Preparing for the post-oil age is somewhat like preparing for the apocalypse, only without having to deal with those four annoying horsemen. As we motor towards peak oil, we’ll need to rely less on gasoline-powered vehicles and machinery, and more on our hands and our own muscle power. And according to adherents of the Great Reskilling — a permaculture concept where people learn to become self-reliant by learning traditional skills — we’ll all be better for it.
Not surprisingly, an increasing number of Vermonters are getting ready for that day. They’re learning how to farm, can, and chop wood without using any more natural resources than necessary. Around here, that neatly cropped suburban lawn says not I’m a good neighbor but I have a huge carbon footprint. Unless, of course, you produced it using the back-to-the-land skill of scything, or the art of hand mowing.
You’re not alone if the word “scythe” conjures up images of medieval peasants or the Grim Reaper. It might seems a bit primitive to most people, but that’s only because we’ve gotten so far from working with our hands, enthusiasts say. We’ve let machines do all the work, distancing ourselves from the land where our ancestors toiled.
Modern scything proponents range from homesteaders to suburban gardeners. One is Ben Falk, design director of Whole Systems Design in Moretown, who points out that the scythe is more economical than power mowers and tractors, keeps users fit and healthy, and doesn’t drain resources. Plus, “It’s a devastatingly effective tool to manage grassland or any understory,” he says.
Images of the Grim Reaper aside, the scythe doesn’t look at all menacing. The custom-sized tool comes with whimsical nomenclature. From blade to handle, the parts’ names are fun to say: toe, chine, beard, heel, tang, ring, snath and grip. The snath is the shaft to which the blade is attached. The soft steel blade is sized for its intended use, be it haying or just mowing the lawn. Scythes are uncomplicated in their construction and can be made by a skilled woodworker or metalsmith. Marc Shattuck, a welder and avid hand mower, has made a number of his own scythes, though they are sold commercially online and in hardware stores.
Scythe use for agricultural purposes dates as far back as the 12th century. Because the tool allowed the reaper to stand upright while harvesting, the scythe replaced the shorter curved sickle and remained the primary tool for mowing and reaping until horse-powered machinery appeared.
Throughout Europe, where the scythe was invented, the tool is still used regularly. Many hand mowers compete in speed-mowing competitions, working their way rhythmically through fields as judges check for technique and consistency. Shattuck, who has competed in similar contests here and in New Hampshire, dreams of entering a scything competition in Europe.
Shattuck, a Richmond resident and longtime hand mower, was the instructor at a recent scything workshop hosted by Falk at a farm in Moretown. While just about anyone can pick up a weed whacker and cut back vegetation or brush, mastering the scythe requires years of practice and attention to detail. Falk will tell you that after three years of using the deceptively simple tool, he still has much to learn. “You can get better for years and years,” he says.
While Shattuck takes a utilitarian view of scything, Falk’s is a more philosophical approach. He rhapsodizes about the scythe as the “best in hand tools” and promotes its use as a way to connect more deeply with the environment, one that brings the user a higher level of satisfaction and personal achievement than any gas-powered machine would.
Shattuck began hand mowing as a child because his father did it. He stuck with it, he says, because he was a fanatical cyclist and drawn to endurance activities. The whole-body-workout aspect of scything, combined with its rhythm, appealed to him.
After all these years, Shattuck continues to hone his technique. A YouTube video of a 14-year-old girl methodically mowing a huge hay field recently inspired him to modify his scything style, he says. He’s now focusing more on sweeping the blade in a full arc.
Scything is not for those with weak abs. It requires a core strength that most of us who sit at a desk all day do not possess. With a slight bend in the knees, hand mowers twist their torsos from right to left, making a steady pass over the grass as they go. It has a little Mr. Miyagi “wax on, wax off” feel to it.
Shattuck advises beginner hand mowers against trying to use their arms for scything. It all has to come from the core. Rather than swinging the scythe like a baseball bat or a golf club, which could cause injury or embarrassment, the scyther has to make a sweeping motion. The result is a wide, arced swath of mowed land. Each pass should be the same cut with the same amount of effort, Shattuck says. The blade should appear to float over the grass. When people get good at scything, the motion is said to feel meditative or Zen-like.
That contemplative aspect of scything is one thing that drew Rob Williams to Falk’s workshop. Williams, an adjunct professor at Champlain College and partner in the Vermont Yak Company in Waitsfield, didn’t know much about the scythe when he showed up in Moretown, but he had recently ordered a pair for him and his wife to try. Over the years, Williams says, he’s been trying to broaden his agricultural skill set, and learning to scythe fit that goal. “With my ‘Great Reskilling’ hat on, I’ve definitely been trying to reacquaint myself with the lost arts of animal husbandry and farming and things related to that,” he says.
But Williams didn’t find learning how to scythe as easy as mastering an ax or a splitting maul. He had to forget what he knew about playing golf, chopping wood and other activities that required a swinging motion. “It’s hard at first to keep the blade traveling straight across the ground,” Williams says. “The temptation is to swing it like a tennis racquet. It’s definitely one of those things I’ll need some practice with.”
On a recent rainy morning, Falk gives a demonstration of proper scything technique at his studio. Before he begins cutting, he pulls a whetstone from the water-filled sheath attached to his belt. He carefully drags the stone back and forth across the blade to sharpen it. The blade seems to sing. Scythe blades typically have to be sharpened every five to 10 minutes, depending on what is being cut. “It only works as well as it is tuned,” Falk says as he sharpens. “You always need to keep your tool in a state of fine-tunedness.”
Falk carries the scythe over to an area of patchy, tall grass, bends his knees slightly and begins to mow. The grass falls in clumps around the edges of the cut. Because it is drizzly, the grass is heavier and the scythe works better, Falk explains.
The sound of the blade slicing through the grass is mesmerizing, like that of the whetstone sharpening only more euphonious. You can’t help but be enchanted by this tool.
While it may not be practical to scythe a 10-acre field of hay by oneself, one person is more than capable of hand mowing a lawn. Scythes were used to manicure the first lawns of the Middle Ages, Shattuck points out. At $200 for a good scythe, the tool is certainly more economical than any other mower or gas-powered machine. If and when a scythe breaks — which is unlikely, Falk says — it can be repaired cheaply and easily. Once the proper scything technique is learned, the tool can be used to cut grass as short as the scyther wants. And unlike with a power mower, you can never cut your lawn too short with a scythe, Falk says. The more one thinks about scything, the more feasible an option it becomes for landscape management.
“The scythe is a gateway tool. It’s a way of becoming competent with our hands again,” Falk says. “It’s available to all of us if we have hands that work.”