The Joy of Scythes
Caught between a goat and a lawnmower? get a scythe!
The Ecologist, September 2006
‘Blimey’ said the man on the plot next
to me. ‘You could do some damage with that!’
He wasn’t wrong. By the time he arrived I’d
been there for an hour, and I already had blisters on
each hand and a dull throbbing in my right shoulder.
True, I had so far managed to avoid slicing my foot
off at the ankle, but it could only be a matter of time.
This is the story of my brand new scythe. It’s
a tale of over-excitement, determination, possible foolishness
and woefully under-used shoulder muscles. It started
recently in Dorset , with a visit to a man called Simon
Fairlie. Simon is a man of many parts: a former editor
of this magazine, he is now an authority on rural land
reform, a smallholder and undoubtedly the country’s
leading peasant philosopher. He is also a scythe obsessive.
Simon was one of the founders of the Tinker’s
Bubble project in Somerset , a remarkable attempt to
run a serious low-impact farming enterprise not only
organically, but with virtually no fossil fuel inputs.
Its soil is turned with a horse-drawn plough, the cider
apples are squeezed by hand – and the grass is
cut with scythes. It’s a bit too hardcore for
me, but the principles behind it are admirable.
So why not try and put them into practice on my plot?
I don’t want to turn into some freaky purist,
but as well as growing my food without any artificial
chemical fertilisers or pesticides, I want to try cutting
right down on artificial and/or damaging external inputs
of any kind. In an age of climate change and globalisation
it makes perfect ecological sense.
Which is where Simon and his scythes come in. One
thing any plotholder has to do a fair bit of is grass-cutting.
This is where you make a choice. You could do what my
neighbouring plotholders do, and bring along your strimmer
or your big, green lawnmower. But you and I know better.
We know that not only are these machines noisy and smelly,
they use fossil fuels by the gallon. You and I, idealists
that we are, have a better idea. We are going to learn
to use a scythe.
So taken was Simon Fairlie by the scythe as both a
tool and a work, and begetter, of art, that he sought
out the best scythes in Europe (Austrian ones, he insists)
and began importing and selling them. You wouldn’t
think there’d be much demand in this age of battery-powered
strimmers, but Simon Fairlie Scythes is having trouble
keeping up with demand. Poking my head into his tiny
scythe store-room, I could see why. The long, curved
pale wood handles; the crescent blades; the little sharpening
stones … a scythe is a beautiful and, these days,
unusual thing. I couldn’t help it. I bought one.
And so, here I am, a scythe virgin, nervously learning
the ropes. Simon sold me a little booklet with my scythe,
which told me all about how to fix the handle to the
blade, how to sharpen it (which you need to do every
ten minutes or so during a serious bout) and how to
ensure it’s at the right angle when you use it.
Scything, it is clear even from these few pages, is
an art that attracts its obsessives. They talk about
snaths, peening, tangs and something called a neigung.
They have a festival every year, dedicated solely to
scything. They’re like Star Trek nerds with grass
in their beards. It’s too much for me.
But how my scythe has improved my allotment experience!
On a practical level, it allows me to cut down the long
grass on my plot and pile it into cute little haystacks,
which I will dry out and use next year to mulch my plants
– and to do so without using any petrol, or creating
any noise or fumes. But there is also something hypnotic,
even transcendental about swinging the handle, with
its curved silver blade, around in arcs, working out
its weight and feel.
There’s something natural, even elegant, about
the action, and a real sense of connection to a past
age in which there were no Flymos or Qualcasts, only
this working of shoulders and wrists and the sound of
the finely-honed blade cutting the hay low to the ground.
The more you scythe, in fact, the more you want to.
This is doing it for real. This is what it’s all
Hell, maybe I will go to that scythe festival after
all. I’ve got the weekend free.
Simon Fairlie Scythes is at www.thescytheshop.co.uk