As the pasture grass settled into dormancy and the weeds thrived in this summer’s drought, the goats wove through the weedy jungle nibbling at leaves and leaving tough, bare stalks behind. The mower took care of these unwanted interlopers but their comrades on the slopes were not so easily banished.
I needed a tool – a tough, sharp tool to decimate their numbers and allow the grass population to thrive in the undergrowth.
I recalled, years past, when my dad in his energetic youth would mow the wild places on the farm with a fierce-looking wooden scythe. It was a pleasure to watch. This tool was familiar to him and he had a rhythm and confidence that made it look like poetry in motion.
When I asked him if I could borrow the tool from his collection of old and new implements in the shed, he could not find it. It was sold, he suspects, in a farm auction some years back. And not being a tool many people rely on anymore in this age, it’s absence has not been noticed.
So began the search for someone who had a scythe. It took a while. In the meantime, I tried hedge trimmers but the area was too vast and the hours required too daunting.
Eventually, a friend came through and let me borrow a scythe his father had used. He showed me how to adjust it, swing it and sharpen it with a stone and water pouch that came with the scythe. We shared childhood stories of watching our fathers use the scythe and debated the merits of hand tools verses gasoline-powered trimmers. Lawn maintenence has always been my task and I’ve used many a whipper snipper over the years, not without bad language just trying to get them started. The pulling, the finicky plastic string refilling and the bit of pieces of sharp grass cutting into my skin were definitely not poetic.
“The longer Levin mowed, the oftener he felt moments of unconsciousness in which it seemed the scythe was moving but 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 precise by itself. These were the most blissful moments.”
So wrote Leo Tolstoy in the tragedy, Anna Karenina. So moved is Tolstoy by a field of workers moving smoothly through a hay field that he takes Konstantin Dmitrievich Levin through two chapters to investigate the mood, the flow and the rhythm...the dance...of the mower and the grass.
For a writer and farmer, the compulsion to experience the meditative combination of sun, sweat and slowly falling grass was creatively compelling. Practically, however, the job had to get done.
The first swipe was awkward. Definitely not poetry. I was watched and encouraged to swing less with my arms and more with my body. This was hard work. The rhythm, I realized, was not natural. It would take time, and sweat, and good, hard work.
So when I was once more by myself, I set myself to the task. It was, indeed, taxing. As Levin discovered in Anna Karenina, his rows did not lay neat and flat as the old man Titus, who “moved in front, with his feet turned out, taking long regular strides, and with a precise and regular action which seemed to cost him no more effort that swinging one’s arms in walking, as thought it were play, he laid the grass in high, even rows. It was though it was not he but the sharp scythe itself that was swishing through the juicy grass.”
Oh for a Titus as I struggled with those tough stalks to find a rhythm that would play like music against the backdrop of lounging goats, swooping barn swallows and summer sunshine. Then, for a minute, it came. I felt a cadence, a sense of being part of the moment, a working with nature instead of striving against it.
For that brief time I was working alongside Levin, part of a great novel, a bigger picture, the next generation of farmers using muscle and grace to clear the land. I was living a poem!
I can laugh at myself, now. At the grandiose vision of connection to past generations with the present work; of the value of using muscle versus machine; at the writer’s longing for the ephemeral nature of composition to literally flow from my hands and fill my senses.
And yet...it was for real.
I think I wanted to share my experience because for this issue, I witnessed the technology in a successful dairy farm where robotic milkers, robotic feeders, computers and machines meant this entire barn housing 145 milking cows could be managed by one person.
I marvelled at the possibilities ambition, success and profitability can actuate for less manual labour. I applauded owner Todd Holm’s words that he wanted to work with cows, not manure and he uses automation so he can reduce manual labour in favour of more focussed time on the animals. He loves cows. Connects with them.
It fascinated me that I found the connection going backwards in time using a scythe and he found it surging forward using the latest automation.
The commonality is that we were created to connect – bond with the animals in our care, the land that provides our food, the grand bodies of water we traverse, our families and communities. Ourselves. Our Creator. When that connection happens, we simultaneously feel exhilaration and a sense of peace. Tolstoy invested two chapters in a book that is considered one of the greatest works of fiction ever written describing the connection. It’s intense...in the past, present and future. ◊