“Hmmm…Plow won’t scour.”
I turn my head and look to my right at the person who has spoken those words dishearteningly. You would not be surprised if I told you that the speaker was a weathered old farmer, grown aged before his time by battling the unforgiving elements and the uncooperative earth. It is the kind of phrase that such a person would utter.
You could almost see him struggling behind a team of horses, fighting to keep the plow deep in the soil. The old plow blade is no longer smooth and shiny as when it was new, but has seen better years. The pits and creases lend their aid to the gummy clay dirt which clings stubbornly to the surface, refusing to slide up and over the top as the blade rives the soil. Again and again, the old man has to halt his team, reaching down to clean the plow, performing the job which the action of plowing itself should accomplish. What a frustrating task!
But the person on my right is no weathered farmer, simply a petite, retired piano teacher, her hands now unsuited for even the slightest amount of physical labor. The object of her dismay is not a plow, splitting the dirt in a wheatfield, but a serving spoon, lifting rice from the bowl in front of her. The sticky material is not cooperating, leaving clumps of the white grain behind on the spoon, making each successive trip to the serving bowl less productive. She is not plying the spoon herself, but it is an annoyance she cannot abide. I snicker a little as her hand reaches out with her own spoon to clean off the errant rice. Satisfied once more, she allows the bowl and spoon to move out of her reach on down the table.
Plow won’t scour?
I will admit that I was confused the first time I heard the term from my mother-in-law’s mouth many years ago. I raised my eyebrows and looked at her expectantly, knowing that an explanation would follow. She told of watching farmers plow in the unforgiving soil of the Badlands in South Dakota when she was a girl. Many times, they would have to stop the machinery to clean the blades, knowing that the time spent in cleaning the blades would pay off in time saved later on and a job done more efficiently. In the unforgiving world of the farmer, it was foolishness to ignore trouble and put off finding a solution until the damage was done. The furrows had to be clean and deep to allow the seed to take root and flourish below the surface, producing the crop that was essential for the farm’s success. The way to make those furrows clean and deep was to keep the plow bright and sharp.
Probably the most famous use of the phrase is rumored to have occurred at the battlefield of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Immediately following the delivery of what was to become one of the most famous speeches in American history, President Abraham Lincoln supposedly turned to his bodyguard and told him that his speech, “like a bad plow, won’t scour.” It is possible that he thought it a poor showing on his part, but time has certainly put the lie to that sentiment. Many of President Lincoln’s opponents immediately held his words up to ridicule, but the intervening years have allowed us to see how cleanly and deeply the words have cut through the soil of our country’s experiences.
Who among us is not moved by hearing the opening words to that short, but powerful speech? “Four-score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” I’m pretty sure that the plow still scours just fine, Mr. President.
I’m no farmer, but I understand how important it is that the rows in the wheat field run straight and true. The whole process of growing a crop depends upon it. Beyond the frustration and additional labor at plowing time, if the furrows are not uniform in depth and plane, the seeds will not be dropped in an even pattern, the plants won’t grow far enough apart to allow cultivation, and the crop will not be accessible to the combines as they move through the fields to reap the harvest. At the very start, the plow must scour.
I get the feeling sometimes that I’m more than a little obvious in the morals with which I bring my stories to a conclusion. If I say no more tonight, can I count on you to consider a minute or two longer the lessons to be drawn in our everyday life here? Will you ponder, just for a moment, the importance of preparation, of diligence, of correction? I’ll leave it with you then.
Who knows? The next time you’re eating dinner, you might even recall the lesson when the serving spoon starts to stack up with rice or cheesy potatoes, too.
Sometimes, the everyday examples are the best ones to help us to remember and to apply life’s deepest truths.
“You can’t plow a field by turning it over in your mind.”
(Old Irish proverb)
“‘Bright and keen for Christ our Savior’,
This our motto true.
We will try to live for him
In everything we do.”
(Christian Service Brigade theme song)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved.