(From The Scythe Must Dance by Peter Vido, published in 2001 as an addendum to The Scythe Book by David Tresemer.)
This is our original chapter on mowing techniques. For another article we wrote after several more years of learning, please see Biomechanics of Hand Mowing.
David Tresemer was correct when he said, “…that for every ‘rule’ or tradition I have for scythe design and technique, somebody someplace else did it a little differently and got the grass cut.”
The commonality of all mowing styles is that the blade moves parallel to the ground and in various degrees of a curve, rather than in a straight line, to assure that the forage is being sliced instead of “chopped”. More comprehensive guidelines to the use of the scythe, which I find efficient, easy on the body and pleasant overall, can be condensed to three “rules”:
1) Do not carry the weight of the blade, especially during what I have referred to as “field mowing”. On an obstacle free terrain, the only reason to lift the blade is to hone it. Children usually grasp this quickly; many adults, on the other hand, seem to like fighting with gravity and initially need frequent reminding to merely slide the blade forward and back in continuous contact with the surface.
2) Attempt to cut equally to the right and left of your body’s centre.
There will be exceptions to the above two rules when trimming obstacle strewn terrain. The following rule, however, should hardly ever be broken.
3) Direct the blade so as to leave all cut grass on the clean stubble of the previous strokes.
To make the practice even more efficient, I would like to add a fourth, not exactly a “rule”, but a suggestion. The distinguishing feature of the mowing style I advocate is that it takes advantage of the velocity created by shifting one’s weight from one foot to the other. It is most pronounced during “field mowing”, yet I still rock sideways (even if only slightly) while performing many short trimming strokes. This is not characteristic of any traditional scything styles I have witnessed thus far, yet will be readily appreciated by readers familiar with the principles of movement (and how a significant portion of force is generated) in practically all Oriental martial arts.
Applying those principles to mowing, it deserves to be emphasized that, to take full advantage of the momentum created by shifting the body, cutting less than an eight-foot wide swath is not desirable. It would tire me more if I were to cut a given extended area by adhering to the more traditional width of swath, which is 5 to 7 feet, depending on the region.
Apart from being unable to use much of the innate strength of the legs, I could not synchronize the motions of my body with the rhythm of deep breathing. It is best to exhale fully (through the mouth) while performing the slicing, and inhale (through the nose) on the return movement. (The short trimming stroke does not afford this, though other rhythms are still worth seeking.)
Using the “weight-shifting technique”, our 8-year-old daughter Ashley can cut a clean eight-foot wide swath through a dense stand. Admittedly, that is an exaggerated width for someone 4′ 3″ tall. The fact is, she enjoys it more than mowing in tangled grass or on a terrain which would restrict this wide movement. The usual width for 11-year-old Fairlight is about 7 feet, and when they mow together I try to have Ashley stick to that also. Often, glancing over my shoulder, I see her gradually stretching it again…
The drawing above is an actual outline of Ashley traced from a photograph (no “stretching” of the dimensions). She is obviously lower to the ground than most of us would find comfortable, but the drawing might explain how someone under 50 pounds in weight can pick up the needed velocity and compensate for lack of strength in the arms.
I do not stand nearly as low or wide relative to my size, though my stance is lower (in the field) than most people seem to have tried. Nine to 9 1/2 feet is my favoured width, and, on a slight slope with the elevation to my right, I can cut a ten-foot swath. For each person there is, no doubt, an optimal width that fully utilizes the potential of the weight-shifting principle and yet does not strain any single body part.
Initially, those who are unaccustomed to movements that require this sideways flexibility and the action of the knees may feel that I am overstating the measurements above. Some individuals have actually told me that their legs will not do that. However, without causing yourself discomfort, I suggest that you trust in the innate potential of your body to loosen up. Often I have seen very empowering advancements made in only one focused session.
