Using a scythe

The Homegrown
Evolution
blog pointed me to Scythesupply.com. I
might not have told you about it, except that there was a really
obnoxious riding mower mowing the lawn in the park across the
street as I was thinking about what to write about today.

The descriptions in the ScytheSupply.com of how obnoxious
powered mowers and weedwhackers are are spot on, but I think
their description of what using a scythe is like may be a bit
less detailed than this, from Leo
Tolstoy’s
Anna
Karenina
:

Once in a previous year he had gone
to look at the mowing, and being made very angry by the bailiff
he had recourse to his favorite means for regaining his temper,–
he took a scythe from a peasant and began mowing.

He liked the work so much that he had several times tried his
hand at mowing since. He had cut the whole of the meadow in
front of his house, and this year ever since the early spring he
had cherished a plan for mowing for whole days together with the
peasants. Ever since his brother’s arrival, he had been in doubt
whether to mow or not. He was loath to leave his brother alone
all day long, and he was afraid his brother would laugh at him
about it. But as he drove into the meadow, and recalled the
sensations of mowing, he came near deciding that he would go
mowing. After the irritating discussion with his brother, he
pondered over this intention again.

“I must have physical exercise, or my temper’ll certainly be
ruined,” he thought, and he determined he would go mowing,
however awkward he might feel about it with his brother or the
peasants.

Towards evening Konstantin Levin went to his counting house, gave
directions as to the work to be done, and sent about the village
to summon the mowers for the morrow, to cut the hay in Kalinov
meadow, the largest and best of his grass lands.

“And send my scythe, please, to Tit, for him to set it, and bring
it round tomorrow. I shall maybe do some mowing myself too,” he
said, trying not to be embarrassed.

The bailiff smiled and said: “Yes, sir.”

At tea the same evening Levin said to his brother:

“I fancy the fine weather will last. Tomorrow I shall start
mowing.”

“I’m so fond of that form of field labor,” said Sergey
Ivanovitch.

“I’m awfully fond of it. I sometimes mow myself with the
peasants, and tomorrow I want to try mowing the whole day.”

Sergey Ivanovitch lifted his head, and looked with interest at
his brother.

“How do you mean? Just like one of the peasants, all day long?”

“Yes, it’s very pleasant,” said Levin.

“It’s splendid as exercise, only you’ll hardly be able to stand
it,” said Sergey Ivanovitch, without a shade of irony.

“I’ve tried it. It’s hard work at first, but you get into it.
I dare say I shall manage to keep it up…”

“Really! what an idea! But tell me, how do the peasants look at
it? I suppose they laugh in their sleeves at their master’s
being such a queer fish?”

“No, I don’t think so; but it’s so delightful, and at the same
time such hard work, that one has no time to think about it.”

“But how will you do about dining with them? To send you a
bottle of Lafitte and roast turkey out there would be a little
awkward.”

“No, I’ll simply come home at the time of their noonday rest.”

Next morning Konstantin Levin got up earlier than usual, but he
was detained giving directions on the farm, and when he reached
the mowing grass the mowers were already at their second row.

From the uplands he could get a view of the shaded cut part of
the meadow below, with its grayish ridges of cut grass, and the
black heaps of coats, taken off by the mowers at the place from
which they had started cutting.

Gradually, as he rode towards the meadow, the peasants came into
sight, some in coats, some in their shirts mowing, one behind
another in a long string, swinging their scythes differently. He
counted forty-two of them.

They were mowing slowly over the uneven, low-lying parts of the
meadow, where there had been an old dam. Levin recognized some
of his own men. Here was old Yermil in a very long white smock,
bending forward to swing a scythe; there was a young fellow,
Vaska, who had been a coachman of Levin’s, taking every row with
a wide sweep. Here, too, was Tit, Levin’s preceptor in the art
of mowing, a thin little peasant. He was in front of all, and
cut his wide row without bending, as though playing with the
scythe.

Levin got off his mare, and fastening her up by the roadside went
to meet Tit, who took a second scythe out of a bush and gave it
to him.

“It’s ready, sir; it’s like a razor, cuts of itself,” said Tit,
taking off his cap with a smile and giving him the scythe.

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!”

The grass became softer, and Levin, listening without answering,
followed Tit, trying to do the best he could. They moved a
hundred paces. Tit kept moving on, without stopping, not showing
the slightest weariness, but Levin was already beginning to be
afraid he would not be able to keep it up: he was so tired.

He 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
nor 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.

Suddenly, in the midst of his toil, without understanding what it
was or whence it came, he felt a pleasant sensation of chill on
his hot, moist shoulders. He glanced at the sky in the interval
for whetting the scythes. A heavy, lowering storm cloud had
blown up, and big raindrops were falling. Some of the peasants
went to their coats and put them on; others–just like Levin
himself–merely shrugged their shoulders, enjoying the pleasant
coolness of it.

