I’ve intended to write a profile on this passionate and hard-working individual for at least two years. The content is clear in my mind, but whenever I’ve tried to put it on paper the project becomes overwhelming, a subject for a small book. The previous attempts are ‘filed’ somewhere among several hundred pages of other scythe-related material, all of it to be refined and posted sometime… Below is an abbreviated version, written anew.
(If we manage to catch up on the pile of website work ahead of us, we’ll expand on it. Regardless, an actual scythe course from Niels is worth more than all the words we could write about him; attend one if you have the opportunity!)
During the last 12 years, while seeking scythe-related knowledge throughout Europe, I’ve met scores of this tool’s enthusiasts, many of them special in their own way. To select one from among them annually and nominate him/her as “Mower of the Year” was to be a group initiative of the Scythe Network. Far from a winner of the popular sprint-like competitions, or a person who manages to sell most scythes, this was to be an award given to special sort of activism in support of the Scythe Renaissance, and/or individual creativity regarding tool design, methods of passing on the skill, or practical mowing technique.
Although the network remained a pipe dream, I have naturally kept a mental registry of individuals deserving special acknowledgement.
Several of them I’d have cast my vote for over the years, because I highly valued their contribution to the whole. (Adolf Staufer, Christiane Lechner, Ernst Schoissewohl, Simon Fairlie and Henrik Jorgensen are among them.)
Now reviewing all the past seasons, Niels Johanssen stands out in my mind as a person deserving that title — not for a year, but a whole decade! I believe that those who know him personally (not merely as a beer-drinking buddy but a comrade in scythe matters) would unanimously agree. They know what he has accomplished and have seen him at work — work that is far more uncommon than merely mowing a meadow. For instance, how many have witnessed a man with the scythe turning the scene in the photo on the left into the one on the right?
(Niels calls it “tidying up” a small marina.)
He is a professional “creek worker” — a trade description little known to those outside of Denmark (or perhaps other flat countries where surface water management is an important issue). It may seem like maintaining creeks would be some lowly labourer’s kind of a job, but that certainly isn’t the case. At its best, it becomes both science and art, requiring a keen sense of observation as well as dexterity and stamina. Niels epitomizes all of that; in addition, he has gone ‘the extra mile’, or two… In the opinion of many, he is a creekman extraordinaire — with an attitude towards a “job” that is nothing short of exemplary.
To paraphrase him:
“My work demands that I ask how to achieve best results possible in the easiest way and how to transform hard work into fun. Continually spicing the job with simple improvisations is what makes it so mentally stimulating and morally rewarding.”
Well, those are his terms, and I agree that he adds a lot of spice. But I don’t buy the ‘simple'; wizard-like is a more fitting way to put it.
Particularly since the day we spent together wading in water with scythes in hand (doing what he does on most days), I’ve wondered how many of those reaping the benefits of Niels’ multi-layered accomplishments actually grasp the whole extent of what he is doing. Perhaps it is an irrelevant question; he is not one to seek fame or a big ‘thank you’.
Besides, the most numerous beneficiaries of his efforts are the creatures not speaking in human tongues — the ones living within the creeks which he, and others in his profession, maintain.
Yes, the insects, the birds and the fish continue to benefit in a lasting way — because Niels is ‘taking the Danish creek-workers to water’ (in this case the metaphor is literal) in hopes of helping them implement a more life-friendly way to earn their daily bread. (Please read the additional note at the end of this document)
Niels is probably admonishing me (again!) for cutting too much of the underwater vegetation because “in this little spot the fish like to hide from birds of prey, and the sun during the heat of the day”…
The next group to benefit by Niels’ efforts are the new ‘non-professional’ mowers purchasing their first scythe. They have been fortunate to have their countryman’s goal be: “To become the best scythe seller in Denmark”.
By ‘best’ he does not mean “the one who sells the most scythes”, but rather one who makes the best version of the tool available within Denmark. Although, in my view (yes, I am hard to please) there are further refinements possible with the actual meadow version of the scythe, his offerings are a huge improvement over what could be purchased in Denmark before he entered the scene.
Co-operating with OREBO, a small woodworking company still making a modernized version of the traditional Danish snath, Niels inspired the production of a refined model. Outfitted with a Härmän blade (made in Finland) this became the creekworker’s improved tool — fit for the 21st century conservation work.
Along with the tools and accessories he provides first class practical instruction. Apart from countless informal demonstrations, so far he has taught approximately 100 scythe courses. Those attending his presentations, be it an actual course or a short demo, are treated to an uncommon scythe-wielding performance, and they are likely to get infected by a ‘bug’.
I am talking of two separate ‘treats’, of which one (related to technical skill and the subtleties thereof) may easily be missed by the uninitiated. The other one — a kind of emotional infection — is readily absorbed by even complete novices.
