Monday, April 20, 2009

Hand Mowed

(Many thanks to Eberle, who stepped into the breach created by cold & cranky convelescence to come up with a most entertaining post for today!)

I loved John’s post on Saturday about Bernadette Mayer’s poem. And her vision of poets as a certain species of farmer is great. What I’ve always been fascinated by in subsistence farming is connection—to the seasons, the land, the weather—and poetry is a similar process to my mind. It’s not so much about ideas in themselves, ideas as objects, but about a process of connecting ideas—and making that process into a form of poetic economy. Prayer or meditation, in my estimation, involves the same process. Poetry and prayer are subversive in the economy of meaning as subsistence farming has always seemed to me subversive of the money economy. I lived for four years on a farm in rural Brazil and I was often struck by the fact that everything you ate, you could see growing around you over the course of the year. Also there wer
e no banks and very little hard currency. Even the houses and dishes were made from the earth with mud bricks and clay. One thing I never got used to was the total absence of pen and paper. I remember, early on, being taught how to play dominoes one evening and when I realized that keeping score was part of the game I thought for sure some kind of writing would be involved—but a handful of dried corn served as counters. I have always remembered this as an image that there are other ways of counting, of assessing value, of keeping score, than the ones engendered by the power structures of authorized culture. Subsistence farming, like the best fairy tales, makes sustainable use of everything in the landscape. This is a very different kind of economy than that of money, which attempts to render the value of all things and all activities in terms of a single system of currency, so that they lose the value they have inherently in themselves as themselves.

John was also accurate in saying that serious farming is a hard row to hoe. Most ranchers around here use heavy equipment and four-wheelers and various kinds of technology—although it’s still very linked to the land. Lambing season is just over, and a friend of mine told me about using an intercom in the lambing shed because the sound of the ewe’s breathing lets you know from inside your own house when a birth is taking place in the shed. John was also right about the fact that the time required by writing can come into conflict with the time required by working the land. You can’t spend all morning both hoeing and writing. It made me smile that on the day John posted Bernadette’s poem/essay, I was in a small field east of the house learning to use a scythe.

I bought the scythe last fall—not the garden scythe kind but the genuine grim reaper variety—made in Austria, with a blade about as long as my arm. I have always secretly wanted one of these, as a cool object and as a tool that would be amazing to use—if only I could figure out how to use one. I like to try new musical instruments and I’m pretty fearless about that, but there’s just something intimidating about a scythe. However, I was at the hardware store in McCall last fall and became mesmerized by this single real scythe they had among the other garden tools. A store employee came up to ask me if I wanted help etc. and in a moment of bravery I decided to be honest and say that I really wanted the scythe but wasn’t sure I’d be able to learn how to use it. As luck would have it, it was the right day and the right person. It turned out he used to live near my area in Adams County and had used this kind of scythe himself. The scythe had been in the store a long time. He pulled off the dusty plastic, took me into the workroom, showed me how to attach the blade, and sharpened it. Then he took me outside to practice on a convenient patch of weeds. He explained the principal of using your waist instead of your arms for propulsion. I came home with the scythe, but other things happened in the fall and I never got around to trying it.

Until today—one of the first great days of spring. I found a fairly secluded patch of weeds to test the scythe out on—one where I wouldn’t be shy about ranchers driving past and looking down critically at my efforts from their towering pick-up trucks. The weeds were falling under the blade, but I wasn’t sure I really had the right motion. I remembered that last summer when I wanted to learn how to play an oversized banjo-type of Turkish instrument called the Yayli tambour that is bowed like a cello, I went online to find videos of people playing it in order to learn how. So I did the same thing with the scythe.

