20 Floréal: Sarcloir (the garden hoe)
On the one hand, this is as basic as it gets: a blade on a handle, so you can break up clumps of dirt and weeds. A couple of years ago I was scratching my head and looking at my yard and thinking to myself, “I really need some kind of a thing to break up these clumps of grass, you know, like…a tool thing, with like a sturdy blade and a longish handle so I can get a little leverage. What can I…oh! Right! A hoe!“ Because, you know, humans way back in prehistory had scratched their heads and looked around them with the same thought and unlike me had had to invent this tool that they could picture so clearly. Early versions were made from rock, bone, or chunks of antler.
On the other hand, the multiplicity of garden hoes in the world made it hard for me to figure out what a Paris calendar-maker in 1793 imagined when he said “sarcloir.“ Was it short-handled? Long-handled? Did it have tines or a single blade? If tines, how many and how long? If a single blade, was it long and narrow, or short and wide? Would his grandmother in Bordeaux have said to him “no, you ninny, that’s not a sarcloir, haven’t you ever looked in a garden-shed?” In looking this up, I’m starting to feel a bit like the “touriste savant” described in 1872 by Hippolyte Taine: taking the flower-picking author for an amateurish fellow-botanist he accosts him, “Eh, is that how you collect your plants! By the stem, you poor fool? What good is it in your herbarium without roots? Where is your box? Your little hoe?”
Taking off one’s rosy glasses, consider that the short-handled hoe was finally banned in California fields in 1975, because of its cruel damage to the human body. “When I used the short-handled hoe my head would ache and my eyes hurt because of the pressure of bending down so long. My back would hurt whenever I stood up or bent over. I moved down the rows as fast as I could so I could get to the end and rest my back for a moment.”