Chronicles of the Hedges: the Billhook

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Rebecca Welshman

 

Jefferies writes of the “bill” or “bill-hook” that it was “the national weapon of the English labourer”. In the collection ‘Chronicles of the Hedges’ he describes different instances of its use in rural communities and the encounters with nature that it could afford:

 

“At the farmstead of a wintry morning, the hedger, perhaps, is told off to sit on a stool and chop up the faggots he made last year, about the same time, for convenience of burning. He cuts the withy-bond with which the faggot is held together, then, taking a stick at a time, shortens them to handy lengths with the bill upon a log. A monotonous task, yet comfortable, sitting in the wood-house, well protected from the wind and snow-flakes—chip, chop, whistle; now a robin peeping in, as robins have done since England first had a king, for a crumb of luncheon; now the serving-maid to gossip, or perhaps carry a pint of beer in a mug for him. As he comes home from the field, the hedger, having no frog in which to hang his bill like a cutlass or a tomahawk, waits till he reaches the gate to light his pipe, and sticks it into the gate-post of the stile.

 

Towards April, when the stone-pickers have done, and made a row of cairns in the meadows of the flints and pottery to be removed from the mower’s way or the brittle knives of the mowing machine, when the herd is marched out from the cowyard to the young grass, the labourer is sent with his bill to mend the rents in the hedges, where folk bent on a short cut have gone through, or sheep who love to force their way up on a mound have opened a gap. Selecting bushes where the hedge is thicker than necessary, he cuts them and fastens them into these holes to keep cattle from the rising mowing grass. Or new bushes have to be fixed in the bush-harrow—bushes that must be well chosen and skilfully arranged, so that when drawn over the grass they may stir and yet smooth it, and not tear up the turf, or drag the fibres out, but like a larger fuller’s teazle lay the nap of this green cloth. If there is a copse on the farm the gate has to be defended by thorns cut with the billhook, and worked in between the spars to exclude trespassers. Almost every day of the year the billhook is in request, here or yonder, in the field or the rickyard: the broad back of the blade drives in not a few nails at times.

 

Rusty and clumsy, awkward to the amateur to handle, in its iron hardness it is a symbol of that ceaseless struggle which, even in our highly cultivated country, must be carried on against thorn and bramble. The labourer and the farmer stand face to face with nature in a way that it is difficult for the folk of cities to understand. Rain and sunshine, snow and frost, and wind, have a significance to those who dwell on the land far beyond the petty inconvenience they may cause to the town. The clouds which the hurrying passengers in the street scarcely notice are to the labourer an irresistible enemy or a gracious friend, according to the season. They may mean partial famine—for although wheat comes now so plentifully that bread is always cheap, yet if he has not got the money to pay for it, it may be dear indeed. Wet summers take away the chance of earning higher wages in the harvest wherewith to meet the winter’s rigour with food and clothing. Snow or heavy storms and floods in winter, again, cause the billhook to be idle. It is always a hard fight for these our billmen of the peaceful field, a fight, not only of labour, but of grim endurance. They had need be as hard as the iron of the hook.

 

The father, as he rests at his luncheon, sitting on a faggot on the side of the hedge, mayhap spells slowly over the scrap of newspaper in which his cheese was wrapped, leaving its inky letters on the slice; his boy yonder playing with the billhook, chopping off the ends of branches, trying his strength and skill, can read the newspaper with ease. He reads the news of the earth aloud in the thatched cottage. Thus the germs are sown, knowledge is scattered broadcast as the sower throws the seed; the hum of learning resounds in the village street, echoing from the hollow ceiling of the school; and the coming billmen of the new generation will make their voices heard. When the day’s work is over, if any hour of daylight yet remains, the hedger trims his own hedge. With his bill he slashes up the thorn and elder about his garden; it is astonishing, when a man has a garden of his own, what an amount of labour he can find to do in it! There is a dead branch to be cut off the apple-tree here, a gap to be stopped there, the gate wants a new spar, the drain to be cleared; besides the digging, the weeding, and the planting. Always something to be done, and with it peace for the mind, which would otherwise rust as a billhook left out in the dew, with the edge off it in the morning.

 

But now the soft rain, with bursts of sunshine, the happy calls of the passing larks whose flocks have broken up and who go to play in couples over the clods of the ploughed field, the sense of something moving, an invisible force about to exert itself in the bushes—all these warn the woodman that he must hasten. As he clears away the brambles with his billhook he comes on a rabbit hole and observes it has been recently used. The rabbits, then, have returned after the ferreting, and the mound will be populous again in the summer, this will be a little news for his employer, who likes a few rabbits about for sport and eating. Or he may suddenly discover in the long white grass, dead and whitened by , winter’s rain and snow, which still stands on the mound, a hollow, clearly made by something which pressed against it softly. It is a hare’s form: he is loth to destroy the cover of the bushes round it; he leaves them a little while, but reflects that the hare has probably forsaken it several days, hearing his chip-chop, and the cracking of branches so near by.”

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