One of the “secrets” is simply in learning to keep some bounce in the body, especially the knees. To me, all the drawings in The Scythe Book of the mower in action (including that on the cover) portray him rather stiff-legged. The only exception is the old painting on Page 38, which I would have put on the front page. My field-mowing stance is even wider, with knees more flexed and the toes pointing in the direction of advance. The distance between the feet indicated in Figure 17 is what I find comfortable; it is related to one’s body proportion, leg muscle condition and height.
The drawing below illustrates how Rules 2 and 3 are applied.
As seen, the windrow of grass accumulates within the cut swath for the most part. Only a small portion (varying with how heavy and/or tall the stand is) will “spill over” beyond the line.
If I were cutting through the middle of the field, the standing grass to my left would “catch the spill”, yet should not be pushed over by it. So if, upon finishing one such pass, I turned left and reversed my direction, I could cut a swath that would lay the new windrow against the first one. The stubble under this rather wide “double windrow” should be free of uncut stems.
The forward movement is as follows: As the cut proceeds, the weight gradually shifts to the left foot. With the slicing portion of the stroke completed and the blade to the extreme left, the right foot, relieved of practically all weight, is free to move forward. The foot is not lifted; it merely slides ahead about the same distance that the blade advances into the grass with each slice. As the weight shifts back onto the right foot during the return stroke, the left one slides forward. It is a slow, continuous creeping forth with no up-and-down movement of the whole body and no real pause or distinct “stepping ahead”.
The momentum created by the shifting of weight from the left foot to the right, alone, begins to bring the tool back to the starting position. The shoulders as well as the hands’ hold on the grips can relax. Only while cutting certain tangled plants will a slight lifting of the blade’s heel at the start of the return movement be required, and thus, occasionally, Rule 1 will not be observed.
I consider the technique described above to be the “Basic Form”, and believe that a better mower is “made” sooner by practicing it than by deliberately cutting a narrower swath in an open field. The length of one’s blade, as mentioned here, will affect the swath’s width very little. I can make a 9-foot swath as easily with a 20-inch blade as with a 30-inch one. Once I approach my “personal limit” (determined by the manner of movement as well as the length and design of the snath), the longer blade will allow me to reach several inches further to the left (but not to the right), and so cut a swath 9 1/2 feet wide.
However, the short blade’s limitation is the amount that can be taken off the face of the crescent. This is further influenced by the blade’s specific pattern. (The “wide-bearded” models, for instance, are designed for more “depth”.) The limit of the “average” 22″ to 24″ blade in a wide movement may be 4 to 5 inches. A novice may start, therefore, by taking only a 2 to 3 inch depth, increasing it gradually as no uncut strips are left in the stubble.
I would agree with Tresemer’s statement, “It is no disgrace to be cutting a swath two feet wide” (Page 35 ofThe Scythe Book) if he had continued with something like “where space or grass conditions are limiting factors, and if the mower stands in the centre of that two-foot swath”. However, I strongly disagree with his advice that, “Inexperienced mowers would be wise to take smaller bites by walking a bit to the left, even walking in the cut grass of the previous row.” (Ibid.) Even if it were physically possible, (see Note 1 at end of page) the mower would find himself working predominantly the right side of the body. As such, it is a fundamentally poor approach through which undesirable habits will be acquired.
The stance and technique depicted in Figure 15, Page 33 of The Scythe Book is somewhat better, but would still overexert the right arm and shoulder. It is also a waste of energy to throw the cut grass so far to the left. In doing so, only a portion of the potential accomplishment for any given time period will be realized.
Once you experience, and are comfortable with, the dynamics of the Basic Form, you will be able to adapt it to situations of great diversity. It is difficult to explain on paper how creative the cutting patterns can be, when mowing very irregular areas strewn with rocks and junk and interspersed with trees. You can even trim those tall and uneven mounds of topsoil made by bulldozers and often left to grow up in “weeds”.
As was noted in Chapter 4 (Blade Selection) it is much easier to mow uneven surfaces with shorter blades because they can follow the contours more accurately. The habit of lightly “hugging the ground” most of the time will be appreciated here.
