Mowing with a Scythe
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Did you know what a scythe was when you clicked on this article?
What's a Scythe?
At the risk of appearing a little strange, I want to share with you my love of mowing with a sycthe.
First thing's first: A scythe is a tool consisting of a long, curved blade attached to a straight or curved handle. It's used to mow grass or grain crops, or to cut down brush.
I really didn't understand what a scythe is until a couple year's ago when my man taught me how to mow with one. We were cutting down a small catch crop of buckwheat, sown to improve the soil in a young piece of ground. We didn't have a sickle, and didn't much care about the buckwheat so we wouldn't have bothered with one anyway. We mowed the buckwheat down with scythes. And I'll tell you what - it was a lot of work but I had so much fun and got such a great workout.
Before the 19th century, almost all of the hay needed for agriculture purposes was made using scythes. This was generally accomplished during the 18th century in America with hired labor, the compensation for which often included strong drink (I would imagine that cider was a popular form of payment). A skilled mower could mow more than an acre of hay in one day.
I can tell you from personal experience that would be a lot of mowing.
Mowing with a scythe is hard work, and the skill is a bit tricky to master. I'm still improving, and I'm certainly not anywhere near as good at it as some people are. In fact, there are scythe-mowing competitions that are held even today, mainly in Europe. (On a side note, anyone interested in starting a scythe-mowing league in the U.S. should contact me.)
To be honest, I'm not actually suggesting that people sell or otherwise rid themselves of their lawn mowers and weedwhackers and buy scythes to replace them with. But there's something pretty cool about mowing with a scythe, and for someone who might be interested in getting back to basics, or communing with nature, or living a more simple and healthy life, I think there's a place for a scythe.
So what's the use in attempting to master what is basically a useless skill? Hopefully, I can help answer that question.
Briefly - How to Mow Grass with a Scythe
Scythe-mowing is really best learned by doing. But here's the basic steps involved in the process.
1.) Grasp your trusty scythe and face the patch of grass that you intend to mow.
2.) Bend your knees and keep your back straight.
3.) Extend your arms, placing the blade of the scythe on the ground - basically. The blade will naturally be curved slightly upwards. The back of the blade is flat on the ground.
4.) Keep your feet planted firmly. Imagine a half-circle or crescent in the grass in front of you. You want to fluidly draw the blade of the scythe along the line of that semi-circle.
5.) Now, twist your torso so that the scythe blade moves to your right and slightly behind you. Imagine now, that you are pulling back on a rubberband that attaches your right elbow to the front of your left hip.
6.) Cut that rubberband - in a fluid motion, sweep the scythe before you, along the ground, and into the edge of the grass that you are mowing. The blade should cut the grass down low. If it doesn't, then either you went too far into the grass, or your blade isn't sharp enough.
7.) Continue on in this fashion, taking baby half-steps forward to make progress.
It's kind of difficult to explain in writing, but I hope I've given you a clue. The video that I've included, from One Scythe Revolution, is pretty good if you're really interested in learning to mow.
Mowing down weeds with a scythe, or brush-cutting, is what the pictures of me in this article depict. When you're not making hay or manicuring your lawn, you can use a scythe in a lot less stringent fashion. Personally, I love mowing weeds and brush best.
Benefits of Mowing with a Scythe
If you mow grass with a scythe, you save on fuel and don't have to use noisy gas or electric-powered equipment. Do I mow all of my grass with a scythe? No! But hilly, slopey, uneven areas are good candidates for scythe-mowing. I'm a little backwards on this point, because the easiest areas to mow with a scythe are actually the flat ones.
Again, I'm not suggesting that you start mowing all of your grass with a scythe - however, it would be pretty awesome if you did.
Thick, tall and/or woody weeds use up too much line from my Stihl brushcutter, so I use my scythe instead. In this case I get to save fuel and give my equipment a break.
As far as exercise goes, I think mowing with a scythe is only rivaled by chopping firewood or splitting fence rails. (Maybe swimming or running is just as good, but I don't have time for either!)
When you mow with a scythe, you're using all the muscles in your arms and chest, your legs, and your abdominal muscles. Really, you should mainly be using your abdominal muscles, as you will be twisting from your torso and using your abs to pull the scythe around in a semi-circle.
Some Interesting Scythe Facts
The handle on a scythe is called a snath, or snathe. The blade is called a blade (very interesting indeed!), and the hardware used to attach the blade to the snath is called a tang. If you have a good scythe, it should have nibs, which are the little hand-grip knobs on the snath.
There are two types of snaths: Straight and curved. I prefer the curved version, but I've used a scythe with a staight snath and did just fine with it. The real key is using a scythe that fits your stature.
Scythe Supply is, in my opinion, the best source for purchasing scythes and scythe supplies. They have a feature that allows you to make sure you are ordering a scythe that will fit you.
The technology of the grass scythe hasn't changed much in 400 years. For a good scythe, we're still hammering out the same blade we've been making for all that time.
Sharpening Your Scythe:
You need to keep your scythe sharp. To accomplish this, you need a stone. I use a coarse stone, rectangular in shape. There are curvier, more cylindrical stones available as well. When I "sharp up my scythe," I dip the stone in water and run it along the edge of the blade. Basically, like most sharpening processes, the idea is to remove just enough metal to create a sharp edge. I'm not much into accessories that I have to haul around, so I keep it simple when it comes to sharpening my scythe. If you use your scythe often enough, you will eventually need to have it hammered out, or peened.
The cradle scythe:
When harvesting grain with a scythe, you need to attach a cradle to catch it. The cradle is basically a set of teeth or tines that hang out behind the blade. The stems of the grain will fall neatly into the tines, and you can dump them on the ground with the grain-heads side by side. Otherwise you'd just have a pile of cut grain to pick up. In America, the cradle scythe pretty much replaced the sickle for harvesting (or reaping) in the late 18th and early 19th century. The cradle scythe was one of the last hand-powered tools used widely in agriculture, and was eventually replaced by machines.
Reaping vs. Mowing:
Speaking of reaping... Reaping is the act of harvesting; mowing means cutting grass or some other tall green growing thing.
Just about everyone is familiar with the popular image of the Grim Reaper. He's a black-cloaked, faceless, scary guy holding a scythe. The interesting and humorous thing about this image is that the Grim Reaper, who claims to intend to do some "reaping of souls," really should be holding a sickle, a small hand-held tool with a small, curved blade using for reaping. This is a tool that you only need one hand to manage, and is much, much smaller than a scythe. And if he's not going to use a sickle, he needs to attach a cradle to his scythe if he wants to reap!
If the Grim Reaper wants to keep using the scythe that he's toting around, he needs to change his name to the Grim Mower - that's what his selected tool is really for!
I hope you've learned something from this article about an old-school tool that isn't commonly featured in 21st century life. I hope that I might even have inspired you to buy a scythe and try one out for yourself.
"The was never a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground..." (Robert Frost).
For me, learning to mow the old-fashioned way has, at various times, been a great source of exercise and fresh air, opened up a different way to cut grass and weeds in places that are inconvenient for a mower, helped me cut down thick stuff like thistle and woody brush, and been a great outlet for stress and frustration.
There's nothing quite like swinging around a tool that's as long as you are tall, with a three-foot-long curved blade on it; that sort of experience tends to make you feel like you can tackle any problem.