While thousands of men have no doubt been equally ‘scythe-enamoured’, I have only met one other instructor per se that so ‘glows’ with passion and excitement as he picks up the tool and looks at you. (The other is Mirek Janik, the founder of Kosenka — an organization in Moravia, also dedicated to the preservation of biodiversity of mountain meadows.The members put on an annual 2 week long mowing party, which for the lovers of nature, scythes and comradeship is an unforgettable experience. (A brief profile and a few shots of the party I attended in 2005 are here)
The more obscure ‘treat’ is of immanently practical nature. I say obscure because not everyone may be ready to appreciate it, especially at first, simply because most of us are not so naturally creative when it comes to tool use. Contrary to the approach of other scythe instructors, myself included, Niels is fundamentally against the traditional method of teaching first the ‘proper’ stance and execution of the basic stroke. Instead, his advice is: “just take it into hands and play with it!” Then he demonstrates the game….which for him it obviously has been, more than for anyone else I know. Those watching his movements (be it live or in the videos) will notice that he breaks nearly every rule of how to stand, hold the snath or move the blade. As already mentioned, the creekman’s duty continuously challenges rigid rules, a fact that Niels accepts as a “warrior in training”.
Consequently, when it comes to a diversity of trimming techniques, he may well be the champion of Europe, if not the world… (I do realize that is a strong and presumptuous statement. I make it in hopes that someone will actually prove it wrong. Then Niels, I, and perhaps many others could make a journey to that master’s home, and beg to learn still more useful scythe maneuvers.)
A side note:
In response to our praising his creativity in the realm of mowing techniques (in the first posting of this profile) Niels wrote back and summed up his ‘recipe’ in that characteristically credit-sharing manner:
“Most innovation is all about paying attention to good ideas of others — like noting some exceptional performance, and perceiving “aha, this could be useful in my world. One of my biggest inspirations in how to handle a scythe was the Kung-Fu dance Fairlight performed in the “Living Lightly” documentary. She turned the scythe into a (simulated) weapon of self defence; I adopted that model and turned it into a real weapon in defence of flowers, insects and birds — and a toy in my hands.
So as I see it, my scythe techniques are nothing principally new – I’ve just been awake enough to make use of beautiful art while earning my daily bread. For this, I do owe her and your whole family a lots of bread!”
Niels in Canada with one of his “inspirations”.
Niels regularly makes use of three ‘trimming’ techniques (and variants of each of them) which most experienced scythe users do not seem to be familiar with at all, never mind applying them in such a creative way.
(To describe those techniques comprehensively may be beyond this document’s scope. We shall endeavour to do so in the technical section of this website. On the other hand, watching his YouTube videos (several times over) is ‘worth a thousand words’. Pay close attention to how he continuously alters his grip positions, the direction in which the blade actually cuts, and the various degrees of force behind it. This is creative mowing at its best! However, while judging the appearanceof his work, keep in mind what we briefly explained in mind that ecological maintenance of a natural habitat is very unlike the obsessive cosmetics of lawns, roadsides etc.
Now, something about Niels outside-of-the-creek:
He can, of course, mow a lawn or a meadow equally well and is usually one of the four mowers representing Denmark at international events.
Canada 2006 Denmark 2008
His love of children is more apparent than most men manage to show.
Combining that trait with his concern for nature he invented an ecology-oriented game called “Dropin’ Hood” (now patented).
As time allows, he teaches tree-climbing workshops — mostly to children. But at least once he climbed far enough himself to establish connections in high places and ended up mowing a slope on the estate of the Danish Prime Minister (which, due to its steepness, the contractors at the time had left standing). Subsequently, he received a contract to do the same for three following seasons. Thus, thanks to Niels and his mowing partner, the government of Denmark could then claim that, with respect to at least a small portion of landscape care they “walk their environmental talk”. (Interestingly, after the 2010 Climate Conference with all its hype of environmental concern was over with, someone else was given that job. Now that hillsides taken care of by a remote controlled engine-powered mower….but the memories of “how things could be” remain.)
Niels’ comment to the above photo was: “The other guy in the photo is my very very good friend Ole Hundested — an excellent mower without whose great example and encouragement, lots of my initial attempts at applying the scythe in my profession may have ended in a failure… ”
Well, having met Ole — an unassuming man of few words but much action — we know what he means.
Niels and son Julian watching the bow drill-started fire (see more)
To round off this profile an additional note is called for, with a focus on someone else:
Often when Niels is praised for all the scythe-related accomplishments, he is quick to point out that if it weren’t for Henrik Jorgensen (the founder of the first Danish scythe association) none of this may have happened… It was Henrik who invited Niels (at that time a beginner creek-worker struggling with a poor version of the scythe) to a course on mowing that made — at least in Niels’ field of perception — the first cracks into the ‘unlimited possibilities’ of what can be done with this ancient tool.
