In Touch With the `S-Factor'

WHEN an ax strikes a tree, the tree trembles. Even a big tree. You can feel it through the shaft of your ax at every stroke you make. And as the last blow falls, you hear a gasp from the tiny branches at the top of the tree as the tree starts on a one-way journey to the ground. The crash of breaking branches is deafened by the silence that follows, the shocked breath-held silence of the forest. You know exactly what you are doing when you cut down a tree ... with an ax.

A power saw is different. All you feel is the vibration of the engine. Nothing else. It drives the blade through a hundred years as quickly as you can count to 10, and it's all over. The tree is down. In your ear-plugged world, not even the sound of its fall intrudes.

It's not that the power saw is inherently malicious. It's just a bit thoughtless. It forgets to tell us what has really happened, to give us the whole picture. That is the difference between the power saw and the ax. You might call it the "S-factor." "S" standing for sensitivity. It seems to me that the S-factor diminishes in an inverse proportion to the degree of mechanics put between you and what you are doing.

That's my theory. Explaining it is more difficult. The best I can do is liken it to the difference between stroking a dog with your gloves on and stroking the same dog with your hand. Or flying a Boeing 757 compared with hang gliding.

It is because the S-factor is so difficult to measure on a conventional scale that it is overlooked. It doesn't display a label. As a result, it is threatened with extinction simply because we are unaware of its presence. For example, who would imagine there was an S-factor in an ordinary, run-of-the-office pen? But there is. Yet in the word processor, it is absent.

My friend, Andrew, brought this to my attention the other day when he said, "I don't think anything really good has ever been written on a word processor."

My immediate reaction was that he was going through a bad patch with his book, but on reflection I'm sure he was referring to the S-factor. What he was saying was that somewhere between his inspired thought and its expression as the written word, a stultifying force had intervened. Of course, the word processor, like the power saw, has no desire to alter our perceptions, but, when all is said and done, it is mechanical. It knows nothing about writing and, worse still, has no consideration for the writer.

Think what happens when you switch on your PC.

"Enter a code," it demands immediately, without a thought for how you're feeling this morning, whether you would like a cup of coffee, not even a "please."

"Pick a destination," it insists, "select an option." And all the time that hyperactive cursor pants for more, like an over-eager dog panting for another stick.

Andrew is sure that this behavior impinges on creative writing. I agree. Say you write a sentence on your word processor that starts: "The cat stretched out lazily and...." You'll find the cursor immediately racing ahead of you, blipping excitedly: "Yes, yes," it says, "and ... and ... and what?" - that's if it allows you time to find the word "lazily" in the first place.

WRITE the same sentence with a pen, and it's very different. There is no urgency. The pen will wait ... until the cat has stretched its full length, yawned, enjoyed the warmth of the day, taken in the moving shadows dancing on the tiles. Only when your thoughts have fully unfurled will your pen give them form - a linked and rounded form uniquely yours.

Now before you dismiss Andrew and me as being a shade on the odder side of normal, let me say we both have power saws and word processors. And we use them. It's just that we think axes and pens have certain valuable attributes ... and scythes too... . Well, it's just I who has the scythe. Yes, I suppose that does put a question mark on my normalcy.

But I would argue that the scythe is one of the most "S" conscious pieces of equipment ever invented. Victor Mountjoy would agree; he taught me to use the scythe. Victor was a retired schoolteacher, a reclusive man, who decided to shun convention and go his own way. He had a few acres next to our place on which he kept chickens, a couple of pigs, and three cows that he milked by hand. Some said he wanted to turn the clock back. I think he just enjoyed grass-roots living. Anyhow, he was an expert with a s cythe.

I was fortunate to get him to teach me because not only was he reclusive, but he was also nocturnal, which meant he and I were rarely up at the same time. During the night, I might hear the sound of his sledge hammer on the tethering spikes of his cows as he moved them to fresh grass, but our actual meeting occurred infrequently in the predawn mist as I headed out to collect the cows for morning milking, and he headed home to bed.

That he heard of my purchase of a scythe was a matter of chance. But he did, and more important, he adopted me as his disciple, staying up as late as 11 or 12 in the morning to teach me the rudiments and, later, the finer points of scything. I was delighted to be taken under the wing of one so expert. It was akin to being taught to play the violin by Yehudi Menuhin, for Victor Mountjoy could actually mow a lawn with a scythe ... as close as the best roller mower on the market.

He taught me that cutting grass was more than randomly swinging a sharpened blade at herbage; it was a question of angles and dynamics, brought together with mathematical precision. The principles could be demonstrated, he said, but true success came only when you were aware of their harmony. That was a matter of touch, of feeling.

I watched him carefully. He would start with the preliminaries, the ritual of stroking the blade with a sandstone hone - Carborundum was too coarse - and the testing of the blade's keenness by drawing the thumb across it at right angles. Then he would take up his stance, arranging his feet as a golfer might before taking a critical shot, and after two or three test swings he would set off with an easy rhythmic movement of the arms, shuffling forward as his scythe laid arcs of grass in tidy swathes, leavi ng a stubble as smooth as a tight wool carpet.

His demonstrations were executed with artistry, but they were never so important that they could not be interrupted to lift a frog to safety or skirt a skylark's nest. That was the S-factor coming out.

The scythe radiated the S-factor. You could not use it without becoming aware of things about you, of the habits of the brooding pheasant, of the trails of the vole, the pattern of the wind. Each detail filled out your concept of the world, pointed to the interdependence of one to another.

Not that we were conscious of it at the time. The S-factor didn't enter our thoughts. What we were concerned with was getting cows milked and filling the barns with winter fodder. So when new machines appeared that offered to lighten our work, we welcomed them with enthusiasm. That is how the tractor and mower found their way into our fields.

"Think of the time it will save," we said. Time, even then, was money.

The scythe was hung on a nail at the back of the shed and gathered dust as did the skill necessary to use it. The gentle swish of its movement through the grass was replaced by the chatter of the cutter bar.

A new urgency came into the hayfield. It affected everybody and every creature, none more so than those who had habitually made our grass fields their home. Time was against them now, the time necessary to move their young and themselves out of the path of destruction. The farmer's objectives remained the same, but when the mower came into the hayfield, the S-factor went out.

It appears to happen wherever a mechanical barrier is interposed between the doer and the thing done. In the business world, the barriers are doors and floors. News has to travel by circular and memo instead of direct speech. The executive who dismisses unwanted staff does so by the printed word. If he were obliged to look into the eyes of his victims, perhaps he would think again.

And in the field of war, one wonders if those in the command bunkers, with barriers of concrete and consoles separating them from events, would press the buttons that set missiles on their way if they were on the ground to see them land.

No one is to blame. Not machinery - it's only doing what it's designed to do ... and it was we who designed it. Not man whose evolution requires him to extend his knowledge and abilities.

Not man unless ... unless he has unwittingly discarded the S-factor in his pursuit of another. The "P-factor" perhaps, "P" standing for profit.

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