At times, some of the previously stated “rules” will need to be broken. The shape and size of the strokes, as well as how you stand in relation to the cut, may be continually changing. One can follow a few short movements (between narrowly spaced trees, for instance) with a 9-foot stroke as soon as space permits, cramp the pattern and possibly use a short chopping motion, then widen again for a spell. All this can be done in a relaxed manner, provided the blade is sharp and you learn to follow “the path of least resistance”.
That path is rarely marked by signposts but is always there for the attentive mower to follow. Apart from all else I have discussed thus far, the ease of cutting is affected by:
By far the easiest time for a blade to penetrate the stems is just prior to dawn. It has little to do with actual dew, though the dew’s presence is often indicative of the plants’ internal moisture content which changes over the 24-hour cycle. With a gradual rise in air temperature the cells transpire water and shrink. At sunrise I would hone the blade perhaps twice as often as at daybreak. By the time the dew is completely gone, any wise mower would be resting in the shade, his mowing done for the day…
The most challenging to cut, in terms of density, are the extremes:
a) A very dense, frequently mowed lawn or an intensively grazed pasture.
b) Sparse growth with unsupported individual stems.
Regarding maturity, burdock (Arctium sp.) can be noted as an extreme example. Before the flowering stage, regardless of height or stem diameter, it can be cut with the lightest grass blade models. To deal with any sizable stand of burdocks at full maturity, I would trade even a sturdy bush scythe for a sharp ax or a pair of long-handled loppers. The above principle is true, albeit to a lesser extent, with practically every other plant, though most of them can certainly be cut with grass blades if the edge is suitably shaped and the mower’s technique correct.
Moving predominantly in straight lines or all the way around the field may not be desirable in many instances. The scythe is not limited to such an approach, and mowing can often be transformed from hard work to pleasure simply by changing directions.
Here, two factors, considered together, will determine the easiest path: topography and the “lean” of the vegetation (even if not apparent, it is usually there) within a given stand.
My initial material on the topic of the path of least resistance was many pages long. As with anything else I write, it came under the scrutiny of our 18-year-old home-schooled (“self taught” would be more accurate) son Kai. He is my first and most critical editor. Apart from cutting up my lengthy Slavic style sentences, he attempts to take out all the sentimental stuff and many philosophical passages. With his strong tendencies to practicality, if he wrote this book it would be one third the length and titled: “No-Nonsense Guide to Mowing”.
Faye is predominantly a doer, not a talker, though occasionally she pens down, in a few moments, what I may have struggled with for days. After the three of us spent several evenings debating how to condense my extensive notes on the “Easy Path”, she picked up a pencil and wrote the following:
“Creating a path with this tool, awareness becomes the key concept… considering the land, judging the lean, reflecting on the plants, examining the edge, musing over angles, noticing the stubble, contemplating movement, meditating on the breath…”
So there you have it — a concise recipe. Short, accurate and yet so expressive of the fact that what I am attempting to write about is more than grass cutting. It is the peasant’s dance, the morning prayer under the sky…
Axioms such as “If you cannot rest yourself while mowing, you are not doing it correctly” attest to the understanding that the task can be almost effortless. (see Note 2 below)
The practice of T’ai chi Chuan, with its emphasis on the executing of smooth motions while in a reflective state of mind, is a beautiful — even if idealistic — model.
The concept of not “losing” the expended energy but rather guiding it in returning circular patterns, the manner of breathing and the related imagery I consider all very applicable to the art of hand mowing. Can we, one day, learn to guide the blade’s edge through the spaces between the plants’ cells? I think it is worth a try…
Considering this statement carefully, one may see that what Tresemer probably meant was “… even walking in the [stubble] of the previous row”. The grass of that row, once cut, would end up so far to the left (using the technique in Figure 17) that a mower walking in it could not reach into the uncut grass.
It is probably not as common an analogy as some others, because I heard it only from Lambert Schoiswohl, the man to whom Faye’s poem is dedicated. It was his father’s friend, already an old man when Lambert was a boy, who emphasized this “T’ai chi-like” approach to what, back then, was a task of necessity for practically every countryside dweller.
Updated June 2006