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Scything: Cutting a clean swathe

The days of the clipped lawn and manicured border are coming to an end. As the homogeneity of daily life increases, people are rediscovering the value of diversity, as provided by a wild flower rich meadow, a lawn with a few colourful things in or even that patch of nettles. These meadows, allotments and nettle patches are niches for the wildlife but require a little management from time to time. This is where many who would once have grasped for the nearest strimmer or lawnmower - and associated petrol tanks - are now turning to older ways. Enter the scythe - the do-it-all brush cutter, lawn mower and strimmer of the past and future. The scythe is making a resurgence in the UK, USA, Australia, Canada and the Nordic countries. Here in these ‘developed’ countries, certain folk still prefer to use hand tools and gardens are still the bastion for some of the simplest, including the spade, the hoe and until recently the sickle, the smaller sibling to the scythe. The motorised lawn mower may have its place in the hearts of those wanting the perfect lawn, but for those with a more challenging piece of ground or a yearning for the zen of skilled workmanship, the scythe reigns supreme. In alpine areas it never went away. That is why we still have high quality equipment from Austria and Italy, as well as very serviceable eastern European variants. These beautiful tools were thus the preserve of connoisseurs like me, but they have just become a lot more accessible for the people of Sheffield. High quality scything kit is now available locally from Sharrow Hardware, both snaithes – handles, also known as snathes - and blades. But why would anyone want something that could get them confused with the grim reaper? The story of my own love affair with scything should help answer that question. I began scything four years ago when working at the Wildlife Trust during a day’s tutelage from local coppicer Ray Lister. I have always enjoyed using hand tools and quickly took the plunge, getting a full wooden snath and Austrian blade combo from Somerset-based Simon Fairlie. He was one of the first to import the lighter weight grass scythes to the UK. I went to a couple of festivals, took on some jobs cutting meadows and the world quickly expanded beyond a little trimming. Tools are most interesting objects. Their diversity reflects the creativity of man - not just artistic, but the manufacturing skill inherent to them. Through scything I began to feel the link between human movement and tool efficiency, akin to woodworkers whose perfectly sharpened tools can sculpt wood with finesse, enhanced by the tuned nature of the tool. Power tools can give a glimpse of this, but hand tools still hold a special place, as shown by the long-term survival of specialist hand tool makers like Clifton Planes and Thomas Flinn & Co Saws here in Sheffield, who persevere despite the contraction of such industries in Europe as a whole. Although the scythe of choice is of continental origin, today I believe it is important to support craftspeople and small-scale land management the world over. Specialist toolsmiths at home and abroad face fierce competition, but despite this they continue in today’s world of labour saving devices. Why? Some, like myself, are bewildered by the economist’s celebration of every increase in ‘labour efficiency’ (fewer jobs) and mechanisation. Why should appropriate technologies only be for the ‘developing’ world? Human power and simple tools can begin the benign production of food and physical satisfaction we all need. How much effort does it take to manage your land? Can the energy garnered from calorie dense fossil fuels really be replaced by hand skill? If we want it to, of course it can. Some compare mowing a meadow by scythe to a tai chi session, as it combines concentration with physical movement. Certainly, ensuring you cut cleanly, quickly and somewhat effortlessly requires these meditative qualities. The enjoyment of seeing clear ground with a smattering of moss as the swath of grass falls is exhilarating. Cutting a clean swathe is the simple aim. Leaving a tidy pile of grass to one side of you helps with hay collection, if you’re aiming for this; if not, then following the grass’s direction of lean leads to an easier cut. Keeping the blade parallel to the ground and leaving even stubble is for those wanting a well kept plot, though some height variation is inevitable, except to those with bowling lawns and perfect technique. This parallelism generally comes from the hips, not solely the shoulders, and a whole body movement assists in keeping the scythe a joyful tool to use. Once you have cut with that sacred swing you may feel how this tool can now become the rival to the strimmer, but without the noise, fumes and two-stroke fuel. )

Next article in issue 65

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[This article was originally submitted for consideration for the April issue, but couldn’t be included due to space restrictions.]

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