Henrik can rightly be referred to as the ‘father’ of the Scythe Renaissance in Denmark. A biologist by profession, he took it upon himself to attempt a reversal of the biodiversity-disappearing trend within the remaining 500 hectares or so of ‘un-commercialized’ Danish meadows. He has been remarkably successful, and a decade later there are now 30 scythe associations helping with that project as well as igniting more ‘scythe fires’ throughout the country. That is more than in any other nation! In this respect the Danes presently are the world leaders, beating countries like Austria or Switzerland manyfold. In view of humanity’s future, that is an achievement more to be admired than winning the World Hockey Cup.
Yet more credit is due to Henrik for pulling multiple strings to make his, Niels’ and Kjell Gustavson’s (the Swedish scythe guru) attendance at our farm-hosted scythe symposium in 2006 possible. Then a year later he found a way to sponsor my drive from Austria to Denmark to teach wildwood snath-making at the Danish School of Forestry, to 20 of some of the best students with whom I ever had the pleasure to share with. And, in 2008 he arranged for funds to enable Ashley, Kai, Faye and myself take part as course instructors, during in their yearly festival (documented here). Ah, those generous Danes…
So, may the Viking gods bless Henrik and all his mowing comrades (whose restorative activities we had once profiled here)!!
In the shots below Henrik and Niels demonstrate the proverbial Danish ingenuity!
Additional notes on ‘Johansson style’ creek care:
Especially during the blossoming, insect breeding and bird nesting season Niels is continually juggling the mandate of his job (which is unobstructed flow of water) and the ‘leaver’ attitude when it comes to interaction with nature.
As a meaningful aside: “Leaver” is a term coined by Daniel Quinn; please look it up somewhere on Google. Or, for a lengthy but wholesome explanation read a presentation from the 2011 International Conference on Sustainability, Transition & Culture Change.
To do so, a conscientious creek worker must be familiar with the flora and fauna of the area and understand which plants (and when) provide niches for what species of insects that in turn feed other insects (like dragonflies) or birds. In practice he must pay close attention to little signs (for instance a tiny bee hovering a few centimetres from his blade or a bird taking wing from a tangle somewhere ahead of him) all of which give him clues that their nests might be there and the spot left undisturbed.
He knows the relative aggressiveness of each plant and makes quick decisions on the spot which of them should be cut back how much, and which should be left alone in order to increase their chance of survival or further spreading.
For these reasons his landscaping art may at times bring to mind a surrealistic painting… and it is only towards the end of the growing season that he trims the banks so that they look “neat” from the human perspective.
What I portrayed above are the ‘mental’ demands of his work. The other side of the coin is dexterity and (not infrequently) brute physical effort.
Much of Niels’ work involves wading in water, often knee-deep but at times up to his waist. Besides cutting, he must also drag out of the water tons of tall heavy reeds; sometimes immediately — with his blade — but always at the end of the day.
A comment to his videos:
As you watch him trimming the sides of the bank and the creek bed and see the vegetation swimming downstream, you might imagine that it continues to flow serenely on ‘out to the sea’. From creek-workers’ perspective that would be a treat, since there is actually more of it than meets the eye. (The grass cut underwater is not visible to the camera.)
What Niels and comrades must do is set up a net across a stream each morning prior to cutting. The net catches the ‘spoils’ of the daily work, and before going home to a beer and a rest they must pull all the soaked mass out with a drag-fork. That is physically the most demanding aspect of this profession.
Hence his reference to “sweat” (below) and one of the reasons why a majority of the creeks are no longer maintained by hand.
Although there are several hundred other scythe-wielding creek-workers in Denmark, according to Niels and some of his friends, he has likely cut more reeds (Phragmites) than any of them.
From one of his letters:
“This tall and very aggressive plant has invaded 1000’s of kilometers of creeks, with side effect of much reduced diversity. When most creek-workers with hand tools encounter this sort of a stand, they often capitulate before even trying. Consequently, lots of creeks are “cleaned” (read: unselectively dug out) by machines, which further destroys the habitat of whatever species managed to still hang in there for dear life, hidden in the over-story of the dominant reeds. The excuse is…”There is no biodiversity in there anyway…
Well, that is not how I see it; significant improvements are possible when creeks are maintained by hand – and sweat.”
“Below are two images from a part of the same creek. The first was taken in 2008 and the next in 2011. The difference in flora and fauna diversity is not as apparent in the photos, but in real life it is astounding.”
While his activism may not anytime soon cause a large scale abandonment of the life-destroying machines, he is paving the way. There is no doubt that with the more efficient scythe now available and increased skill at swinging it, others are joining the ecological league of the combined workforce and slowly tipping the scale…
Do you now see why he deserves a medal?