Harvest Time

A Lesson in Time


   One of the most important lessons my father ever taught me was the art of using a scythe. It was a lesson passed down to him by his father ... and generations of fathers before.

   Today many people don't even know what a scythe is, let alone how to use one, even though they’ve seen scythes in countless pictures of the “Grim Reaper”. But there was a time where every farm boy in Iowa had to master this tool before the age of ten. My father was one of those boys. The Scyther

   If you see a scythe today it's likely to be in a museum or as a decorator piece hanging on a wall in a folksy restaurant. Certainly the classic scythe, with it's curved handle and long blade appears as artistic as any modern sculpture, but the design was purely utilitarian.

   By the time my father was 10, the likes of Deere and McCormick had already relegated scythes to only the smallest of holdings and weed patches. But the knowledge of how to use a scythe was still deemed important. “You never know when the horse will get sick or the McCormick will break down,” seemed like good advice.

   Using a scythe is no simple matter. It takes lots of practice … something not in short supply on Iowa farms in the 19th Century. If they knew what they were doing, a crew of fathers and sons and farmhands could cut a field in a remarkably short time. Orville The lead cutter, my father's brother Adrian, started at the far left. Brother Bruce followed to his right, six or seven paces behind. My father and the farmhands then each followed six paces behind and to the left.

   To a flock of geese overhead, it must have looked like a flock of humans flying in formation.Each cut with a scythe began with a blade pointed straight ahead and to the right. The cutter would then swing his blade around in an arc to the left, cutting a swath of grass or wheat in an eight-foot semicircle. The cut was done in a smooth sweep of the whole body, holding the blade perfectly level just a few inches above the ground. At the end of the sweep, the cutter twisted his whole body back to the right and took one step forward to line up for the next cut. Each cutter in the line would do the same.

   Before long the whole crew would be sweeping and stepping forward in unison. It was the closest the people of Packwood, Iowa would ever come to attending a ballet. On a windless summer's day the silence was broken only by the whispering sweep of the blades, a steady cadence, stepping a pace forward every three seconds.

   But what did this teach and why would my father and his father think it important?

   Teamwork, certainly. A crew could not be effective without a coordinated effort. Posture, too. “Stand ramrod straight”, my father said. “If you don't, you'll get a backache.”

   Certainly a metaphor for life. But there's more. There's pride in doing whatever it is you do. Look at a field that's been cut with scythes, and if the stubble is smooth and even and each sweep of the blade left and neat windrow of stacked wheat. You could tell if a cutter was skilled and took pride in his job. … and by virtue of that, pride in himself.

   Harvesting with scythes was already long gone by the time Adrian and Bruce left the farm for the trenches of World War I, after which they returned to jobs other than farming. My father, too, hung up the scythe to become a chef. Perhaps the heat of a kitchen was less daunting than the heat of an Iowa summer. But the lesson he learned from his father and passed on stuck. It doesn't matter what you do. Do it right, take pride in your work and you will feel better about yourself. A scythe is a useful tool for that lesson.

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