Another row, and yet another row, followed–long rows and short
rows, with good grass and with poor grass. Levin lost all sense
of time, and could not have told whether it was late or early
now. A change began to come over his work, which gave him
immense satisfaction. In the midst of his toil there were
moments during which he forgot what he was doing, and it came all
easy to him, and at those same moments his row was almost as
smooth and well cut as Tit’s. But so soon as he recollected what
he was doing, and began trying to do better, he was at once
conscious of all the difficulty of his task, and the row was
badly mown.

On finishing yet another row he would have gone back to the top
of the meadow again to begin the next, but Tit stopped, and going
up to the old man said something in a low voice to him. They
both looked at the sun. “What are they talking about, and why
doesn’t he go back?” thought Levin, not guessing that the
peasants had been mowing no less than four hours without
stopping, and it was time for their lunch.

“Lunch, sir,” said the old man.

“Is it really time? That’s right; lunch, then.”

Levin gave his scythe to Tit, and together with the peasants, who
were crossing the long stretch of mown grass, slightly sprinkled
with rain, to get their bread from the heap of coats, he went
towards his house. Only then he suddenly awoke to the fact that
he had been wrong about the weather and the rain was drenching
his hay.

“The hay will be spoiled,” he said.

“Not a bit of it, sir; mow in the rain, and you’ll rake in fine
weather!” said the old man.

Levin untied his horse and rode home to his coffee. Sergey
Ivanovitch was only just getting up. When he had drunk his
coffee, Levin rode back again to the mowing before Sergey
Ivanovitch had had time to dress and come down to the
dining room.

After lunch Levin was not in the same place in the string of
mowers as before, but stood between the old man who had accosted
him jocosely, and now invited him to be his neighbor, and a young
peasant, who had only been married in the autumn, and who was
mowing this summer for the first time.

The old man, holding himself erect, 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 than
swinging one’s arms in walking, as though it were in play, he
laid down the high, even row of grass. It was as though it were
not he but the sharp scythe of itself swishing through the juicy
grass.

Behind Levin came the lad Mishka. His pretty, boyish face, with
a twist of fresh grass bound round his hair, was all working with
effort; but whenever anyone looked at him he smiled. He would
clearly have died sooner than own it was hard work for him.

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.

It was only hard work when he had to break off the motion, which
had become unconscious, and to think; when he had to mow round a
hillock or a tuft of sorrel. The old man did this easily. When
a hillock came he changed his action, and at one time with the
heel, and at another with the tip of his scythe, clipped the
hillock round both sides with short strokes. And while he did
this he kept looking about and watching what came into his view:
at one moment he picked a wild berry and ate it or offered it to
Levin, then he flung away a twig with the blade of the scythe,
then he looked at a quail’s nest, from which the bird flew just
under the scythe, or caught a snake that crossed his path, and
lifting it on the scythe as though on a fork showed it to Levin
and threw it away.

For both Levin and the young peasant behind him, such changes of
position were difficult. Both of them, repeating over and over
again the same strained movement, were in a perfect frenzy of
toil, and were incapable of shifting their position and at the
same time watching what was before them.

Levin did not notice how time was passing. If he had been asked
how long he had been working he would have said half an hour–
and it was getting on for dinner time. As they were walking back
over the cut grass, the old man called Levin’s attention to the
little girls and boys who were coming from different directions,
hardly visible through the long grass, and along the road towards
the mowers, carrying sacks of bread dragging at their little
hands and pitchers of the sour rye-beer, with cloths wrapped
round them.

“Look’ee, the little emmets crawling!” he said, pointing to them,
and he shaded his eyes with his hand to look at the sun. They
mowed two more rows; the old man stopped.

“Come, master, dinner time!” he said briskly. And on reaching
the stream the mowers moved off across the lines of cut grass
towards their pile of coats, where the children who had brought
their dinners were sitting waiting for them. The peasants
gathered into groups–those further away under a cart, those
nearer under a willow bush.

Levin sat down by them; he felt disinclined to go away.

All constraint with the master had disappeared long ago. The
peasants got ready for dinner. Some washed, the young lads
bathed in the stream, others made a place comfortable for a rest,
untied their sacks of bread, and uncovered the pitchers of
rye-beer. The old man crumbled up some bread in a cup, stirred
it with the handle of a spoon, poured water on it from the
dipper, broke up some more bread, and having seasoned it with
salt, he turned to the east to say his prayer.

“Come, master, taste my sop,” said he, kneeling down before the
cup.

