A hands-on field day

Travel: On a trip to Switzerland, she gets the urge to try cutting hay the old-fashioned way.

On our first morning in Switzerland, my husband and I stepped out onto the terrace of our chalet-hotel and drank in the Alpine scene. The early sun brightened the steep green slopes wet with dew. Snowmelt from nearby peaks gorged through a streambed, foaming and throwing bracing air into the narrow valley. Geraniums sprouted from chalet window boxes, and the perfume of new hay seeped from small, steep-roofed barns blackened with age. It was a postcard picture, and here we were looking at it in real life.

But what was that across the valley? Someone bending down was doing some kind of work out there. I grabbed my binoculars and stared. I couldn't believe it. The man was cutting the tall grass with a scythe. What century were we in?

Over the next several days, as we hiked in and out of Alpine villages and traversed high pastures, we saw a lot of haying activity.

Where the land rolled gently on the valley floor, tractors did the mowing and minitrucks with rotating tines on the back scooped up the hay.

But on the steeper slopes sprinkled with wildflowers, families pitched in with scythes and wooden rakes to get the job done. Walking through the village to our hotel each evening, we saw wooden pitchforks and rakes leaning beside the doors of the houses. I wanted to touch the places where working hands had worn the handles smooth. And more than once I had to stop beside a barn to inhale the sweet scent.

I had grown up playing in hayfields in New England. I had picked wildflower bouquets for my mother and sister. And my father had taught me to trim the grass under my pony's electric fence with a short-handled sickle.

So Switzerland's rural culture spoke to me. So much so, I wanted to say something back. I was a little shy, though, so my husband spoke up for me.

"Do you think any of the farmers here would let Nancy help them with the haying?" he asked our young waitress one evening. The sweet-faced German girl smiled.

"I will ask," Marlene said. "I do not know what they say, but I will ask."

A couple of days went by without a response. I was sorry. I wanted more than an opportunity to try haying by hand. I wanted to connect with the people who lived and worked in this charming place.

Finally, one evening the wife of the hotel owner came over to our table.

"Tomorrow you go to work," she announced, nodding to me. "Eight o'clock." But I was not to go alone. "The farmer say, 'How do I tell her how to do it?' So Marlene will go also. To translate."

I wore my hiking boots to breakfast and drank my hot chocolate in a hurry. Marlene and I walked out into the damp morning and climbed the steep slope to where Thomas and his helper, Hans, were already working.

Hans, in a bright red Adidas T-shirt, greeted us first. He boasted an especially large neck and a double chin, but his smile was even larger. He made me feel welcome right away.

Thomas strode down the slope to us on lean, muscle-creased, tan legs. Gray curls hung down from under his baseball cap. When he shook my hand, his grip was so powerful it took every ounce of my self-control to avoid crying out. But he, too, gave me a friendly smile.

He handed Marlene and me wooden pitchforks and demonstrated how to toss the hay to aerate it. It looked easy, but it wasn't. I felt clumsy, and the hay fell from my fork every which way.

I watched Thomas again. He worked so smoothly, rhythmically. Scoop, toss, let the fork fall. All three were one efficient motion.

I went back to my row and concentrated. Before half an hour had passed, my forearm ached. But soon I began to get the hang of it. When we finished our patch of ground, Thomas leaned on his fork and said something to me in German.

Marlene translated. "He says you do good work. You can help rake hay in the afternoon if the weather clears."

"Do the cows eat all of this?" I asked. A diversity of wildflowers and ferns mixed with the grass.

"They don't eat the ferns," Thomas answered through Marlene. "But the ferns are good for bedding."

"For cows?"

"For people," he replied. "I have a bed of ferns." I tried to picture this novelty and wished I could see his house.

When it was time to head back to the village, I was offered the second seat in Thomas' tiny open-air truck. Before we got in, though, my eyes landed on Hans's scythe, lying in the grass. Impulsively, I picked it up and gave it a try.

"Nein! Nein!" both men yelled at once. Gesturing emphatically, they showed me I'd been holding it incorrectly – probably dangerously. I tried again and was pleased to see the grass getting chopped off neatly by the sharp blade.

But again Thomas interrupted me. I must cut the grass lower to the ground. He demonstrated and I tried again. "Like that?" I asked.

Thomas smiled as he put my efforts to rest. "You must come and work here whole summer," he said. "Then you learn."

Everyone laughed. Two old farmers from Switzerland, a girl from Germany, and I – now feeling much less like a tourist – stood on the fragrant green hill with sweat running down our backs and laughed heartily together.

I was no longer looking at a postcard scene. I was in it.

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