“Plowing Around that Rock”: The Richest Metaphor in Sgt. York

Gary Cooper plays Alvin York (1941) plowing his difficult mountain farm,
where the rocks make it hard to plow straight furrows.

I’m reminded this morning of a great scene in the movie, Sergeant York. I believe it has one of the richest metaphors ever to make it to the silver screen—the kind we could sit and ponder for an hour and still not be wasting our time. And it’s a metaphor that comes up again and again in my own personal life, as I wrestle with the lessons of life that ought to have been learned better by now—about how problems left to fester end up costing us a great deal of strife until they are finally solved.

Let me set the scene:

Alvin York is a young and unruly subsistence farmer, plowing his poor family’s top land up in the mountains of East Tennessee. He’s using a mule and a turning plow, as had his father and grandfather before him. And even though we will watch Alvin clearing several watermelon-sized rocks from his family farm, there’s a very large rock in that field that he had been plowing around for many years, as had his father and grandfather before him. Alvin’s been a long-time hard worker, church-goer and songleader, even, but can’t break his bent for drinking and fighting. One day, at Alvin’s mother’s invitation, Pastor Pyle comes to see Alvin, hoping he can influence him to “get religion”. And the pastor makes use of that huge rock to urge Alvin to fight to improve himself. Here’s that favorite scene from the 1941 Gary Cooper film. (If you want to watch it a second time, you’ll have to refresh the page.):

Here’s a snippet from the dialog:

Pyle: See that rock, Alvin? (He points to a large boulder in the field.) You been plowing around that rock a heap of years.
York:  Sure have.
Pyle:  Did you ever think when you start plowing your furrows crooked, it’s mighty hard to get ’em straight again?
York:  I never thought on it much.
Pyle:  Well, it’s that way, I reckon—with other things besides plowin’.

I think that Pastor Pyle was right. It is that way with other things besides plowing. And now in my later years, I turn my attention to clearing as many of these “rocks” as I can from my field while I’m still alive. And it seems the way of this world to leave these things unsolved, even from generation to generation. But what if a person were to take a mind to clean up his own field?!

It’s quite a chore—quite a quest, even, and it seems such the right thing to do as I learn more and more just how big those unfinished “little things” can be.

Screen shot of the scene where Alvin and George York are removing a large rock from a field.

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