Learning the Art and Science of Scything: How to Beat a Weed Whacker

Reader Contribution by Kiko Denzer
article image

The Scythers by N.C. Wyeth (public domain)

There’s been quite a bit of buzz about sycthes and mowing lately. People may want to get outside more, burn less oil, do things by hand, and spend less money but they still need to mow lawns, make hay, and harvest what they grow. If you’re one of those, you might be interested in a new book about the European tradition of using scythes.

Ian Miller wrote The Scything Handbook, based on experience that began with a two-year stint on a biodynamic farm in Austria where he learned to mow, peen, and sharpen. While developing a 20-acre, scythe-based homestead near Decorah, Iowa, where he grows grain for bread and makes hay by hand, and after studying historic German scything texts, he decided to write a book to try and make it easier for folks to learn about this marvelous tool.

(Full disclosure: I have known Ian since he translated a book I wrote into German, and was honored to write the forward for his — Ian and I will be teaching a one-day class after the Oregon fair. More about that below.)

When I moved to the country and suddenly had more space to tend outside than inside, there was no way I was going to spend a lot of money on a lawn mower that would require more money every time I used it — and I had a lot of blackberries to deal with, and they weren’t going to succumb to any grass-cutting machine that I might be able to afford.

Finding the Right Scythe

So when I read a brief piece in Mother Earth News about mowing with a European-style scythe, I was intrigued. I’d always admired those long blades and curvaceous handles, and had even borrowed one from a friend, but it didn’t seem to work — or I just failed to get the technique. The author of the Mother Earth News article, however, Elliott Fishbein of ScytheSupply, said the European blade was lighter, sharper, easier to use. Hmmm.

I called the number, steeling myself against the hard sell, to see if I could learn anything useful before I decided to buy.

Elliot was not a salesman — he was a fine carpenter who had fallen in love with a new/old tool, and started the business in order to share the joy of a different kind of handwork. By the end of our (rather long) conversation, Elliot had convinced me not to buy his longest blade (longer does not equal better). Instead, he sold me an 18-inch ditch blade — which he assured me would suit all my needs. That conversation transformed mere shopping into an act of faith and friendship.

Trying Out a Scythe for the First Time

When the scythe arrived, and despite my utter lack of experience and knowledge, it worked fully as well as promised. I was hooked, sold, convinced — and happy!

Joyfully, I mowed my patches of grass, and easily took out swaths of blackberry — unscathed! After a few hours of practice, I was eager to challenge my neighbor’s noisy, gas-powered weed-whacker with the deadly whispers of my ditch blade. I eagerly read about sharpening and peening.

brought me into a long tradition of hand-mowing.When Elliot died in a car wreck, his wife Carol took over the business, and his correspondence. I have since visited Scythe Supply in Maine, and Carol and I still write — and not just about scythes.

Join a Scything Workshop

Oregon Mother Earth News Fair. While I learned to mow mostly by mowing alone, it is a social activity, and best learned in the company of others — and while the scythe is not so complicated that “the blind” can’t “lead the blind,” it is much better to learn from someone who has more experience than you do. Fortunately, that is getting easier. One of the places you can learn is at the Oregon Mother Earth News Fair, August 5-6, 2017, in Albany, where Ian will be speaking and demonstrating.

Scythe Workshop. And if you want a more in-depth introduction, as well as a chance to get your hands on a sharp scythe, Ian and I will be teaching a full-day class in Forest Grove, Oregon, August 7, 2017.

Whether you are interested in mowing the lawn, haying a meadow, or harvesting grains, this hands-on workshop will cover what you need to know to use this wonderful tool, including how to:

• customize the tool to your body, and assemble the parts so they work
• perform the nearly fortless mowing stroke
• hone the blade with a whetstone
• work safely
• mow tight areas like trees and pavement
• sharpen and maintain the blade (including how to hammer, or “peen”)
• make hay and harvest grains

We will be practicing scything in the fields at Nana Cardoon, in Forest Grove, Oregon, where we will also share a delicious farm-fresh lunch around the table, as well as knowledge and friendship — which are, after all, the basis of all technology and culture.

You can register here.

Kiko Denzeris the author ofBuild Your Own Earth OvenandDig Your Hands in the Dirt. He is a leader in the natural building community with more than 25 years experience building earthen structures. Find Kiko onHand Print Pressand read all his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.