well-finished of itself. These were the most blissful moments.

My Grandpa's scythe.
And a quick little addendum: Our friends, the Taylors, who came out for Sunday dinner today, made us a beautiful little "Kleinshire" sign that is now hanging on our front porch. Thank you!

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