note the degree of rotation in the front figure; however, he’s got the wrong leg forward! see youtube…

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┬ápleasure and wisdom — which constitutes the taproot of all human culture.

2 Comments

  1. I was enjoying this article until we got to the anti-economic rant.

    Having grown up with a similar, crippling view of money, and spent twelve years trying to run a small business while de-prioritizing money, I am now struggling to refine my understanding and recover my economic potential.

    I believe your scythe master deserved, and earned, his $100 for preserving and promoting a beautiful old tool. I believe you deserve, and earn, every dollar that you make by keeping Hand Print Press open for business, and keeping these excellent resources in print.

    Profit and greed are not the same thing. Money is not the same thing as ‘love of money.’
    The lawn mower is a (noisy, noxious) tool to cut grass. The scythe is a simpler, more energy-efficient, and more pleasant one. You can feed and raise a family on beans, cash, credit card debt, or prison rations – some of these are lovelier lifestyles than others. Even a home-grown homesteader spends a certain amount of time counting beans, of one kind or another, if he wants his garden to grow again next year.
    If someone loves his lawn mower and rides it around all day, ignoring his lawn and car and family, he has crossed from “lawn mower” to “the love of lawn mowers.” There may be more harm in the love of a riding lawn mower, or a hedge fund, than in the love of a good scythe – but it’s the misplaced priorities, not the tool itself, that bears the blame.

    We can point to plenty of folks who are greedy, and have crossed over from using money appropriately to making it the central driving force for their entire lifestyle – but this does not make all business people greedy, or all money evil. Any more than a child eating a bellyache full of green apples makes the apples bad.

    Money is a tool, and like any tool, it can be used well or badly, for good or for harm. I would even say there is such a thing as too much money, just as you can have too many tools for your available space, time, or attention. A tool is a means to an end – and if a good tool is not accomplishing much in your hands, it may be time to pass it on.
    If getting more money is distracting you from higher priorities like God, family, country, or teammates – let it go, pass it on, take a break.
    If having too little money is hurting your ability to serve God, family, country, or friends – your refusal to hone this tool may be hurting your potential, in much the same way that a dull scythe slows the harvest, or a dull teen refuses to wear a raincoat and gets less work done outdoors.

    The proper use of money is not to ask for it and spit on it in the same breath, but to put it in service of the greater good. Properly used, money and economics supports the growth of shared good – trade, commerce, mutually beneficial bargains. Those who treat business as if its purpose is to make money, have it backwards.
    It’s like saying the purpose of a person is to make blood. All businesses need a viable cash flow, circulation of money is a vital nutrient for business (along with social capital, etc). But the money is a tool to allow the benefits of business to reach our communities.
    Vampires believe people are for making blood; mothers and doctors and warriors use and spill and give blood in the service of their people.

    It would be a lot harder for a Maine carpenter and an Oregon oven-builder to support each other fairly without some form of “abstract” exchange. In our economy, sorting out the money makes possible the internet, the highways, the postal shipping, and the manufacturing (among other elements) that bring a scythe 3000 miles and more to be enjoyed and eulogized. In an alternate economy like the Inca, with cacao beans and labor the primary currencies of exchange, they also managed to build some beautiful roads. I am not averse to using other means of exchange when suitable – I will swap books or stories by a campfire, or give a deck of cards for a hand-wrought pin – but when it comes to buying a boat or securing land rights, it’s hard to beat hard currency and economic credit.

    I would not use a scythe to harm a child, or expect it to serve as well as even a pocket knife if I needed to whittle it a new handle. I do not expect that price alone is a reliable guide to quality, or that money will solve problems beyond paying my bills. I would not expect the world to send me a good tool without compensation.

    The intrinsic joy of good work is worth sharing. The intrinsic joys of good business, and good economic husbandry, are equally worthy.

    If you have time this week to give your business some creative attention, the maintenance and artful practice it deserves as a well-used economic tool… may I suggest replacing the generic coffee-cups-and-laptop scene with something more representative of your skills as an artist. A shot of some of your books, or of your own hands enjoying the swing of the scythe or leaving a smear of oil on a fresh loaf… would better express how you cherish your tools and materials. Including your economic ones.

    And hey, nice work on the new website. Thanks for keeping the lights on.

    Yours,
    Erica W

    1. Erica! Nice to hear from you. Just to clarify, the rant is aimed not as much at money, as at consumerism, which is a particular relationship with money. Money itself, as you point out, is merely a means of exchange. As such, yes, it’s just a tool, and confers bane or benefit depending on how you use it. What I was trying to get at was the notion of value. Current ways of thinking tend to confuse money and value (as in, “you get what you pay for,” the tendency to degrade any activity that isn’t “scaleable” to meet global demand, or the judgement that something may be beautiful “but not commercially viable.”). I was trying to suggest that real value comes from a source much deeper than money. In this, I have been greatly influenced by Lewis Hyde’s The Gift (originally sub-titled, “Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property;” then dumbed down by niche marketing to “Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.”) In the first half of the book, Hyde reviews the recent history of human exchange (explaining, among other things, the original meanings of usury and the economic roots of anarchism); in the second half, he explores the work of two poets, Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound, both of whom had their own complex understandings of their own gifts and relations (economic and otherwise) with the world. I would recommend it to anyone, whether they’re de-prioritizing money, struggling to refine their understanding, trying to make a living, or just trying to understand the twists and turns of modern economics.

      As for the new website, we’re just trying out a new theme, and haven’t yet decided on proper photos! Please excuse the use of generic fill in the meantime…

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