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The Mower’s Trance

“It is not the case that man, as the being possessed of the highest intellect, stands alone in the universe. His mind is also the mind of birds and beasts, of grass and trees.”

- Chu Hsi, 1130-1200 A.D

 

“The archetypes are as it were the hidden foundation of the conscious mind, or the roots which the psyche has sunk not only in the earth in the narrower sense but in the world in general.”

- C. G. Jung

 

Can we still remember those distant beginnings on Earth – while suspended in the womb – the gentle swaying from side to side as our mothers walked? Or, later, the rocking of the cradle? Consciously recalled or not, that simple motion is one of the “archetypes” deeply encoded in our genes. This may be one reason we are soothed by swings, hammocks and rocking chairs. Or, sometimes, the scythe…

In Peace is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote “Whenever I see anyone cutting his grass with a scythe, I know he is practicing awareness.” A nice way to express it, though awareness is a somewhat broad term. What exactly did he mean? How much of what kind of awareness is required for the wielding of the scythe? Alternately, can the task stimulate the broadening of awareness in general?

The essay from which his quote is excerpted is a brief sketch of what we might refer to as “mower’s sense”, i.e. the awareness of the changing nature of the terrain over which the blade moves, the varying density of plant material and the direction of its “lean”, the most suitable stroke pattern, the angle of the blade’s edge to stems and the time to re-hone the blade. All these issues bear consideration if the mowing is to proceed easily as well as efficiently, and novices must give them focused attention, or they will sweat more than necessary.

However, once some competence in the purely physical elements of the task is achieved, the rhythm of the slicing blade can draw the mower into other levels of awareness. Now the body will be more relaxed with no undue strain on any of its parts. The breathing becomes smoother, mowing easier. It happens in increments; occasional at first, later it is a common occurrence. Gradually, work can be transformed into pleasure.

Numerous examples of poetry, prose and axioms from agrarian cultures plainly express that many mowers of past generations most certainly reached this shift from toil to dance. I know from experience that this is not always merely a physical shift. While the body dances, the mind sometimes slips into a trance-like state where mundane concerns evaporate like the early morning mist in the rising sun. Some “other” perception is heightened. Though I mow with eyes nearly closed, the meadow nevertheless appears more “in focus”. I become sensitive to a chorus of subtle sounds and emotions hitherto unnoticed; the effect can indeed be mildly psychedelic.

I suspect that throughout the centuries it was during extended periods of scything when European and North American farmers came closer to a state of altered consciousness than during any other of their working activities. However, such an experience may be very personal, difficult to verbalize and thus share with others. Consequently, far fewer detailed accounts of it are recorded in print. In Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy alludes to something along these lines:

“…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.”

A still more specific example of what I am talking about are the verses below, excerpted from an old Austrian mower’s song. (This is my own non-poetic translation into English.)

4: Have you ever thought that,
as we swing our blades,
leaving behind a swath,
we act as helpers of the Grim Reaper?
5: The tender grasses
along with the young flowers,
still so full of vitality,
must give up their life…
7: You can see the silvery tears
swimming in their eyes
Because they reveled in their existence
And enjoyed so much to bloom.
8: But dear flowers,
Your fate is much the same as ours.
Often, before we suspect it,
the Grim Reaper stands at our door as well.

Here the mower’s mind crosses into another realm; flowers are perceived as conscious beings and the man grasps his connection to the Family of Life, subject to the same life/death cycle as the grass… yet both are immortal. Though his concept of the hereafter is not clearly revealed, the last stanza communicates the author’s faith in existence after death.

10: But let us not mourn!
It will not be long
before we all rise again
And bloom thrice as beautifully.

In a real sense, cutting a meadow with a scythe can be at once a lesson in science and metaphysics: plants, in dying, nourish myriad other life forms, and like ourselves, become humus; from dust we spring forth and to dust shall we all return. Or to put it another way, the task of mowing can manifest as a “sermon in the meadow”…

The initial substance of the blade moving in front of you, as well as the whetstone with which you periodically touch up the edge, originated in the bowels of the Earth. Where along the evolutionary path would this civilization be now had the great tectonic forces eons ago not created the matter so essential to your present task? And had not, much, much later, some pioneering gene in the mind of your ancestors prompted them to dig these materials out from below the roots of still living plants, shape the stone, smelt the iron ore and forge the steel, with great craftsmanship, into a lasting tool? For centuries, the meat and milk which sustained your grandparents and their parents and so on, came from animals fed scythe-mown hay.

Do you take for granted the steel blade? Or the wooden handle which connects your body to it? Ought the existence of anything be taken for granted? The geological changes, the origin of life on this planet, Homo sapiens’ discovery of the use of stone, then metal and finally crude oil (dead plants transformed into a so useful yet potentially so destructive substance.)

Do you take as a given the place where you now stand – or as a gift? Or where you can lie down – on a soft bed or upon green grass – or eventually underneath it… so you may again feel the gentle swaying inside the womb?

One could hardly not hear similar questions while in the “mower’s trance”! That too is awareness. Thich Nhat Hanh did not spell it out; perhaps he knew that it would eventually become evident – to each of us in our own time – as we keep on moving that blade back and forth, akin to the rocking of the cradle…

We can simply let the motion take us wherever it will. Alternately, the art of hand mowing lends itself to an array of active meditative imaging. A practitioner of Tai-chi, for instance, will soon notice that the “chi” flow patterns (during the sideways swing of the scythe) are in fact very similar to that portion of the classical Tai-chi form referred to as “Wave Hands like a Cloud”.

One may consciously “follow the breath” – all the way from where the soles touch the Earth to the tip of the blade, with the human body as an alchemical chamber extracting “gold” from thin air, so to speak.

The elemental mowing considerations mentioned earlier (lean of the plants, topography etc.) I have elsewhere referred to as “following the path of least resistance”. Taking that concept to a meditative level, try guiding the edge of your blade through the “empty spaces” between the molecules of the plants’ stem tissue. It is the mower’s silent “koan” and once you stop telling yourself that it is scientifically impossible, the mowing will get considerably easier…

And the memory of our beginnings? It is there – forever – in the roots of the grass, even as its visible portion “dies”.