We will soon be leaving an era where people pay memberships to fitness clubs and buy large contraptions to keep in their homes to help them stay in condition. My guess is in the future we will stay fit by walking and working. Power tools are wonderful in their efficiency. They let us do more work faster than we can ever do by hand. But I have a soft spot for hand tools. My favorite is the scythe.
I have a lot of grass to mow and this time of year it grows pretty fast. My grass, so called, is a variety of plants which if allowed to mature will turn into a beautiful field of grasses, daisies, dandelions, dock, yarrow and others unidentified. By mid-summer, uncut, our “grass” will be two to three feet high and create a mowing problem that will overwhelm my lawn mower. It’s reasonably fast work for my scythe.
So I can practice with the scythe, I intentionally let sections of grass grow to maturity. I pile the cut grass and let it rot a bit and use it for mulching.
Scything it is a very enjoyable activity. It’s great exercise but not terribly fatiguing. It requires concentration, a bending of the knees and a rotation of the torso.
I spent some pretty big bucks on a Shindaiwa Brush Cutter, a noisy, powerful, smelly machine that, with the proper blade attached, can cut down small diameter trees. It can also do a number on grassy fields, black berry bushes or be used as an edger/ trimmer. But believing that gas will not always be available for the Shindaiwa B 450 I decided to invest two hundred dollars in a high quality tool that will do many of the same things as the brush cutter or lawn mower.
According to The Scythe Book the moment to use the scythe is dawn, while the dew is still on the plants. You go to the field and reap large swaths of tall grass in a motion as effortless as tai chi. Every five minutes or so you stop and hone the blade using a natural stone carried in a metal holster on your belt. After several hours of use you peen the blade back into shape using a jig that came with the tool
The scythe is touted as “An ecological substitute for lawn mowers and string trimmers. No gas, no noise, no exhaust fumes.” Tolstoy in Anna Kerenina waxes poetic on scything.
“The longer Levin mowed, the oftener he felt the moments of unconsciousness in which it seemed not his hands that swung the scythe, but the scythe mowing of itself, a body full of life and consciousness of its own, and as though by magic, without thinking of it, the work turned out regular and well-finished of itself. These were the most blissful moments.”
Clearly, no such paragraph has ever been written about a riding lawn mower.
I like the idea of being up at dawn swinging my blade from right to left in a sort of dance, listening to the swish, swish, swish of the keen blade dropping tall stems into windrows that I can haul to my compost pile.
If I get good enough and have the right collection of hafts and blades, if I can learn to hone and peen then perhaps a day might come where the old Shindaiwa sits rusting in the barn next to the helmet, face mask, ear protectors, extra blades and the cans of fuels and lubricants.
I’m starting to understand why the scythe has a sort of cult status among it’s aficionados. After a few hours of scything I’m not surprised that there is more than one scythe festival held in Britain each year. This one has a good slide show.
The third annual West Country Scythe Festival and Competition was a big success with over 1000 people in attendance. Prizes were given for fastest cut, closest cut, for women, for kids and for over seventies.
So why is the scythe held in high regard by this small but enthusiastic group?
First: it’s a very effective tool. Amazing really how it slices through tall thick grass and cuts it off as close to the ground as you can maneuver the blade. I’m no longer worried about the lawn mower breaking down.
Second: it’s good exercise. You do get a sort of dance move going as you get into the rhythm of the movement. You’re working. It’s not effortless. But it’s not work like digging or picking or even wielding a chopping maul or scratching dirt with a hoe. Twisting at the waist done with enough frequency will surely affect the waistline. It’s more like aerobics. Fun.
Third: it’s quiet. Although the blade makes a wonderful swishing sound as it knifes through the grass and a kind of ping when you cut something a bit thicker.
Fourth: you get breaks. All the experts recommend that you hone the blade every five minutes. This means stopping, tuning the tool upside down, grabbing a big handful of grass to wipe the blade and stroking each side of the blade with a natural stone. The stone is carried in a small water filled scabbard that hooks to your belt or pocket.
Fifth: It’s safe. No possibility of burns. No smelly fuel. No exhaust to inhale. I scythed barefoot on my first try. Because the blade is at the end of a longish staff (snath) you would have to work hard to cut your foot or leg. One must be a bit careful when honing.
Finally, it’s addictive in a good way. I find myself looking for excuses to grab the scythe and head outside. Haven’t tried it at dawn yet but in the evenings I find a hour of scything is very relaxing and energizing. Maybe in a few years I’ll be ready to go for that over seventy prize at the West Country Scything Festival or at least a prize for traveling the farthest to get there.