Still hunkered down, still wet, still writing. An hour before supper at 7, I decide getting a cuppa tea is worth it because I have to use the outhouse anyway. This tea is delicious. And do I taste a hint of sugar or is it my imagination?
June 4th was my training day. Scythe training, that is. Long blades, bent knees and the one, two.
After oat groats and preserves I meet P. out in the barn, where to my delight, I find a jar of instant coffee. Nescafé Gold has no idea how true their label is: I feel I have just struck it. I decide a good strong cup is just what I need before I handle blades.
So the instruction begins, and with any enthusiast with anything, it must begin at the beginning. Identification. There is the blade, which has a “ toe” – the point, and a “head” the wider part, which is attached to the “snath” – the wooden pole. There are the upper and lower grips, one for each hand, upper for left, lower for right. I will not go over how P. measures the length of the bade or adjusts it according to a person’s height, how he checks the arc of the swing and the tilt of the blade, the proper way and how often to sharpen the blade with the proper whetting stone, but as P. explained and showed all of this, each new bit of information came with its own side story. If you recall Severus Snape’s character in Harry Potter, then you can imagine how long and drawn out and a little weirded out and antsy I became. Imagine listening to the physics of an ice skate blade before you feel like having a go at ice skating.
Finally, we were ready to go outside and try it out. There are several positions to keep in mind that must happen either simultaneously or one after another. (And don’t forget to breathe.) First, bend the knees, and hold the snath across the right thigh, with the toe of the blade in a straight line with your own toes. Then lean into your right foot, put pressure on the thumbs to tilt the blade as close to the ground as possible, and as you arc the scythe around your front, control it all the way around to your left side, while shifting pressure from your right foot to your left, following through with the arms, and careful not to lift the blade from the ground. What should happen, if this is done successfully, is a neat, cut, semi circle arc of grass in front of you. Once you can do this, you are ready to do the one, two, which is what I came up with. To keep going, and to get any reasonably sized plot of land cut in less than a decade, once the pressure is on the left foot, you must lift the right foot and step just a tiny bit forward; in fact, only that small bit (about four inches) equal to the amount of cut grass in that arc. So imagine if you will, a person bent at the knees, rotating and swinging a full 180 at the waste, and incrementally shifting from left foot to right in a rhythmic forward motion.
Suddenly, our instruction had been cut short – I had just completed my arc and wasn’t yet trying out the one, two dance when Michelle called for our help – the “young bull” had just jumped the fence into a neighbor’s field. Armed with a bucket of feed, a long wooden bar, equally long stick, and a rope with a noose at one end, we went up the field.
The two remaining cows still in their proper pasture were nevertheless accomplices in the whole matter and were shouting at the freedom fighter using full cow lungs. All sorts and timbres of sounds cascaded around the fields. They were either shouting at the escaped bull for encouragement or shouting at him with sympathy worry. Michelle found the sagging fence, and the reason behind the apparent ease of jumping over: the electric wire had come in contact with the barbed wire, and shorted it out. With the pail of food to use as enticement, she went towards the bull, who was a good distance away from the point of entry, nibbling on some forbidden foliage. The other cows were as close as they could come but still on the other side of the fence. To extrapolate the bull from his food find and the proximity of his mates would be harder than I thought, especially when I saw him Back away from the pail of goodies once he saw Michelle attempt to harness him. Soon, he knew the pail was only a trick and would have none of it. He went back to the delectables, so indulged in what a little fence jumping could offer, that he failed to notice Michelle and Phillip approach from his blind spots and grab his collar. Suddenly, the docile, gentle cow I observed the other day became a raging bull. Woe to him who grabs my collar, I heard him say. He yanked and pulled and thrust his weight around, and Michelle and Phillip, thin and petite as they are, held on and were shoved and pulled this way and that. Michelle shouted, Keep his head down! Pin his head! And when they both lunged with all their weight, pushing down his head, he at once stopped moving, at least long enough for M and P to collect their breath. I grabbed the rope for them, and as advised, walked slowly and gave him a wide berth. No problem! I thought. Last thing I want to do is have him charge me. Warily, I approached all three of them, men and beast, ever so gradually passing M the rope. Then I retreated to watch part II. He either was unable to move, or didn’t know what just happened, because she fitted the rope around his horns and under his mouth. Once that was securely on, they both let go of their hold on his collar. Holy moly was he upset. Again he threw a raging fit, bucking up with his head, giving M a bloody lip, tackling and wrestling the two of them into center field. It was scary to watch, and I was surprised at how long either party was willing to keep this going. The bull clearly had the advantage in strength alone and not the one heading to the ER at any moment. Soon I was given the answer. Michelle lost strength first and with the bull’s swift flick tossed her to the side. The sole survivor was P, who received a good head butting, causing him to fall backwards; this issued a scream from M who yelled Let go, Phillip, you’ll hurt yourself! (Ya think?) It’s not worth it! But gallantry runs deep, and a bull runs fast, and P refused to let go, and from the ground was dragged at least twenty yards before rope burn must have set in or good old common sense.
Back to square one. A riddle, if you will. There is a bull cow in the middle of a forbidden field. Three onlookers, dazed. A pail of feed, a bent fence, and two cows on the other side. How do you get the cow back over? In hindsight, simple. You put the pail of feed on the other side of the bent fence, in the proper field, where the remaining cows can eat it. The escapee thinks he’s missing out, and hops over all by himself. Did either one of us think of that then, in those moments of harness and capture and rodeo? Nope. But the bull must have, for right after he won the fight, he sauntered across the field like he owned it, right to the source of the trouble, and indeed hopped over like Rudolph himself on a Christmas morning.
Admittedly they were shaken by the whole ordeal, as there were talks on the way back of castrating him right away, come fall.
The bull episode put us half an hour behind schedule – not for scything, but for heading for the coast, a half day off for me to explore the coastal town Aberporth while the children attended their community group “Lighthouse”, which is a group of Home Educated kids in the area. It took about twenty minutes to get there by car, and there were about 15 children of various ages. I would meet the family here, outside the community center at 4, as entry was granted only to those who had had a national background check.
An afternoon on the Welsh coast would not be complete without a good measure of rain, and I was impressed with the country’s hospitality in that regard. A small town, with a few main streets that were main only in the fact that there was a restaurant/ bar, a drugstore, a hardware store, a gift shop, and a snack and newspaper store on one of them, and the other transversed it. I decided to find lunch first, before I did the coastal walk, and chose a random street around the bay to see what was happening over on that side. A fancy restaurant and an ice cream shop were the options, so I moved on, circled back and up to the Main Street, at which point the rain was coming down harder now and I decided to take what I could get. Turns out I didn’t walk far before I came across a familial looking establishment with a few beers on tap and a chalkboard menu with a few specials. Perfect. I was in the craving for taste, and despite my being around pies and mushy peas and what must have been a Ladies Auxiliary meeting or the Knitters Society of Aberporth, I went for the curry and a Guinness.
The walk was beautiful, the ocean mesmerizing, the waves soothing and the rain turned to a spray mist. I and only two others were out there. It felt good to see the ocean, the empty horizon, and from the information at the viewpoints learn a little bit about the shipping and herring industry here before the railroads changed all that.
I was at the designated rendezvous point at 4, and had to wait for 15 minutes before they came out. I found myself far more conspicuous as a possible kidnapper standing in the cold and rain outside a children’s community center for 15 min rather than just go inside. And until M introduced us, the ladies who came and went did look at me suspiciously. But out they came, finally, and off we drove, forward to the 1800s.