Blades and Rabbits – September 1924

If the tractor kept in a good humour they were hoping to finish cutting one field of oats and tares, and to start with another before dusk, so that all would be in order for a good run next day. I walked down after tea to see how things were going. I found them busy changing knives in the binder, and a hard tussle it was to get the blunt one out and the sharp one in.

This was because, it appeared, of a certain nut with too large a head. This allowed the knife to slide only if it kept straight, and one knows what a slight touch moves the supple steel this way or that.

I was specially interested in that sharp toothed blade, because I had that afternoon helped to sharpen one — first asking, as I watched my young man at work with the hone, if I was in danger of doing any harm. It appeared that there was a likelihood both ways, according to the angle at which I held the stone. But if one has been used all one’s life to using one’s hands, it is not such a difficult affair to attempt a new job.

Evidently I was not alarmingly awkward for no criticism passed until I said — “I am not finishing off the edge as you do — I am leaving that to you — but I can feel it is more sharp on all those teeth I have been working at.” Careful fingers tested the teeth at my end and pronounced them just right; they wanted no “finishing” and no sharper edge. Wasn’t I a gratified woman? And thus it came that I regarded the changing of the knives with a more familiar eye.”

The operation completed, each mounted his seat and made a circuit back to the island in the centre of the field which was yet to cut. A huge thundercloud of how many million tons of water no meteorologist could calculate or guess, stole over the zenith with that stealthy swiftness which has a false appearance of slow and quiet movement, and threatened us with an immediate deluge.

Further back over the downs there were purple streamers which supplied an unmistakable weather note. If this went on, it would soon be dark, and the harvest field enveloped in a rushing deluge.

The discarded knife — could I put it in its sheath? Seemed as if it ought to be simple, and one likes to be doing something. But it wasn’t such a simple task as sharpening the blades. I thought I should have to give it up.

The sly supple thing would slip in nicely at one end and lie obediently to half way up, then the other end, proving obstinate, when one began to coax and manoeuvre, the whole blade quietly, dropped out. It submitted, however, to my repeated efforts and, searching for the bits of string thrown aside, I tied it safely in.

To my relief, on looking up, I saw that the millions of tons of water had passed us by, and there was now a certainty, barring serious accidents that the island of corn would be laid flat. I moved near, and sat upon a sheaf, nibbling the peas in the vetch pods, sampling those which were quite ripe and those tender and green; and admiring the figure eight — or something very like that figure — which the tractor made as it turned at the narrow ends of the rapidly disappearing island of standing grain.

Twice or three times there was a shout and a halt, a hasty examination of the binder, and a mutilated rabbit flung in my direction. On one of these occasions the animal was not killed and squealed pitifully. One of the youths drew its neck, and it then lay quite still by the sheaf pointed out to me, by which sign I understood that I was expected to carry the booty to the house.

One appeared to escape unhurt as they were examining the canvas for the cause of a stoppage, and ran close by me. When it saw a human seated on a sheaf it lay perfectly flat in a slight hollow, then gathering courage took a short run and flattened itself again, finally scuttering swiftly towards the wood.

“Why didn’t you catch it?” demanded one of my young men. “What!” catch a live rabbit on the run?” “It wouldn’t have got past me,” was the confident retort. How it escaped injury, they didn’t know as it had got under the canvas, ran right round, and out where the sheaves are expelled.

And now the last line had fallen, and I should have thought a good day’s work was finished; but the master had appeared on the scene and decided that it would simplify next day’s work if tractor and binder were moved into the next field. That sounds easy if you are unfamiliar with the deep ditches called “dickeys” which separate one field from another in the land of heavy soil. One presumes their primary object is drainage.

A shallow ditch of clay walls and bottom would quickly overflow after heavy rain, and the water here lies long on the surface. However great may be its uses, the “dickey” is a danger line. Quite recently a valuable cow near calving was found dead on its back in the ditch, which is wide enough at the top for cow to become wedged in it, and slopes down to perhaps five feet. Another cow was released in time to save its life. Whether they slipped or rolled in the dark, or were pushed in by another cow cannot be known.

At each end of the deep ditch dividing the two fields of oats referred to here there was a cart-track which sank in a rough hollow — well enough for a horse and reaper, but hardly a roadway for a tractor with a heavy cumbersome binder behind it. However the attempt was to be made, and a number of sheaves were thrown in to fill the hollow somewhat. They went along with a great “A-hoy,” till the hind part of the tractor reached the lowest part, then there was a deadlock.

I always feel that farmers dealing with modern machinery in difficult situations should be skilled engineering mechanics of superhuman strength. It gives me tightening thrills to see them trying to move these huge masses. But if they were skilled mechanics it is more than probable that they would not often have to rely upon muscular strength.

At last the bolt connecting the two machines was withdrawn, and the tractor was able to surmount the next rise alone. Then the binder had to be moved — by human power — over the top edge on the near side and down to the sheaf bridge. Was I to behold someone crushed beneath the juggernaut or have to minister to a body laid prostrate by a burst blood vessel? But nothing happened except that the tractor and binder were recoupled and, after many encouraging shouts and directions the machines turned themselves parallel with the right side of the dickey.

Plain whirring now, one would think, but the difficulties of the farmer never cease for an instant, and the canvas refused to take the thick clover sheaves.

“Never saw such clover,” everybody had said who had viewed that field. Every effort had been made in spring, or rather late winter, to make a kindly seed-bed for the clover that was to give pasturage to the dairy cattle later on. In a sense it had been too successful for the clover almost over-topped the oats, no doubt by reason of the wet season. So thick was it that it never dried in a droppy time, with the sun peeping half through his curtain of cloud for an hour or so every second day.

After repeated attempts, resulting in a move of a few yards and then a choked canvas and a broken wing of the binder, it was decided that it was useless to attempt cutting that rich clover bottom until there was a bristling wind, or the sun came out for half a day. So the canvas was unbuckled and rolled up, sheaves brought from the other field and piled over it to shed the rain, and we separated to find our way back to the house as dusk was beginning to creep from the edge of the wood to touch the nearest stooks.

The tractor went on through the clover into an exceedingly rutty lane, where the body of the young driver would be jolted into an emptiness preparatory to a good supper. The other driver went in search of the spare knife which I could see him shouldering. Another wandered to the middle of the field where had been left a petrol drum and various other necessaries. With slower step I fell behind and looked for my rabbits which I would scarcely have found — had I not previously mapped the place in my mind with a can or a bucket as an index point.

I watched the young driver run petrol through his now stationary tractor, and when the noise had ceased and the brute was stilled for the night I remarked as we moved leisurely towards the lighted window of the house. “Quite a series of exciting situations, wasn’t it?” “Oh, that’s nothing,” he replied with a careless indifference, which perhaps was meant to impress me a little.

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