Rural Ramblings – Summer 1980
Ralph C. Miller
Bowed with the weight of centuries he leans
Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground,
The emptiness of ages in his face
And on his back the burdens of the world …
That much only I remember from my school days – we had to learn it as I recall. For those fortunate enough not to have had to concern yourselves, that is the opening of ‘The Man With the Hoe.’ Along with Millet’s painting of the same name it was a bit of renewed controversy about the turn of the century. No, I wasn’t around yet then but 20 odd years later some teachers considered it daring enough to foist it on their pupils.
Now Markham, (Edwin Markham, 1852- 1940) the author, was born just up the road here in Oregon City but lived most of his adult life in California I believe. As far as I know he never met Jean Francois Millet (1814-1875) except as the rest of us did through his paintings.
The Angelus, The Gleaners, The Sower (is there one called The Skylark?); all these and more were occasioned by Millet’s move in later life to Barbizon in the French countryside. The paintings of the simple, hardworking, devout peasantry were certainly a departure from the usual more classical schools of art to that time. I find it a little far-fetched, however, even pretentious, to think that they were meant chiefly as any sort of indictment of classicists, captains of industry or society as a whole.
This, of course, is what Markham’s poem is about and he really gets carried away …
… What gulfs between him and the seraphim!
Slave of the wheel of labor, what to him
Are Plato and the swing of Pleiades?
What the long reaches of the peaks of song,
The rift of dawn, the reddening of the rose?
Through this dread shape the suffering of ages look;
Time’s tragedy is in that aching stoop;
Through this dread shape humanity betrayed,
Plundered, profaned, and disinherited,
Cries to protest to the Judges of the World …
‘… Prophecy,’ he speaks of, ‘Perfidious wrongs … Immedicable woes …’ and goes on to threaten with, ‘… When whirlwinds of rebellion shall shake the World …’
Well, I won’t argue that ‘The Man With the Hoe,’ or the plow – or the self-propelled combine – doesn’t have ‘immedicable woes’ (why didn’t he say incurable?), and that he may or may not feel like running his tractor into Washington’s Tidal Basin in a ‘Whirlwind of rebellion’ at finding himself a ‘Slave of the wheel of Labor’; I still think he might resent being termed ‘Stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox.’
And who’s to say if he is not just as familiar with ‘The swing of Pleiades’ (or any other stars), the peaks of song (bird songs at least), and he has probably seen more dawns reft, more roses redden than most poets, who are not necessarily known for early rising or having their feet on the ground.
Now as for that first stanza, I say the poet was not a very observant art critic. It’s true that the artist caught the peasant in the last throes of the dying sun when he was holding on to the hoe handle and trying to straighten his back but he isn’t really gazing on the ground. He’s looking off across the field into the sunset and there’s a certain fierce joy that I detect in his face; he’s either tickled that he’s gotten that big patch clean of weeds or grateful that sundown means he can quit (maybe both). As for his crick in the back, as any gardener knows that’s endemic but seldom fatal. Peasants weren’t prone to heart attacks; I’ve had ulcers too and I’ll take the backache every time. (Don’t you wonder what Markham might have made of the grim look on the face of the dedicated jogger slogging through mud and sleet?)
I don’t mean to set up as a critic either of poetry or painting (I like Millet – even ‘The Man With the Hoe’); what I started out to talk about was the ‘hoe.’ I don’t know why it has to be the symbol of drudgery. It’s true that it is seldom considered a romantic or inspiring instrument. Unless you are leaning on the handle contemplating a sunset or listening to a skylark, a hoe in your hand usually means you are working.
Working with a hoe isn’t necessarily menial or degrading; it isn’t even always plebian. Lords and Ladies, Captains and Kings have found pleasure in gardening, in working the soil and growing things. If Mary, quite contrary, wants her garden to grow with silver bells and cockle shells, she had better turn her hand to the hoe (getting on her knees for weeding and/or praying will help, too).
Of course not all authors have held hoeing in pitying contempt. I seem to recollect when Thoreau grew a patch of beans out there at Walden Pond he patted his own back in prose at some length over his labors with a hoe. (If some people think he was a bit of a poseur and that if he had really been forced to live under Waldenesian conditions he might have found it less than idyllic, that is probably irrelevant.)
Drudgery aside, I, too, find the hoe a symbol. Since the day when the first farmer whacked away at some pestiferous weed or broke a clod with a crooked stick it hasn’t changed all that much. Materials have altered, shapes and sizes have been refined but the basic physical principle – the handled extension of the human arm, remains. Down all the centuries, all the millenia, man has held on to the hoe. The axe may antedate it but axes started as weapons; the hoe has been the single thing most unaffected by the constant push of progress.
It is difficult to run a rototiller through a rose garden. The twelve ton tractor lacks something when it comes to hilling up tender seedlings. (Don’t tell the SFJ Editor I said so but the same might be said of the two ton Belgian team.) The hoe, however, in whatever form we use it, comes near to being the ideal implement for many of these tasks; especially… (I was about to say especially if you can get HER to use it. Women’s rights and derogatory humor don’t seem to be compatible any more, so I won’t say it.)
