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Cimbura's Scythe


Key words:  Cimbura, groom, children, part of a farm reserved for retirement, husbandry, tradition, wisdom, agrobusiness, nature, land, horse, scythe

     The novel Jan Cimbura: South Bohemian Ideologist (see footnote) by Jindrich Simon Baar was published for the first time in 1908. It bacame part of the golden treasure of the Czech literature so I wondered what we can get from such a book in the light of the fact, that many of us are returning to the land (in many cases literally escaping from towns back to land like Jewish did to protect themselves from Hitler over the ocean...), where we establish out of love to land our kin's homesteads etc. I was trying to approach the book with heart, albeit with the view of a woman living in the 21st century, but not with any kind of uppishness, as I have a feeling that not in all ways how the contemporary society works we would be more advanced and better than people at that time. On the contrary, I was trying not to idealize the past either. The book is about the celebration of a small farmer, it is idealistic depiction of peasant's life, because we never hear from the book about  Jan Cimbura's complaing about how tired he was or that he would have a backache.  Also relations in his family are too much idyllic and not probable. Professor Librova wrote in her book called Half-hearted and Hesitant the following challenge: "Let us not succumb to aprioristic assumptions about wisdom of our ancestor." Things have been happening for 100-200 years in a certain fashion and because of our absence of temporal perspective in a mistaken way proclaim them as a tradition and therefore for something good. (What a myth it is to call dumplings made from white flour the Czech "traditional" food !  Afterall through deeds made by our forbearers we got where we are now, we are facing important ecological challanges. It is possible to learn from the book about the then ways of life - how people at that time did their husbandry what was the life in the village like in Pisek region in South Bohemia, what people were doing, however I would like to explore the book in a critical way, carefully and with the respect to those people and not to dismiss even healthy patetism. The book is devided into 3 parts (youth, mature age, old age).
       Cimbura is hired by a farmer Kovanda (mayor) after returning from military service as a groom (...nowadays we might call him  WWOOFER ?). Kovanda would be eventually proud of having the best hired man in the whole county. Soon the whole legends would spread about him - about his strengh and wisdom. Cimbura is tremendously honest person and a reliable husbandman, he prefares loneliness, in spite of his strengh he stays modest and not boasting. He is able to lift a horse from mud using almost supernatural force. Cimbura stood up as a young man for a half-lunatic woman when there was music played in a local tavern. The rest of the lot was loughing at her, Cimbura being upset says to all of them: Not at her, but lought at me!".  The readers like him thanks to his physical strengh, which he uses only when it is neccessary, but not to show off. He never competes in who is stronger, but in emergency, he could for instance raise roof beams " as if they would be maches ." He was a good repairman, fixing clocks, spinning wheel, buttermaker, weave baskets, making thatches for the roof, cutting out an ax handle...
     After certain time Cimbura's friend he met during his military service died and there is left a widow Marjanka with three children left after him, whom he eventually marries. But he has to pass the homestead to the oldest son Jan, after Jan becomes adult. And he really does so and after Jan married he went to live into a small homestead to retire.

He had two sons with Marjanka - twin boys Martinek  a Venousek, (Venousek died in his early childhood), and one more daughter Marianna. It is true for many families from the past to have had experienced death of a child - the nutrition was not the best possible (there was also rise of sugar and white flower consumption) and people did not make reasonable age gaps between children so that the body of mothers could recover (see more Weston A. Price: Nutrition and Physical Degeneration on these pp). It is also a matter of interest that Baar mentions here a Jewish man, who for free was giving cones of sweets to kids. Exactly in the same way as the book Sugar Blues describes it. It was the same like offering drug to people (cocain), which people will keep coming to buy. In the same way Baar speaks about toothache as about miller's desease from flour's dust, which eats teeth."
     There was a lovely moment when Cimbura decided to carry his boys to show them his old mum into Semice village. He was famous about his huge feet...he carried them both in his boots. (see the picture above) "He put the stick through leather loops on his boots and carries in these boots the twin boys Martinek and Venousek." There is a famous part of the book when riding his horse Belacek he couragiously goes to rescue his children into the forest which was on fire. By his deed not by words he expressed his deep love to children and neibourghs.
     As a young groom Cimbura went as a coachman via Dobris to Prague, he prepared himself for such journey the whole day before, so that he knows how the carriage will work, he had to prepare hay and oats for horses, he had to be sensitive to the ride - whether all eight legs are all right. It is interesting that today we get into into cars, ignit the engines, pump the petrol and go - how a car has changed our perception of the world. 
   Another historical thought, a bit sad fact is, that many young men were recruited for military service. We can hardly empathize with the woe of parents living for years in insecurity not knowing if their son/sons will ever come back home.  We hardly ever speak about it, how many horses got slayed at wars. They literally confiscated (though for some money) Cimbura's beautiful stallion Belacek (he was not for sale). "I give you good advice, get him castrated, otherwise you will be deprived of him", Kovanda adviced him wisely when he saw that he was too a good horse. Beloved horse came back to his homestead after many years led by lime transporter and he was in a poor condition, one eye whipped off by whip, with marks after beating and here on his native homestead died. For Cimbura it was another heavy stroke in his life. True enough - in case of many farmers it was more about a kind of "practical love" towards this means of transportation, which is similar nowadays to love towards cars which we love when they work properly.
      Cimbura has towards everything his own thoughtful relation, even to religion: " As if huge organs the nature around seemed to him to be...". He ceased praying aloud in a church having a feeling that the whole nature is like a church or a temple. Baar who was a priest could have developed this idea a bit more and to have given a hint why then Cimbura keeps going to church if the God is in Nature, which the God had created, if it is not a mere social pressure. Perhaps because Mr. Kovanda gave him advice:  "It is not advicable avoid old habits, to grow in a crooked way, alone and alone use a small pathway and to avoid the road which everybody uses - you could get strayed into the loneliness which is usually bad and unsoothable."