The first two videos I watched on YouTube didn’t impress me. One thing I learned in Brazil, where my skills with a hoe were honed, is that relaxation and efficient movement are the key elements for working long stretches with a hand tool. If you do any physical activity for hours on end in a very hot climate, you learn to do this—and to see the beauty in the movements of the people who do it well. This is actually a principal John and I applied to learning the banjo—playing it for a long time sitting on the porch in the heat of summer really makes you relax with it. The same is true of drumming. More and more, we both emphasize to our students the importance of physical relaxation when playing music.

Anyway, I didn’t want to learn how to use the scythe from videos of people who looked tense and awkward. Then I found this video [see bottom of post], which was great— I love how the mower seems to be dancing! It made me remember when I was in college and my parents started raising llamas in Valley County; they hired my brother and I and a group of our friends to work on the ranch in the summers—a strange combination of manual labor and college philosophy, living in tents and a tipi—but I did learn how to fence. One of my friends and I realized one day how folk dancing came from work gestures—I think we were using draw-knives to peel bark off lengths of fence posts; we would raise our hands up and shake them to get bits of bark out of our work gloves; if you stand up and do this it becomes a dance. This is a good example of how knowing something abstractly is different from discovering it—because I had studied dance, I knew that some kinds of dancing were connected to the gestures of everyday activities, but discovering it for myself was thrilling—that was the difference. The same thing happened one day when we were supposed to build a shed and were trying to figure out how to sink the four corner posts so they were at right angles with each other—and suddenly I remembered the Pythagorean theorem. This was the only moment in my life when I felt a moment of absolute joy in relation to math—something that I imagine happens to true mathematicians quite often.

Watching this video, besides making me happy, made me internalize the importance of the backward step—that’s the part I hadn’t gotten. I tried it for a while standing in front of the computer, and then went out with my scythe to the patch of weeds I had in mind. This weedpatch flourishes in the drainfield of our septic system where there are dips in the land that make it impossible to mow mechanically—but the excellent growing conditions make for luxuriant weeds that got several feet high last summer. John has kept the patch in check with a weed-whacker, but I have been resistant about learning how to use this tool though John did give me great tips on using our self-propelled lawn-mower and I help out with that now.

This summer, I vowed, I was going to keep these weeds down with my scythe. It was lovely to feel the rhythm of scything starting to happen under my hands and feet, and daydreaming about planting a patch of raspberries in this spot next spring; people have told me that raspberries do very well over septic drainfields. Of course, a truly great mower would not be thinking of next spring, she would be merged with the moment. She would also not be distracted by the thought that mowing the whole patch would probably mean not being able to move much at all the next day—but I mowed it all anyway and I was glad I did.


  1. One of my favorite paintings, N. C. Wyeth's "The Scythers" comes to mind. Excellent post, Eberle!

  2. Talk about a total body workout! A year of that and you'd either be dead or in the physical condition of a lifetime!

  3. Wow, Eberle, you've done a great job with this post!
    When I think of scythes two things come to mind: an episode of "The Black Adder" and Bergman's "The Seventh Seal". (Funny thing is, I don't think the "Death" character even carries one.

    It must be awesome to hold a real one, but I'm sure I'd do myself an injury one way or another.


  4. How interesting an article, Eberle. Obviously there is an art to using a scythe--and music makes everything flow beautifully.

  5. I can't not comment on how apropos your T-shirt is for this post. LOL!

  6. Dear Willow, K, Kat, Linda and Jen:

    Thanks so much for commenting on this piece. It's really great to feel a connection between an everyday activity like mowing and readers of RFB. I always appreciate hearing from you!

  7. A thoughtful, informative, and inspiring post. I've not seen a scythe in hardware stores, only as part of an exhibit on agriculture tools, or in "living history" museums. How nice that on some occasions, they are still just the right thing. I liked your linking the illusion of daily tasks of work to dance.

  8. Hi Jacqueline--

    I'm pinch-hitting for Eberle on the comments on her posts, but thanks for stopping by.

    Yes, those old tools still work, but (as K suggested in his comment) you provide a lot of impetus.

    Thanks everybody!


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