This is one of the very shortest, but also one of the most important chapters in my story. It takes me out of my first childish youth and my herding time, and brings me to the days of my young manhood and of work filled with conscious purpose.
Peter Rosegger grew up on a 19th century Austrian mountain farm but a weak constitution led him to a literary life. Even so, he was never far from his roots in the soil.
This little coming of age story is found in a collection of his translated works “The Forest Farm: Tales of the Austrian Tyrol,” which is available at Project Gutenberg.
It needed many an artful trick before I managed to get promoted from cowherd to ploughman. I had to sprain my foot, so that I could not run after the cattle properly; I had to find birds’ nests in the meadow, which inclined my younger brother to take over my herdsman’s duties in my stead; lastly, I had to coax Markus the farm-hand, who had driven the plough till then, into declaring that it was an easy-going implement, as simple to handle as a pocket-knife, and that I—the callow lad—was fairly strong enough and fit to guide the plough.
And I stood there and drew myself up until I reached at least as high as long Markus’s shoulders, and I shook one of the fence-posts until it groaned—as a proof of my fitness for the plough. But my father laughed and said:
“Get out, you’re a little swaggerer! What you need is a good breeches-dusting given you every day. And now he’s pretending to be grown up. Very well, take hold; it won’t last long!”
We were in the fields when he spoke. Markus stood back; and I took the plough by the horns.
The plough in the neighbourhood of my home is different, certainly, from the bent bough of the savage, but it remains a clumsy, imperfect implement. The farmer puts it together himself out of birch-wood, fetching only the iron portions from the smith and the wheels from the cartwright. The chief parts of the plough are the coulter, or plough-iron, which cuts the turf vertically, and the share, which slices it horizontally, thus creating a grassy sod which has four sides to it, and is about a span wide and half a span thick. Then there is the mould-board, which lifts the cut sod out of the furrow and turns it over, so that the grassy side comes to lie at the bottom. Further portions, by means of which these chief parts are fastened to the body of the plough, are called the coulter-beam, the sill-beam, the “cat.” All these appliances have to be in duplicate, as required by the progress up and down the hilly field, turn and turn about. In front is the beam, lying on the axle-tree, to which a pair of oxen are usually harnessed. At the back of the plough, three “horns” or tails stick out; these are the handles by which the plough is driven by a powerful man. It depends upon the driving of this ploughman whether the sod be made wide or narrow and the furrow deep or shallow; it is this man’s duty to fix and lift the plough at the edge of the field; he must also be able, on stony ground, to pull the plough out of the way of any larger stone than usual, for the oxen cannot be brought suddenly to a standstill; and the plough, if left to itself, would soon go to wreck and ruin.
Over and above this ploughman, the vehicle also needs a driver, who leads the oxen in such a way that one of the pair is always stepping in the furrow and the other on the sod. Then, lastly, there has to be a “follower.” This is usually a girl, who comes after the plough with a hoe, presses down the sods that have not been well turned, cuts out faulty furrows, and, in short, acts as the corrector of the plough.
You see that the thing is far from simple. It means a long day’s work to dig an acre and a half of sloping land with one plough. Well, how did the young ploughman fare?
I had taken the bull firmly by the horns. But it really was a bull. The apparatus had allowed Markus to handle it like a toy; it looked as though he only held on to the handles for fun. It was quite a different business with me. The cattle pulled. I was plunged to right and left by the handles; the plough tried to jump out of the rut; and my little bare feet got caught now and then under the clods.
“He’s too short in the buttocks!” I heard father and the labourer say, laughing.
This speech roused me. My honour, my manhood were at stake. I no longer wanted to be the duffer who had to sit at the bottom corner of the table, who dared not put a word in edgewise, who, if he knew of anything that had happened, was free to go and talk it over with the sheep and calves outside. I had the most ambitious views; I wanted to be big and strong and independent, like the farm-labourer. And behold, the higher a man aims, the taller he grows! I drove the plough and cut a passable furrow. The earth-worms, disturbed by the plough, lifted their heads in surprise and looked up to see who was ploughing to-day!
My father’s fields had tough, yellowish-red earth, interwoven with grass-roots; and the sods formed an endless gut, and were hardly once in a way interrupted throughout the tract of land to be ploughed. I was glad of that, for it made the plough remain always evenly in position, and the furrow became more regular than any pond-digger’s work. But my father was not so glad; he would rather have had black, soft sods:
“Black earth, white bread!” says the proverb.
When I was driving the plough across the field for the third time, I took a peep to see how high the sun stood in the sky. Alas, that clock had stopped! There were clouds in front of it. Suppose God should be angry and refuse to let it become noon to-day!…
It seemed a long time before mother, when dinner was ready, appeared in the loft at the top of the house, as my grandmother had done before her, put two fingers to her mouth, and sent forth the shrill, peculiar whistle which I knew so well. I let go the handles and confessed that mother had never whistled so musically before.
Then came dinner. I took good care not to wipe the earth from my hands, for even this crust gave me a certain air; I was no longer the duffer, I was the ploughman, I enjoyed equal rights with the labourers. I sat down beside the head man and did my best to talk in a weighty fashion. They spoke of my performance; then I was silent, for my performance spoke for itself.
It is a small incident in one’s youth, it is hardly big enough to be worth mentioning; but, for the farmer, it is a great and momentous day when he puts his hand to the plough for the first time—it is a sacred act. The sword, the Cross, are objects of respect; and I look upon the plough also as a symbol of the redemption of the world. The grey earth-dust which clung to my hands that time, and with which I went in to dinner—I have not wiped it off to this day—was to me what the golden pollen-dust is to the bee.
And so I may be permitted to add that, in that same year, I tilled the whole of that field; that my father sowed the seed there with a pious hand; and that, next spring, the corn stood glad and green and glorious.
“I haven’t seen such a field of corn these ten years past,” said my father, when he saw it.