Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Scything the meadow: an outdated technology; or is it?

The scythe swings rhythmically in my hands, the grass, sending up its seedy stalks on this early summer morning, slides along the long thin blade and parts from its roots with a satisfying 'Ahhhh' before being deposited in a windrow along the edge of the swath I am cutting through the meadow. The tool, the grass and I are working smoothly together in an ancient ritual.

My father, once an English farmer, taught me how to do this when I was young and now I don't suppose there are many people in the wealthy West that know how to use a scythe anymore. Perhaps they have only a vague idea what 'cutting a swath' really means if they read the phrase used metaphorically in a book.

I do own a lawn mower and a weedeater and use them regularly: they are noisy, use gas, wear out eventually and need replacing, but they do specific jobs very well. My scythe usually hangs under the eves with its sharpening stone, waiting for this time of year when its own particular qualities come to the fore.

I pause regularly to sharpen the long, thin, curved blade; holding the scythe upright with my left hand and, with my right, sliding the sharpening stone down the cutting edge on alternate sides, just like I do for sharpening the carving knife at home. Cutting grass for hay is not a test of strength, but of finesse, and I wish to perform this dance smoothly and accurately.

Each stroke begins as I bring the curved handle back to the right, line up the next strip of grass stems and then swing back to the left, pulling my left arm back to my body as I do so. The blade runs along parallel with the stems, slicing them cleanly and the final curve lifts and deposits the cut pieces in a neat windrow, there to cure and dry. So smooth, so very satisfying, so quiet, and so cheap.

That simplicity, the long life and inexpensiveness of a scythe, the basic skills, are of course not popular in our market economy. Why, if everyone lived this way, made their own hay, used no tractor, no fuel, had no overhead ,surely the world would collapse! Perhaps it will anyway, and then my simple scything and hay making skills will be in demand once more.

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