This is an essay about rakes—human and otherwise—about words, definitions, art, 18th century London, paper, printmaking and William Hogarth. It’s an essay that shows what you can do via the simple art of meditation (with a little repetition thrown in), or it demonstrates how a word has tentacles that stretch far and wide into the culture at large, into history, into the inner reaches of human existence. It has a lovely zen feel AND it has pictures.
Susan Olding is the author of Pathologies: A Life in Essays, which won the 2010 Creative Nonfiction Collective’s Readers’ Choice Award and was longlisted for the BC National Award for Nonfiction. Her writing has appeared in numerous magazines and literary journals in Canada and the U.S., including The New Quarterly, Prairie Fire, and The Utne Reader. A two-time winner of the Event creative nonfiction contest, she also won the inaugural Edna Award for Nonfiction from TNQ and the Brenda Ueland Prose Prize for Literary Nonfiction from Water~Stone (Minnesota). She lives in Kingston, Ontario.
“A Rake’s Progress” is slated to appear in Slice Me Some Truth: An Anthology of Canadian Nonfiction, edited by Luanne Armstrong and Zoe Landale (to be published by Wolsak and Wynn later this summer).
A Rake’s Progress
By Susan Olding
As a child, I hated the rake. I hated the way its tines caught the long grass. I hated the blisters it raised on my hands. I hated bagging. The leaves clumped in slimy piles. The piles hid fallen apples, pocked with wormholes, soft with rot. Why did I have to rake, while my friends’ voices rang in some happy outdoor game, or while my book lay open near the fireplace? Was it my idea to plant so many trees? The rake was taller than I was. We made ungainly dance partners. Reluctant to lead, I wrenched the thing around; stiff and obtuse, it stuttered behind or scraped against my shoes. If I complained enough, my mother might relieve me of my duties. I’d slink away, guilty in the knowledge that I’d bought my sloth at the expense of her sore back.
I used a fan rake. The kind whose tines spread wide as a peacock’s tail. But rakes come in dozens of varieties. There are rakes made of steel, aluminium, bamboo, and rubber. Adjustable rakes, crescent-shaped rakes, snaggle-tooth rakes, thatch-removing rakes, rock rakes that look like pitchforks, double-fans that hinge like jaws. There are rakes designed to smooth, rakes designed to gather, rakes designed to disturb the dirt.
British printmaker William Hogarth didn’t have to dig to discover the dirt of 18th century London. His satirical eye raked the city, gathering its sins at a glance. The streets of the poor and the parlours of the wealthy alike provided compost for his imagination. Often described as the father of sequential art, Hogarth called his pictures his “stage,” and he loved to dramatize the moral issues of his day. His most famous series, “A Rake’s Progress,” depicts the rise, decline, and fall of one Tom Rakewell, n’er-do-well son of a miserly merchant. The thought of a parent’s sore back would never have stopped profligate Tom. In the series’ first plate, he is fitted for fine clothes before the earth has been raked smooth across his father’s burial plot.
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