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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 about.

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