Additionally the hoe is ecologically, environmentally sound and offers little strain on the energy crunch. If you use the shower afterwards pollution shouldn’t be a problem either. Hey! I’m joking – who was it said the sweat of the farmer is the best fertilizer? For the weight conscious it beats running and there’s nothing like a hard morning on a hoe handle to make you feel virtuous, even smug; chopping weeds furiously can work off violence and tension as quickly as anything I can think of.
Of course all this is claptrap to the one the poet refers to as ‘the horny-handed son of toil.’ It’s work, hard work and no one can deny that it is labor intensive. Like a lot of other people (is it only us older folks?) I have a deeply buried conviction that anything that isn’t hand work, honest physical labor is somehow shallow, frivolous and in the long run can not last.
As such I find the old country crafts and labors particularly admirable. Somehow the Village Blacksmith, the Gleaners or even the Man With the Hoe seem more laudable than the man who deals in Gold, Stocks or Grain Futures. That could be speciousness; when it comes down to making a living a lot of us don’t have the intestinal fortitude to choose the former. Fortunately, there are still those who find gratification and a sense of worth in preserving some of the old methods, crafts and tools.
This time we’re mostly concerned with those tools. It’s the thing that sets us apart from other animals. It is the essence of civilization. Business, Art, Literature are now essentials but they have followed rather than led the use of tools, and when any Civilization has raised them too far above labor it inevitably falls and survival again becomes paramount.
Now I’m not really as old as I sometimes let on but I do recall a lot more hand tools than just the hoe. The industrial revolution began long before World War I but it did take a quantum leap about then. There were always oldsters around who favored the old ways and old tools so I got to use or at least know a lot of them first hand.
Aside from clubs, spears and stones used by hunters, I would guess that one of the first tools, even before the hoe, was a sharp stick. When man first opted for a more settled existence as opposed to the nomadic life of the hunter or the follower of herds, he must have realized that gathering and planting seeds would put the harvest right where he wanted it. Poke a hole in the ground, drop a seed in and let nature take its course.
Somewhere down the line he figured out that if he stirred up the ground the results would be more certain. Somehow, maybe by accident, he got hold of that crooked stick with the stub of another branch on it. That would have developed into the hoe but it would also have led directly to the first plow. With a longer handle on either end one person could hold the stub in the ground while the other person or persons could pull it.
Eventually it would be made of metal, the handle would become two and it would be pulled by animals; seen today most often at plowing matches, the walking plow still bears a remarkable resemblance to the early crooked stick. Huge gang plows following tractors owe shape and even existence to the first farmers to pick up that stick and scratch the ground with it. Too bad there was no artist around like the cave painters of Altamira to make record of that first plowing attempt. It probably occured in Mesopotamia and reed papyrus scratched with a stylus was still a long way in the future.
We can’t even conjecture what was the next farm tool. If they needed more power to pull their rude plow they may have fashioned drag ropes from vines, woven bark or even leather. Leather had been around since the hunting days. Eventually drag ropes would be adapted for animals and would become harness. Leather was a valuable addition to sticks and rocks. Ashes and half burned sticks with the right kind of bark on them and lying in a depression; a little rainwater on them to leach out the lye and tannic acid – now skin an animal nearby and let the hide fall into the solution accidentally. Was that how he learned to tan leather?
As long as the farmer remained close enough to water it presented no problem, but traveling or moving back out on the plain to new soil meant carrying water for himself, for animals and to irrigate the plants. Leather bottles could have been the first but hardly the most satisfactory.
Last fall I burned a brush pile with several stumps which were pulled where clay lies not far below the surface. After a hot fire which held for a couple of days I found ceramic (red terra cotta) rings where roots burned out of the muddy clay. An incident similar may have happened back before recorded time to inspire the earliest potter to shape and fire jars and pots to hold water.
With crops growing he needed a better way to harvest than pulling them up by the roots or flailing away with a stick. I can’t say how scientific the surmise is but I suspect the passage in Michener’s book, ‘The Source,’ comes pretty close to reality. His early farmer wedges sharpened stones in a curved stick to make the first sickle.
It wouldn’t have been as tidy as pulling them up but the grain wouldn’t have scattered as badly as with the stick alone, a big step forward thanks to that enterprising soul. (How much we owe the enterprising souls, even if there are usually grumpy old men around railing against progress.) Grumpy Grandpa would have objected, “We still have to separate the grain. We’re better off with our stick, all we have to do is pick each grain out of the dirt on the ground.”
“Ah, there’s the very idea,” says Enterprising Earnest, “I cut them with my sickle, you lay them on a clean surface and flail them with your stick.” One day the stick breaks but not all the way and Grumpy has accidentally discovered the true flail. If he uses a leather thong to tie them together it works even better and comes right down to modern times. I used a flail to thresh out navy beans as a boy. The reaper, the threshing machine and then the combine replaced sickle and flail but in a pinch they’re still as viable as when Earnest and Grumpy used them.