The sop was so good that Levin gave up the idea of going home.
He dined with the old man, and talked to him about his family
affairs, taking the keenest interest in them, and told him about
his own affairs and all the circumstances that could be of
interest to the old man. He felt much nearer to him than to his
brother, and could not help smiling at the affection he felt for
this man. When the old man got up again, said his prayer, and
lay down under a bush, putting some grass under his head for a
pillow, Levin did the same, and in spite of the clinging flies
that were so persistent in the sunshine, and the midges that
tickled his hot face and body, he fell asleep at once and only
waked when the sun had passed to the other side of the bush and
reached him. The old man had been awake a long while, and was
sitting up whetting the scythes of the younger lads.

Levin looked about him and hardly recognized the place,
everything was so changed. The immense stretch of meadow had
been mown and was sparkling with a peculiar fresh brilliance,
with its lines of already sweet-smelling grass in the slanting
rays of the evening sun. And the bushes about the river had been
cut down, and the river itself, not visible before, now gleaming
like steel in its bends, and the moving, ascending, peasants, and
the sharp wall of grass of the unmown part of the meadow, and the
hawks hovering over the stripped meadow–all was perfectly new.
Raising himself, Levin began considering how much had been cut
and how much more could still be done that day.

The work done was exceptionally much for forty-two men. They had
cut the whole of the big meadow, which had, in the years of serf
labor, taken thirty scythes two days to mow. Only the corners
remained to do, where the rows were short. But Levin felt a
longing to get as much mowing done that day as possible, and was
vexed with the sun sinking so quickly in the sky. He felt no
weariness; all he wanted was to get his work done more and more
quickly and as much done as possible.

“Could you cut Mashkin Upland too?–what do you think?” he said
to the old man.

“As God wills, the sun’s not high. A little vodka for the lads?”

At the afternoon rest, when they were sitting down again, and
those who smoked had lighted their pipes, the old man told the
men that “Mashkin Upland’s to be cut–there’ll be some vodka.”

“Why not cut it? Come on, Tit! We’ll look sharp! We can eat at
night. Come on!” cried voices, and eating up their bread, the
mowers went back to work.

“Come, lads, keep it up!” said Tit, and ran on ahead almost at a
trot.

“Get along, get along!” said the old man, hurrying after him and
easily overtaking him, “I’ll mow you down, look out!”

And young and old mowed away, as though they were racing with one
another. But however fast they worked, they did not spoil the
grass, and the rows were laid just as neatly and exactly. The
little piece left uncut in the corner was mown in five minutes.
The last of the mowers were just ending their rows while the
foremost snatched up their coats onto their shoulders, and
crossed the road towards Mashkin Upland.

The sun was already sinking into the trees when they went with
their jingling dippers into the wooded ravine of Mashkin Upland.
The grass was up to their waists in the middle of the hollow,
soft, tender, and feathery, spotted here and there among the
trees with wild heart’s-ease.

After a brief consultation–whether to take the rows lengthwise
or diagonally–Prohor Yermilin, also a renowned mower, a huge,
black-haired peasant, went on ahead. He went up to the top,
turned back again and started mowing, and they all proceeded to
form in line behind him, going downhill through the hollow and
uphill right up to the edge of the forest. The sun sank behind
the forest. The dew was falling by now; the mowers were in the
sun only on the hillside, but below, where a mist was rising, and
on the opposite side, they mowed into the fresh, dewy shade. The
work went rapidly. The grass cut with a juicy sound, and was at
once laid in high, fragrant rows. The mowers from all sides,
brought closer together in the short row, kept urging one another
on to the sound of jingling dippers and clanging scythes, and the
hiss of the whetstones sharpening them, and good-humored shouts.

Levin still kept between the young peasant and the old man. The
old man, who had put on his short sheepskin jacket, was just as
good-humored, jocose, and free in his movements. Among the trees
they were continually cutting with their scythes the so-called
“birch mushrooms,” swollen fat in the succulent grass. But the
old man bent down every time he came across a mushroom, picked it
up and put it in his bosom. “Another present for my old woman,”
he said as he did so.

Easy as it was to mow the wet, soft grass, it was hard work going
up and down the steep sides of the ravine. But this did not
trouble the old man. Swinging his scythe just as ever, and
moving his feet in their big, plaited shoes with firm, little
steps, he climbed slowly up the steep place, and though his
breeches hanging out below his smock, and his whole frame
trembled with effort, he did not miss one blade of grass or one
mushroom on his way, and kept making jokes with the peasants and
Levin. Levin walked after him and often thought he must fall, as
he climbed with a scythe up a steep cliff where it would have
been hard work to clamber without anything. But he climbed up
and did what he had to do. He felt as though some external force
were moving him.

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