The Resilient Farm and Homestead (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013) is a comprehensive how-to manual that will help the reader select, design, develop, and manage land for self-reliance and regenerative agriculture, and presents a thriving model for productive, durable homesteads and farms in cold climates and beyond. In this excerpt, taken from Chapter 4, author and permaculture expert Ben Falk introduces the art of mowing with a scythe.
Mowing With a Scythe
Of all the hand-powered land development and maintenance tools I have used, the scythe is probably the most effective in terms of amount of work yielded per amount and quality of time spent performing the work. Splitting wood with a good ax and pruning small trees probably come in at a tight second and third place, respectively, in this hypothetical, but useful, contest. When I say “scythe” I am not referring to the hardware-store-variety heavy-handled tool—the American scythe—or a laborious chopping-at-vegetation activity. I am referring to the Austrian scythe—a slender instrument that when wielded in the correct sweeping motion results in an enjoyable, devastatingly effective means of mowing light brush and grass.
I have been using an Austrian scythe for about seven years, starting with the tool available from Scythe Supply in Maine, later adding a higher quality scythe from Scythe Works out of New Brunswick and British Columbia, Canada. These tools, except the blade, can also be made without enormous difficulty if you have good woodworking skills, but the process does require steam bending of the snath (shaft).
With a proper scythe, good technique, and a little conditioning, one can mow an acre or two of grass in a handful of hours or so. If the land is brushy, double that estimate. While a fuel-driven machine can certainly mow more land, it cannot do so well over highly varied and rocky terrain, and doing so is less beneficial for the body and mind than the Zen-like practice of scything. A scythe also costs a fraction of the cost of a mechanical mower and will outlast it a hundred times over if maintained well. It can also be completely maintained in-house with a few basic tools. The scythe, however, requires far greater skill than the mowing machine. Such is the general pattern with hand tools compared to power tools; the elegant, often slower, but long-term healthier solution requires more experience and skill than the easier, short-term, faster approach.
Proper scything equipment consists of a snath (shaft), handles, blade, and hardware attaching the blade to the snath. The handles should be fitted custom to the user; as with all fine tools and finely performed craft, the fit between user and tool is crucial. Sharpening equipment is equally essential, as the scythe only cuts well with a nearly razor-sharp blade. Lack of blade sharpness is certainly the most common error among new mowers, since sharpening a blade is actually quite difficult.
Any athletic person with good coordination can learn the scything motion well within a season of mowing, but getting a blade very sharp is something that often will take a number of seasons. I am still learning to get a decent edge a handful of years into scything, and I had a bit of varied blade-sharpening experience before beginning to scythe. The blade on a scythe is sharpened every five to ten minutes, depending on the hardness of what is being mowed, using a curved narrow whetstone that is carried submerged in water on a belt-mounted holder. While this sounds excessive, it’s actually the most efficient way to work, since sharpening only takes ten to thirty seconds, and a honed blade slices through the material with far less strain on user and tool.
After a dozen or two dozen hours of mowing, again depending on the quality of material being mowed and on the skill of the sharpener, the blade must be peened (thinned). This involves a hammer and small anvil-like tool or simply a curved-head hammer and the pounding of the blade’s edge very specifically so that metal is drawn out and thinned right at the edge of the entire length of the blade. Peening is not easy at first and is unique to scything for most of us. I don’t peen very often, but when I do it usually requires about five minutes per blade. I find that a jig supplied by Scythe Supply does makes peening easy because it simplifies the process. Thicker blades require a little more work—brush blades being the thickest, toughest blades compared to longer, thinner grass blades. The rougher your land, the thicker and shorter a blade you want, while the more tame and succulent your land, the finer the blade (and easier the mowing!).
The Scythe Book by David Tresemer is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in scything tools and proper technique. There are also a number of very helpful videos on YouTube showing highly developed mowers in action, particularly a video made by Peter Vido, founder of Scythe Works, of his daughter and master mower.
Scything involves a low sweeping motion, with the blade carried just above the ground in a broad arc, usually about the width of the height of the mower. The wider an arc one can mow, while still maintaining a balanced and efficient stance, the better. Mowing is accomplished more in width than in forward motion as the mower only steps forward short steps after each sweep of the scythe. With proper technique involving a strong but slow twist of the torso and application of core strength, a mower can mow without tiring for a few hours after some practice.
Traditionally—and in parts of the high Swiss Alps and other regions of Europe especially, mowing was always done from dawn, or even the predawn hours, into the midmorning, with all work finished before the grass dried thoroughly, when work became slow and dusty. The scythe operates much more efficiently on wet grass, and the cool of the morning makes for more effective and enjoyable mowing. We mow in the morning hours here and during or just after a rain.
Mowing in the rain is actually quite enjoyable, and one can do so safely with bare feet soaking up the health and goodness in the mown grass and damp earth. The health benefits of the scything movement and the contact with living systems that scything facilitates are immeasurable. The scythe shows us clearly how the enjoyability and health-influencing aspects of a task on the homestead and farm are often more important than the speed with which results are achieved. Is the job that slowly degrades one’s health but only takes an hour a day more effectively done than one taking three hours a day but that maintains the vigor of the person performing the task? Since the work on a farm and homestead is never truly complete, the imperative seems clear enough: We must enjoy and be invigorated by the bulk of the work we perform in life—no destination, just a journey.
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Reprinted with permission from The Resilient Farm and Homestead: An Innovative Permaculture and Whole Systems Design Approach by Ben Falk and published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013.