THEY were making hay, up in the small fields, traced out with their dry-stone walls on the sun-soaked slopes of Swaledale, on the hottest day of the year.
I watched a tractor, tiny like a toy in the distance, pulling its mower back and forth across the walled field, and another, doing just the same, in the opposite direction, in the field below.
Maggie and I had walked down from Arkengarthdale into the village of Reeth, and sat at a table outside the Black Bull. I nursed my pint of Old Peculier, engaged in that most relaxing of all pastimes: watching other people work.
The two little tractors plying back and forth were far enough away to be inaudible, and their gentle criss-crossing was at once hypnotic and soothing, though I imagined the farmers themselves, casting a backward glance at their tracks and breathing the air full of dust and grass-cuttings, must have been feeling the heat. I guessed that by day’s end they’d be down this way and glad of a pint of OP themselves.
I found myself recalling Hilaire Belloc’s classic essay “The Mowing of a Field”, although that was set in another era, the last days of the scythe, and not in the Yorkshire Dales, but in a hidden valley in Belloc’s beloved Sussex.
His essay celebrates the art of mowing with a scythe in wonderful and intricate detail, and yet every detail somehow rings out, becomes universal, celebrates every good art and craft. So, first, he sharpens his scythe, just as a poet might hone his or her mind for the muse:
First, the stone clangs and grinds against the iron harshly; then it rings musically to one note; then, at last, it purrs as though iron and stone were exactly suited . . . and I, when I heard it in that June dawn, with everything quite silent except the birds, let down the scythe and bent myself to mow.
“The good mower”, he remarks, “goes forward very steadily, his scythe-blade just barely missing the ground, every grass falling; the swish and rhythm of his mowing are always the same.”
Of course, it makes him think of poetry: “The pen thinks for you; and so does the scythe mow for you if you treat it honourably.” And so, in turn, that deep almost unconscious rhythm makes him think of prayer:
In this mowing should be like one’s prayers — all of a sort and always the same, and so made that you can establish a monotony and work them, as it were, with half your mind: that happier half, the half that does not bother.
Naturally, the cut grass, and the scythe itself, must bring to mind our mortality: “The days of man are but as grass; for he flourisheth as a flower of the field. For as soon as the wind goeth over it, it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more.”
But, somehow, Belloc, who had a stronger sense than most both of mortality and melancholy, lifts it all into beauty, and, finally, into fellowship. He finds a companion in his mowing, and brings out a jar of small ale to share with him.
Savouring my own pint in the heat of the day, I remembered his little saying: “Small ale goes well with mowing.”