Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Scythe

I would like you first to read this article.  Go ahead and enjoy, then come back and do your best to slog through my own ramblings.  I was fortunate enough to have the pleasure of meeting Mr Cooper, featured prominently in the above linked article, at the Midwest Ox Drovers Association Gathering last weekend.  I attended this event because it included a work shop on small scale hay production.  The first part, and the big draw to me, was a demonstration on using a scythe for cutting your hay. You see,  after much consideration (nearly two years worth), reading, and having bought (with little satisfaction) an old American (English) style scythe, I purchased one of the Austrian style blades discussed in the above linked article.  I began using it as soon as the snow receded this winter.  I can't remember the last time I have been so satisfied with a tool purchase.  I would now count myself as a bonafide scythe enthusiast, albeit certainly a novice in skill level.  To this end, I feel compelled to spread the scythe gospel to all who will listen.

When I first started reading about this tool, I read the term "scythe enthusiast" and was completely baffled.  How in the heck could you be enthusiastic about a tool for cutting grass???  Once I used it for a bit, I got it.  I am hooked, completely.  As my precocious daughter Milla and Mr Cooper both observed, a scythe working is like magic (even in such novice hands as my own).  Rather than mowing being a task during which one thinks "When will I ever be done with it?" mowing with a scythe has become something I look forward to, and I find I can easily become carried away with while in the mower's trance.  I find that I have to remind myself that there are other things that need my attention, as I have the desire to find more things that could be use a mowing of any sort.  I feel that in addition to the benefit of the light physical activity of mowing with a scythe, the calming song of the blade quietly shearing the vegetation lowers your blood pressure, although I have not yet tested this theory.  It is truly a stress reliever, that I can assure you.  I am working on developing enough skill to mow the lawn with it.  But as my current efforts leave something resembling a ruffles potato chip, currently I just do weed whacking work with it and harvest fodder for my meat rabbits.  Even if I am never able to replace the lawn mower with it, I will never own another weed whacker as long as I live, it is that good.  I urge you to check out (an enterprise Mr. Cooper is partnered with) if you are interested in one, or even just reading about them further.  I would suggest you start with a shorter (bigger is not always better, as I was sagely advised) ditch blade, as this lends itself best to activities typically accomplished with a weed whacker.  It is also better suited to dealing with overgrown mixed weeds, as one might find on a roadside, or in a ditch, hence the name of that style of blade.

As a piece of anecdotal evidence, since that is the type we all love best, I would offer my experience with clearing the roadside at the end of our driveway.  I tackle this task so that I can safely see traffic when pulling out onto the road.  Last year, I used a weed whacker, and struggled to clear enough in an hour of work, so that I could barely consider it, "just enough".  This year, I used my scythe, and in the same hour, I cleared enough that I can clearly see all the way to the next hilltop.  If nothing else, I encourage any of you to consider the scythe the next time you are in the market for a string trimmer.

If you have ever used a weed whip, as pictured below,

when you try a scythe you will soon find that the weed whip is a cheap imitation, and much less effective.  I can only imagine that the weed whip has taken over since it does not take near the skill to produce, nor wield as does the scythe.  As in many things though, you get what you pay for.  To this end, make sure you watch plenty of videos while your scythe is in transit, to reinforce that the scythe IS NOT used like a golf club as the weed whip is (and as I began using mine, and consequentially damaged the blade in the first week).  As Mr Cooper aptly analogizes, thinking of how you slice a tomato.  One does not hack away at the tomato, it is drawn across as gentle downward pressure with the edge is applied.  The well maintained edge does the work, not brute force. I would also encourage you to try and find a live event to go and learn at, as can be found listed on onescytherevolution.

Mr Cooper's current website is, and is chiefly concerned with another amazing hand tool, the broad fork.  I had the privilege of handling an example of his craftsmanship last weekend, and encourage all of you who garden to consider one.  It is a tool that your grandchildren will inherit with pleasure.  I get no kickbacks or commissions if you purchase one, or a scythe, simply the satisfaction of spreading the word about great hand tools sold by craftspeople with a passion for what they do.  I encourage you to share this with anyone you know with a passion for gardening, or quality tools.  I'm sure I will write a similar testimonial about broad forks next spring, but as of yet, I can only attest to the workmanship of the tool.

I think as we continue to buy cheaper and cheaper hand tools of increasingly shoddy workmanship, we forget the pleasure that can be found in the quiet elegance of a quality tool powered by a good meal via our bodies, rather than a gallon of gas or kilowatt hour, via a motor.  I don't know about you, but personally I get much more pleasure out of buying a good meal, than that gallon of gas, or extra kilowatt hour.  Whether you are concerned for the environment, want more productive exercise, are interested in self-sufficiency, or are just too cheap to buy gas or electricity, I think you can find a reason to value hand tools. 
In the case of the scythe, you'll never find a better justification for owning a fine blade.  For those of you who are fellow ancient weapon enthusiasts, swordcraft and scythecraft are closely linked, you're basically buying a sword you get to cut things with, and not look like you're LARP'ing (click here if you're not familiar with the term).  As noted in the wall street journal article, there is a good bit of the grim reaper image to overcome in adopting this tool.  Its useful and peaceful purposes have faded a bit from the public consciousness.

As another example, I have been recently rediscovering the lost value in the simplicity of a traditional carpenter's hand saw.  When I stop and think the extra time it takes to make a small cut, far out paces my circular or reciprocating saw.  How?  Well first I have to unwind the cord and check it, then I have to find the right blade for the job, change that out, getting the right extension cord to where I am working.  All that just to make one cut.  Of course, you can always invest in cordless tools for such purposes, but unless you are a professional, how long do you think it will take you to make up for the cost in saved time?

I feel we would all do well to remember that just because it is new or more popular, doesn't mean it is better for every application, it might just be that its learning curve is shorter, or maybe it only pays off in volume.  Conversely, for those of us who romanticize the old days, just because it is old and low tech, or "natural" doesn't mean it is better either.  Other than cool factor, I can see no advantage to carpentry with pegs, for instance.  I doubt they can compare to structural screws when viewed as a total package.  Some things our fore-bearers did out of necessity, because they had no other way, rather than any ancient arcane wisdom.  Some things, though, like the scythe, are worth rediscovering.

1 comment:

  1. great article- as a beginning scyther myself i understand- i often tell people, probably too excitedly, that a scythe is like a sword that you cut grass with... and now i love cutting th' grass, and even offer to mow for friends just for the practice... cheers, ~rico