     Cimbura at a young age would hardly talk, he was humble, doing things especially according to sermons of Jesus, perhaps this is the reason why to me personally he seemed to be wiser as a young man than as an old man, though Baar might intended to achieve the opposite impression, but it is too late to ask the author. Cimbura refutes any kind of celebrations of victory in war (I share such attitude together with Leo Tolstoy, and I am embarrassed to hear about showing off new missiles at airport show for public). 
          While immediately after November revolution (velvet revolution) or only after WW2, when collectivization and  uniting land into cooperation farms was happening, many people would not agree with his negative attitude toward advancing of modernization in agriculture production, today in the light of updated ecological challanges, floods etc many of us would agree with him. Cimbura prognosed that cancelling of borders between lands of individuals, pastures and herding cattle into cooperation farm sheds and intensive exploatation of land for new kinds of crop which bring profit (sugar beet root, rape or hop), that it is not progress but deception and illusion.
    At the beginning Cimbura was excited by the idea of establishing agriculture school, but eventually he was the only one who realized that such school, if it should be really a good school for sons of farmers, as they ment (and not for agrobusiness), it just cannot be established in town Pisek, otherwise it would be devided from the real life of farmers and the school would not succeed in its purpose (in the same way like contemporary ecological education and its mixed results. As Mr. Vaclav Cilek put it - student of the enviromental studies has sometimes never met a goat...). Jan Cimbura was not afraid of telling his own opinion which was even in discrepancy with the whole village comunity. He stated this very simply:: "Who has ever seen fish growing on a tree?... Recently the brain is sharpening (educating), but the heart becomes blunt...," he critisizes education system. "Therefore keep at home the more smarter boy - only those who are not very capable at the farm - lead those to Pisek to schools - so that they become lords - on whose behalf regulations and laws think...I always thought that the school is for children not children for school, that is why the farmer's school should follow them into the village..."

     They say that today child has rather emotional value for his/her parents, that in the past it was just another labourer for the homestead. (Z. Matejcek: Rodice a děti). I dare not say this in front of our forebeares and to just degreee of their love as something which is diluted by number of the children. Moreover many families are nowadays broken from inside more then in the past when its members had one advantage in the fact that they could be glued together by sharing lots of husbandry activities. The woe which Cimbura experiences after his Venousek died is inexpressable: "My little golden son, my sweet heart - what have you done to me?", cried Cimburam tear big like rich greenpease was pouring down his eyes and dropping - as if they would want to water him - into the soft earth of dug out little tree." Today in the same way like in the past (thought the economical connection of parents and children is not directly visible), the generation of "children" in the productive age also contribute to the state treasure, where their parents get their pension from... However, in this case it is less personal a its dehumanized than the direct looking after parents, who could also die at home in the past. While the old people were leaving to part of the farm reserved for retirement, now lots of people get into the "eldery house", which is a place, they have no emotional relation to where they did not spend their childhood, they have no memories about.

    Jan Cimbura knew very well how vulnerable is man (potencionally even today - if there is no electricity in town or no water stops flowing from tap... - what to do with life?), who has no land, who can only do with what he can buy for what he earns by working for someone who is willing to employ him. Cimbura explains to the prince who came to visit him his desire for self-sufficiency, that he has got sheep for wool, flax and that he even tried successfully to grow tobacco but the policeman and finance officer came and chopped it down into three stalks and took it away. He is smoking pipe but cigarets is only for lord. But in fact he was led by practical reasons: "There is naked fire on the cigaret, it is not protected, the sparkle can drop and all of a sudden the fire is set." He further explains to the prince, that he does not wish to work for him because in his own homestead he is "prince" himself. 
    Cimbura deserves our recognition for his public speech against Klasek (drankard and gambler), whom half of the village does not want to become their mayor, this is what Cimbura explains to the authorities from Pisek (and perhaps even to contemporary ministers of agriculture for whom the agriculture becomes more and more a "European" matter, he would explain it in the same way..): "It is this way - who doesn't know how to farm on his own place, he doesn't know how to farm on somebody else place."
    Being old he had the feeling that he knows a lot (perhaps a trap!) and this prevents him, it seems to me, to be really wise. He became stiff and hardened.  As if he would give in on life, he saw what was happening in the world, what modernization brings along and he opposed it.  "We see in the world, that everything looks shiny as if it would be falsified, cheap, factory-like, worse than it used to be - the same is happening with people...Black is the soil, black is our bread here. Many a people feel ashamed even of it...They rather put little butter roll into their basket, they rather touch white pastry." It is of interest, how people started during hay cutting to follow time according to trains arrivals and not any more according to any natural cycle in nature (sun) etc. By the way for Tolstoy the train was a symbol of the downfall of civilization. This might be the reason why Cimbura got bittered, and in a naughty way was only nagging and preaching people about what they did wrong, he spent time only with children who in the contrary to adults enjoyed spending time with him. After all perhaps it is easier to manipulate children than grown-ups. Some of his educational lectures I do not perceived as very effective and constructive - to shut a child into a shed (?), because he cought a bird, God's little singer? Perhaps it could be better if they would have released it together and then together build little bird's box, or redirected the boys love of birds to say bird watching. Here the boy will not catch birds anymore, but I am afraid that only out of fear from grandpa Cimbura than out of love for them.