The pointed stick became dibble, spade and planter, the crooked stick changed into both hoe and plow, the curved stick a sickle and broken stick, flail; the only things needed for grain farming were a tool to gather stalks and something to grind the grain into meal.
If a woman or child dragged a branch meant for firewood across the patch where that early farmer proudly cut his grain with a sickle, they probably got clubbed for it. After the dust settled did he notice how well the branch raked up the grain? If you drove wooden pegs in a row across a piece of wood with a handle tied to it that was the same principle and worked so good that some people still use them. A tree branch was also the forerunner of the wooden forks that Drew Langsner makes.
It’s easy to picture the mate of that early farmer grumbling that when she laid her grains on one flat rock and crushed it with another the wind blew the best part of the meal away. All Earnest had to do was drag home a rock from a waterfall or some nearby cave where dripping water had created a small natural bowl. Now with a round rock out of the stream bed she could grind the meal and still have it right there under her hand.
It isn’t hard to figure how most of our tools developed; it was natural progression but it took a very long time. Metal helped tremendously and there were refinements surely, bringing them down to a comparatively modern day. More sophisticated machinery has rendered most of these things obsolete but every once in a while we ought to look back and see where we came from.
It’s not wholly irrelevant to remember what Einstein said. Since some of his theories led to the development of the Atom bomb, he was asked what might be the weapons of World War III. He refused to speculate but offered that World War IV would be fought with sticks and rocks again. Enough said.
One of the refinements of early tools that fascinated me as a youngster was the cradle. (The grain cutter, not the baby rocker.) There are still a few around, mostly in museums I guess, but the one I remember was one my Grandfather used. He didn’t have a grain binder and when he sometimes raised a grain patch that didn’t merit having a neighbor come in he’d get down the cradle.
A variation of the scythe, the cradle, also featured long wooden fingers extended behind the blade so that the cut grain fell back on them and ‘cradled’ into a fairly even stook. Hand tied with a handful of grain stalks it made a neat bundle and I was sure that this was the way grain had been harvested since the time of Ruth and Boaz. Cyrus McCormick et al had taken away much of the backache but there was little romance in the mechanical reaper.
I wish I had learned to use the cradle (I wish I still had it), but the best I can claim was some dexterity with the scythe. Grandpa used that too, that and the old wooden rake. In the past column dealing with water I spoke about him putting up some loose hay in the swampland on his place. No mower could get in that swamp, not a mechanical or horsedrawn one; just a man with a sharp scythe and rubber boots. The wooden rake bunched it and it had to be hand carried out with a fork.
There was another tool I learned about from my Grandfather. A woodworking tool that was considered very old fashioned then but has been coming back of late and now I can buy one in the discount store. The shingle mill to make sawn shingles just about put the shake rive (some spell it reave) out of business.
When I was about 14 or 15 his son, my uncle Earl, bought 40 acres for the back taxes way out in the Moose Lake country. By the time he got it located, paced out and roughly staked he found that it was mostly swamp. There was enough high ground, however, to put up a hunting cabin which was what he bought it for.
Grandpa wasn’t fazed by the swamp; he was used to harvesting wetlands and found plenty of cedar among the tangle. Since everything had to be packed in 2 or 3 miles Grandpa would split the roof boards. With his rive (a thick, wedge shaped, iron blade with an eye in the end for a handle) he would split 2½ foot cedar bolts into shakes by laying the leading edge of the wedge down on the end of the shake bolt and hit it with the big, but short, oaken club he called a ‘maul.’ Grandpa stood nearly 6’ 2” and weighed 240 so he used a heavy maul. There are a number of hustlers hand splitting shakes today but that was enough of a novelty then to impress me.
Having spent a lot of years in construction I am in little doubt of the validity of the expression that ‘a man is no better than his tools,’ but I also believe that somebody had to make the tools that have made men. We’re an ingenious race, we humans; intrigued by problems and prone to work out solutions even before computers. Of all the human race I think farmers have certainly contributed their share, and I say that in full recognition of the Edisons, Marconis, Whitneys and Fultons. Without those early tools to build on and improve we’d still be using rocks and clubs.
It occurs to me that some may think I was a little harsh with our poor poet back there and wonder why. Well, we have had several good drying days this spring and I have been able to work the garden and flower beds quite a bit. Leaning on my hoe handle I may have been bowed all right (lame too), with the weight of centuries and the burdens of the world. I don’t feel quite as stolid and stunned as my brother the ox, however, and there’s a real feeling of satisfaction in it.
I like the stars and the song of birds; most of all I like the flowers and the fruits of the earth. Unlike the poet I can’t separate them from the toil they occasion. If I want to watch the reddening of the rose this summer – or the apples, raspberries, strawberries and grapes – I have to put my shoulder down and give a hard push on the wheel of labor first, and that’s a prophecy from ‘The Man With the Hoe.’