The Scything Handbook is one more on a string of beautiful, helpful (and once common) pearls that can help save us from a debilitating fate as mere “consumers,” and restore us to our birthrights as participants in creation. Full disclosure here, I know the author Ian. We’re teaching a class together in Oregon this August (info and registration here), and I also wrote the forward to his book, which is brief, clear, and as simple as a clean cut with a sharp blade — an ideal starting place if you’re interested in giving up your stinky, noisy mowing machine and replacing it with an old-world scythe. I can assure you that even if you can’t dance, you can mow with a scythe. And once you start mowing, you may find that Ian’s ruminations on tractorless farms, home-grown grains, fossil-fuel free corps of urban mowers/landscape managers, won’t seem so far-fetched. After all, ‘we can put a man on the moon…'”
I was introduced to scything about a dozen years ago, when I read about mowing with a European-style scythe in Mother Earth News. I had always been intrigued by those long blades and curvaceous handles, and had even borrowed one from a friend, but it didn’t seem to work — or I’d never gotten the technique. This author, however, said the European blade was completely different: lighter, sharper, easier to use.
I have only rarely been persuaded to buy anything without seeing or trying it first, and the price (over $100 for the kit) would strain my budget. So I called the author, who ran a mail-order business called “Scythe Supply.” I was, of course, skeptical about what I assumed would be a sales pitch, but Elliott Fishbein was not a salesman. He was a fine carpenter who had fallen in love with a new/old tool, and started the business as a way to share the joys of a different kind of handwork.
He asked me as many questions as I asked him — maybe more. By the end of our conversation, he had convinced me NOT to buy his longest blade (longer does not equal better). Instead, he sold me an 18″ ditch blade — which he assured me would suit all my needs. I only needed to cut a little grass and LOTS of blackberry (in Western Oregon, Himalayan blackberry is a gardener’s bane, usually attacked w/poison or machetes — short of goats, however, the scythe is the ultimate weapon against these tough, spiky, and rambunctious invaders).
That conversation transformed mere shopping into an act of faith and friendship. The scythe arrived. Despite my utter lack of experience and knowledge, it worked fully as well promised. I was hooked, sold, convinced — and happy! Joyfully, I mowed my patches of grass, and easily took out swaths of blackberry — w/out losing any blood! After a few hours of practice, I was eager to challenge my neighbor’s noisy, gas-powered weed-whacker with the deadly whispers of my ditch blade. I eagerly read The Scythe Book that Elliott had recommended (at the time, the only book to deal with this tool). Sharpening and peening (which Ian de-mystifies) were challenges I met with zeal. Elliott met my phone calls and questions with information and encouragement. In gratitude (and because it was about bread and baking, and thus also grains) I sent him a copy of a little how-to book I’d written about using earth to build a wood-fired bread oven. And when I read one of Tolstoy’s stories about an aristocrat who goes out mowing w/”his” peasants and comes alive with the joy of it. Elliot added the quote to his list of literature links.
A year or two later Elliott’s wife wrote to let me know that he had died, tragically, in a car wreck, but the friendship continued as Carol continued the business from their home in Maine. The scythe remains my favorite garden tool, but as we’ve never had the acreage to keep animals, much less plant pasture, I’ve not yet had the opportunity to try the kind of haying that Ian describes in his book. Perhaps one day. ‘Til then, every garden visitor gets an introduction to the scythe. Twice I’ve been invited to the local agricultural college to demonstrate or teach mowing to students interested in sustainable agriculture and petro-free methods.
This wonderful tool offers many possibilities which do, as Ian suggests, go much further than simply “mowing the grass.” What you learn from mowing with scythe can indeed change your relationship to the land, and thereby your life. The nature of technology (from Greek root “tekne,” for “art, craft, or skill,”) is to shape what and how you learn by changing how you work in and with the world. A scythe shifts your awareness away from noisy machines to your body, the feel of the sun or rain on your back, and the condition of the grass itself, as well as your blade and muscles. As tool (and technique) organize the grass in a windrow, the work of collecting it grows more obvious. Instead of haphazardly scattered “waste” needing “disposal,” you might begin to see it as valuable stuff: feed for a family cow, or for rabbits or chickens, or merely for all the hungry organisms in your compost pile.
My mother, an artist and teacher, quoted Aristotle, who said “What we learn to do we learn by doing.” Growing up, I learned what my mother did: making bread, working with tools, drawing, dreaming, writing, sharing, teaching, and learning. The curriculum cultivated dreams and visions, and transformed the matter of the world into the matter of our lives. The curriculum begins in your body, not your head. First, you learn what the world feels and tastes like: dirt is either dry and gritty or wet and sticky. Water is always wet, but either warm or cold, sweet or salty or sour. Sticks are brittle or bendy. Some rocks crumble, others are hard and flinty. You learn those qualities and materials by applying and manipulating them. Mucking about in the dirt shifts to making dough and baking loaves. Tools give new powers to your hands — knife and shovel shift dirt and dough in new ways. How you move your hands changes how the tools work. As you adapt hands and tools to each other, you learn technique, you gain skill and confidence. Mud pies become pies your family can really eat, perhaps baked in an oven you built yourself. Banging on nails becomes nailing boards for a fort or a birdhouse — and perhaps to hiring onto a local framing crew to build real houses. Skills and experience qualify us to participate in creation — creation, NOT consumption.
Life is to creation what consumption is to the economy. Consider the difference. Life comes as a gift; creation is how we give back. Consumption, on the other hand, does not come to us at all. Consumption takes. It takes life, and converts it into fuel for an “economic engine.” It reduces life and matter to money — and then garbage — the “throwing away” of which becomes a “service” we have to pay for.
The qualities of money are simply this: more or less, debt or credit, plus or minus, wealth, poverty, or trash. It offers neither warmth nor wetness, neither life nor death. It neither creates nor teaches value of any kind.
Only creation can teach value. Dirt becomes clay becomes a bowl or a cup — an oven — a garden — a house! Grass becomes grain becomes dough becomes food and family. Creation makes an economy true to its root — the Greek word for “dwelling place” or “habitation.”
Mowing with a scythe teaches much more than simply how to make grass shorter. It teaches the value of labor, both as a way to make a living, and as a source of pleasure, strength, and skill. If you find others with whom to share those values, that living, those pleasures, strengths, and skills, you will find that your community (your “dwelling place”) will grow as well (and as beautifully) as your garden.
Like Ian, I imagine scythe-wielding corps of enthusiastic, competent, strong mowers who can joyfully displace the loud, lonesome, and very expensive thrashing machines that our counties use to batter roadside weeds and brush into chips and dust. I imagine a new kind of landscape contracting, that sees lawns as pastures, and “mowing the grass” as feeding cows to give us milk and cheese. (Indeed, this vision is inspired in part by stories from Jaime Lerner in Curitiba Brazil, where city government replaced their parks department w/shepherds and sheep.) I imagine homeowners trading rights to their grass in return for a share of milk and meat. I imagine mowing parties that celebrate harvest by making their windrows into labyrinths in the fields. I imagine a new generation of American smiths re-learning the art of forging long light blades. None of this vision suggests a retreat from modernity — rather, it suggests choices based on a complexity of real values, rather than on the mathematical simplicity of “economics.”
If you do read the book and decide to try it out, take Ian’s advice and take the additional step of looking for a buddy with more experience, and make it a shared endeavor. Not only is there strength and safety in numbers, the connections — between people and between people and land — provide pleasure and wisdom — which constitutes the taproot of all human culture.