 Jan Cimbura became favourite with reader definitely because he loved nature:
Spring has come - and Cimbura was in a special mood - which he has not experienced yet in his life. He could not define it and describe it, he could not justify the waving of his soul and to analyze it - he did not comprehend why he succumbs so much to emotion, why he was impressed by everything, why he is happy to be outside - in the wide field - why he avoids people - why he does not like futile and pointless people's chatting which they have when they meet - he did not understand what his heart is overflooding with- why he feels like smiling in one moment and imediatelly feels like crying...

 Cimbura liked scything best from all kind of jobs. In the time this novel was written the scythe was so common that it was not necessary to develop any writing about it as count Leo Tolstoy did in his novel Anna Karenina, because Baar was not aristocrat, even though I also do not think that as a priest he would use this tool intensively. Still he writes nicely in certain parts of the text about hay cutting and about scything of Cimbura:

 1) The meadow smelt nicely - like tears the dew was glittering in flowers, in little chalices sentensed to death, glittering as if they would be precious stones. The blades still sharp were biting into the thick grass and there were growing long, regular rows of thick cut grass behind mowers.

...and Cimbura, being farmer with the whole heart and body especially passionately enjoyed cutting rye. What a dreadful tool of a farmer's scythe is.  It became even twice as much powerful in hands of Cimbura who mountained snath to it by means of the ring. Putim village knew "Cimbura's Scythe" and perhaps in the whole region. What a view it was to look at Cimbura when at annual market on tuesday at Easter time was choosing his blade It had to be at least 95 cm long, nicely curved and flexible, ring like silver and if it would cut into nail, it should damage the nail, not itself - so hard he would want it---Afterards he would look for a whetstone for it -not rough not smooth -not soft, not hard but true Horice one. From Stachs (vendors selling rakes, handles etc in South Bohemia) he would get not only wooden clogs and forks, not only rakes and tool handles, but also the snath with cradle, and "his Stach", who kept the sizes of Cimbura's foot - woul cut from the best silver birch snath light, flexible, but strong - and whoever would reach it at his carriage, he would call at such person: "It is for order - that's Cimbura's of Putim!, everybody would look at it, but with respect would put it aside. 
     At last Cimbura mountained his blade - banged it with hammer- tried if it does not move  and went off one early morrow - best on monday - towards rye field. Morning breeze was cudling his long hair - ripe, heavy and bending eyes of grains were wistling as if shivering from fear in front of him. Cimbura took off his hat - knelt down at the edge of the field into the green grass at the dewed border - he put his blade on his arm - embraced it with both his hands and prayed- He blessed her by crossing - got up - Fare Thee well" he said and cutting begun. He cut for the first time, for the second time - his sway was getting deeper and deeper - the widsth wider and wider - as if living snake was hussing and smoothly moving through the rye field - straw field was growing behind Cimbura, as if one would manicure it, and the rye falls down to the ground quietly, devoted..."
 I perceived something from the excerpts above as an exageration and idealization of Cimbura, because the quality of the mower probably does not rest in the lengh of his blade and on the contrary - depth of his cutting (bites) does not depend on the mowers, but on the lengh of the blade. It is weird as well that he would buy his scythe so often (every year).

In conclusion I would like to state that the novel Jan Cimburais page-turning, tremendously poetically written (acctually J.S. Baar started his writing career as a poet), Cimbura is taking leave with the landscape as if it would be human being..., Baar updates such values as love to neibourgh (after hailstones which struck his native reagion, villages helped each other...real insurance...), relation to land, close reation to nature, to animals, realizing, that Mother Earths feeds us, that she does not belong to us but we belong to her. I do not believe that the film with the same title shot during Protecorate (1941) can compare to this book.
     Jerry Mander puts in his book In the Absence of the Sacred, that the task of the industrial society is to perfectly isolate man perfectly from nature and to sell him nature piece by piece back.  (i.e. soil for plants, water, folk songs recorded on CDs etc.) Not a long time ago I got butter - product of Czech food industry...There was a picture of a country house with a thatched roof, churn of milk and a sign: Czech Traditional...Well, the book Jan Cimbura helps us awake and be aware of certain connections in contemporary society...

Vera Dudmanova
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