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#3 - On scythes and hammers

My cousin’s family also built a cabin, also in Alpine, along the river. They lived in Kerrisdale but without fail spent weekends and more in this land, in the shadow of the mountain, a mere hundred yards from us, the soft sound of the river a perennial meditation. Together, my cousin and I would explore the back country on dirt bikes, mini-expeditions that took us to places unknown. We skied in soft powder at Manning Park. Between our cabin and there’s, a whole community of locals and interlopers from the city gathered to share time in simple pleasures of shared meals and wine, in campfire under the stars which shone bright and wondrous in the dark sky between the mountains, so far removed from the ambient light of the city were we. It was this sense of deeply shared community that I longed for and missed during my extended time abroad, and would relish in my return. 

Here, whether one was a professor, a lawyer, a banker or a carpenter, it mattered not. The elements have a way of reducing men to their common shared humanity. Each had laboured in the simple, rustic act of constructing a cabin in the woods, with a common goal of communing with nature, and those of like minds. In this process of shedding the skin of the city for the country, in the honest and simple labour of raising a hammer repetitively all day, there is a refrain of the nobleman Levin in Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” who finds transcendence in joining his labourers to harvest hay in the act of scything a field. His brother scoffs, but Levin is absorbed in his labour, the  simple act of exertion for its own sake, shared with others, broken by simple meals and conversation, where time slows and the movement of the day can be measured in the rise and fall in temperature, the growing breeze heralding evening, the sweat on our brow and the soreness of muscles used in honest labour: 

The longer Levin mowed, the more 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.
The old man crumbled up some bread in a cup, stirred it with the handle of a spoon, poured water on it from the dipper, broke up some more bread, and having seasoned it with salt, he turned to the east to say his prayer. “Come, master, taste my sop,” said he, kneeling down before the cup. The sop was so good that Levin gave up the idea of going home. He dined with the old man, and talked to him about his family affairs and all the circumstances that could be of interest to the old man. He felt much nearer to him than to his brother, and could not help smiling at the affection he felt for this man. 

This chapter of Tolstoy’s classic has always resonated with me and only in writing this have I now realized that my father used to speak of the joy he took in the simple act of scything a field on his family’s farm in Manitoba, and indeed in the state of flow induced by immersing oneself in the simple pleasure of building a cottage. 

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