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Introduction

From The Scythe Must Dance by Peter Vido, published in 2001 as an addendum to The Scythe Book by David Tresemer, 1981:

Every version of what we may, at a certain point in learning, refer to as “complete” is, of course, only relative; the path to knowledge is infinite. David Tresemer took the scythe related research, in his own words, “as far as it could go”. At the time I crossed paths with The Scythe Book, it was exciting to learn that someone had indeed written so much about the tool with which I was just then falling in love. Today I am dismayed at how all written material I have managed to find thus far on how to use the scythe is sorely lacking in depth.

Nevertheless, the poetry and old accounts of mowing which Tresemer included in his book, along with the metaphysical undertones of certain passages, eventually played a role, perhaps a significant one, in inspiring me to continue the search.

The tool itself I could readily appreciate on its own merit. Growing up in Slovakia, albeit as a town rather than country boy, I saw the scythe being used very frequently. It must be an energy efficient method of harvesting substantial areas of forage, I reasoned, or the socialist system, all its various flaws notwithstanding, would not so depend on it. Until the era of the Communist regime ended and brought along certain kinds of “freedom”, practically all roadside ditches as well as grassed areas within town limits were trimmed by elderly men with scythes. (Note1)

Coincidentally, that very summer when one of our farm apprentices who came to learn how to work with horses, brought along his copy of The Scythe Book (which I had not seen), my parents from Slovakia were also here on an extended visit. I was teaching the apprentice how to use, among other implements, the sicklebar team mower, while my father, with an old scythe I once bought at an auction sale for a few dollars, went about trimming the areas the horse drawn machine could not reach. By a stroke of luck the scythe consisted of a European pattern Austrian made blade with an elevated tang mounted on a better-than-average light aluminum snath.

My father was not a man of many words, and so The Scythe Book’s philosophy nicely complimented the events taking place. I tried out the scythe and liked it instantly, though did not begin to use it seriously until the next season, when a turbulent storm made such a mess of a couple of acres of buckwheat that any mechanical cutter would have proven useless in harvesting it. With the scythe I could follow the trail of the wind, snaking through the field in whichever direction the stems required. It was empowering, and I cut every bit of it plus several more acres of well-standing grain that fall. Next summer, while still cutting 50 to 60 acres of fields with the horses, I followed through those little places in my father’s footsteps…

By then, however, the blade needed very frequent honing. Having lived as a farmer/homesteader for 15 years, the subject of sharpening in general was not new. I was learning to use axes for tasks other than just splitting firewood and also knew that it made a difference, even to a team of large drafters in good condition, if I pulled the knife out of the sicklebar mower each time I returned to the barn, whether I had mowed an acre or half a dozen that day, fixed all minor damages and sharpened it again.

The cold shaping of an edge, however, was different. Back in 1977 my old farrier instructor’s first lesson was: There are only two transgressions for which a blacksmith can go to Hell. The first is hammering cold steel; the second, not charging enough. Money meant little to my father. He consequently never instilled in me that it was an honourable means of exchange for the expending of one’s energy, so I was already on shaky ground… Going to Hell was not yet on my agenda; I was having too much fun mowing by hand, among other things.

Yet an old Slovak axiom states: “Peening is to the scythe blade what bread is to the mower.” So risking that gate into Hell, I gave peening a try. This is when I learned that I was of less than “ordinary intelligence” (Note 2) and naturally slow with my hands. I could not do it in five minutes (I still can’t), never mind doing it well. That first blade took some abuse.

There must be more to learn, I reckoned, and hopefully, somewhere, more detailed instructions than The Scythe Book contained. Endless hours of letter writing to Europe bore but little fruit. My search eventually took me, several times, to Austria, the cradle of scythesmithing, with side trips to surrounding countries. It helped my learning immensely, though that long sought, detailed “scythe user’s manual” is still but a dream. Perhaps it lies, dust-covered and forgotten, in some computer less library-“The Zen of Scything”–written by a real master of this ancient tool.

What David Tresemer did for all of us was that he fanned the embers of a dying fire. For this I am grateful and herewith add more fuel to the flickering flame. In doing so I hope to increase the probability that this most amazing and multi faceted of the tools I have been privileged to use will gain broader appreciation; not as a tool of necessity in the hands of toiling peasants of the past, but rather as one for the visionaries of a better tomorrow.

10 Jun. 2006