Despite the rain, it’s mowin’ time in Wisconsin. My nose tells me so, as it recently did when I passed a field of new cut hay while driving through farm country on one of the few days of full sunshine we’ve had this summer. The sweet smell came from just-mown alfalfa, of course, the crop that makes up nearly all the fresh cut plant matter raised for cattle feed in America’s Dairyland.
It was not always so. Alfalfa was one of the wonder crops introduced by the land grant university agricultural experts around the time of World War I. A conservative lot and a might wary of dewy college fellows who’d spent more time steering pencils than plows, Wisconsin farmers were slow to give the wonder crop a try. Alfalfa didn’t look like the grass they were used to. In fact, it wasn’t a grass at all, and who knew what would happen if you fed it to your mortgage lifter milkers? Not until after they had passed through the dark crucible of the 1930s Depression and the bittersweet prosperity of World War II, did our farmers take to alfalfa.
The horses helped, and the tractors. That is, the one replaced the other. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Wisconsin farmers sold off their Belgians, Percherons and other big shouldered work breeds for John Deere, International and Allis Chalmers machines. That freed up about one-quarter of their cropland. Ground reserved to raise oats and timothy grass for Nellie and Ned could now go into corn or beans or alfalfa. Fewer horses meant more cows. More cows meant more milk. More milk meant more income. At least that’s the way the economics textbooks say it’s supposed to work.
The scent of new mown hay takes me to the field in 1870’s Russia created by Leo Tolstoy in Anna Karenina. There, the other protagonist of the novel, the young landowner Konstantin Levin, defying the traditions of his class and station, takes up a scythe and mows with the “muzhiks.”
Forty men make their way across the field, led by a wiry, aged laborer named Titus. Following Titus, each mower steps off behind and to the side of his fellow, the space between measured by the arc of his swing. Levin struggles to keep his place at first, but he is no stranger to physical exercise, and soon holds his place in the muscular ballet. Forty scythes rise, their blades flashing in the sun. Forty pairs of shoulders swing downward, reach out. Forty left heels spin and rise off the ground. Forty waists pivot to complete the follow-through. Then the mowers step forward, set their legs wide, and begin the next stroke.
“The longer Levin mowed….it was no longer his arms that swung the scythe, but the scythe itself that lent motion to his whole body, full of life and conscious of itself, and, as if by magic, without a thought of it, the work got rightly and nearly done on its own.”
The work got rightly done. And still does.
Whether in fictional Russia or real time Wisconsin, mowing is still pretty much the same. The newest mowing machine–like the horse-drawn sickle-bars and side rakes of 1930’s Wisconsin, or Tolstoy’s 1870’s muzhik work gang–passes over the field, slices the stems, and lays the crop down in neat windrows to cure in the summer sun.
And stir a sweet scent of memory in those who drive by.