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Of Tender Frogs and Cheap Scythe Blades

— by Peter Vido, January 2000

This is a revised version of an article I wrote for MOFGA (Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association) magazine. Re-reading it ten years later I was struck, most of all, with how naïve my notions were then with regard to what “we” — the pitiful handful of “new generation” scythe users — could do for the industry.

It is not that I’ve given up on the concept; I have just learned much more about how the system operates and so my present notions (expressed in the forthcoming Will Europe’s scythe industry evade the Reaper’s deadly swing?) are, I think, somewhat more realistic.
That I have, for the most part, given up on the all too idealistic idea of the “International Scythe Network” proposed in the article below, must be clear to those (very few) who have kept abreast with my scythe-related activism all along.
In any case, while revising this old and sentiments-full essay, I attempted to clarify the most muddled sections, while keeping the integrity of the original.

 

Jean’s little note in the last (Dec. 1999) issue regarding the “scythe tour” I was to take makes me wonder if she was expecting a report on some pleasant mornings of mowing followed by the noonday’s rest under fragrant hay cocks, while pretty mountain girls hauled cider from the cool cellars up to the meadows… No such paradise-like experiences during Central Europe’s mid-November! Instead I scooted fast, with little rest or sleep, in a borrowed car (compliments of John Caulkins of Colorado, presently resident of Prague) through the Slovak and Czech Republics, Austria, Poland and Hungary, visiting the makers of scythe blades and various accessories.

This “tour”, as well as the previous one in March ’99, provided highlights of learning in general, discoveries and gifts of old production masterpieces that I brought home with me and, of course, meeting some wonderful people. Yet the predominant emotion I returned with both times was of some profound regret at the seemingly inevitable degeneration in the realm of scythe use as well as scythesmithing. They depend on and influence one another, and I perceive that what happens at the point of creation of the scythe, at it’s “birth” so to speak, continues to resonate somehow as the tool is later used. This may not be readily noticed by all mowers. Science may deny it, yet I swear it is so.

Similarly, these insidious changes have been, of course, taking place in many other forms affecting now practically every aspect of our lives. A fitting analogy may be the classic case of putting a frog into a pot of cold water and very gradually boiling it to tenderness. Its amphibian brain, it is said, won’t even recognize what is taking place… Do we? I often wonder.

My personal heat tolerance in this regard is low. As a Luddite at heart, I have long bemoaned the ever-increasing loss of skills that have for millennia defined our real ability to take care of the basic needs — and to do so with as little impact as possible on the continuing existence of other forms of life. Does it matter if we forget how to walk into the woods with only matches (or even without) and manage to prepare ourselves a meal (of, say, roasted frogs legs with wild mushrooms) and a shelter? Well, perhaps it doesn’t, at least for now…

Ever since the iron age milestone of our evolution the craft of blacksmithing has been vital in creating tools, which for their relative simplicity, were extremely efficient and long lasting. I realize that much destruction has been wrought by past ways of some cultures using primitive tools, and that forests were transformed into deserts by axes to provide charcoal for the blacksmith’s forges. It need not have been so, and was not necessarily because of the low-tech tools used, but rather in spite of them. The lack of wisdom was the driving force of the destructive tendencies of mankind then, as it is now.

The production of scythe blades has been one of those special braches of blacksmith craft — nearly on par with sword making regarding the extra skill and long experience it required to master. In fact, the fencing swords were often made in scythe factories because the first step in making a scythe blade by the traditional method very much resembled the making of a sword. Today, the last still-working of Austria’s men trained since youth to draw a small rectangle of steel into a long tapered shape of a blade-to-be, is employed in a scythe factory. For a month or so each year he forges several different versions of bare sword blades (which are then fitted with handles by another enterprise, and exported in small numbers all over the world). His lifelong career at the forge will be over in a couple of years, but the factory has not found a replacement for him yet. The rest of the time he does work below the level of his skill because it is no longer needed. Gone is the long period of history when scythe blades were made in the manner that gave them their well-deserved esteem (on the wave of which, in either nostalgic or advertising ways, they are riding still).

If you read some scythe-related catalogue information such as “[the] blades are carefully hammered….by skilled artisans in an Austrian mountain factory that has been making scythes since 1540”, you may be led to believe that little has changed. You may, perhaps, even imagine men swinging hand hammers in the dim light of a charcoal fire, as did those who birthed the craft centuries ago. I do not intend to belittle the present day smiths; their skill is still awe-inspiring even as they work with the gas forges and fast moving trip hammers now powered by electricity… That advertising sentence above is technically correct. However, along with many other ad clichés so in vogue today, it is subliminally deceptive. It invites us to believe that all is well… that the “pot” is still tolerable to swim in.
Today it may be so — but if the devils stoking the fire under the simmering brew had their way, all scythes would be replaced with machines in another short passage of time.

As it is, the scythesmithing industry has had difficulty keeping its head above water and consequently needed to economize. More than 70% of the production costs are time-related and so the number of those “molecules-to-the-dance-inviting” hammer strokes simply had to be reduced…

I cannot detail here the progressive down-winding of the craft. Suffice it to say that from the hundreds of shops all over Europe, only a handful remain. Most are now manufacturing other items as well, some unrelated to agriculture. The manager of one told me that in the last two years their scythesmithing venture was a net loss. Still, in spite of the rising costs of operating they had not dared to raise the price of the blades. Why? Because within the present global economy, the quality of most products has taken a back seat to low price. That is the bottom line on which the “superstores” built their strategy of devouring the Little Man. Relatively recently, with no previous history of scythesmithing, the Chinese started turning out blades and shipping them to the European market. As you can guess, they sell for portion of the already underpriced brands. A decade earlier the competition from Turkey directly inspired the makers of the best blades to develop an “economy line” (sold at half price). A few years later the cheaper blades became the chain stores-coveted “best sellers” and eventually the quality line of production was dropped altogether.

The trend is clearly leading towards the lower standards of craftsmanship. This will eventually make the scythe a less efficient tool, which in turn may cause it to be abandoned to an even greater proportion. Simultaneously, progressively more people have been coaxed to believe that we are happier if we let machines do more work for us. Alone the sanity of such a notion ought to be questioned. In addition, whether powered by gasoline or the sun, all components of popular machines are made by one large corporation or another. (This readership should not need to be reminded how corporate policies are manifested — but two of the many writers who have eloquently expounded on this topic are Jerry Mander (In the Absence of the Sacred, The Case against Global Economy) and David Korten (When Corporations Rule the World)

The case for saving the little seed companies, species of rare animals, unique spots of wilderness is not unlike the one for preserving the scythe in its best possible form. I think that one day it may prove to be among the “medicines” urgently needed to cure the already apparent, yet undiagnosed “computerosis”.

In the meantime a good scythe fits many roles, and can function for a very long time without any outside aid. It has been the tool of those independent little peasants who still wish to touch the Earth and defy global trends intent on obliterating them — both in each stroke of the blade. In my view, it ought to become one of the instruments of a rebellious vision for a more connected and happier world. To use a scythe in the North America of today is an act of civil disobedience in the true sense of what Thoreau, Gandhi and others like them had in mind. It is the refusal to aid exploitation, get flabby-muscled sitting on a riding lawn-mower, defy the ways of Wal-Mart and oil companies and not, for Heaven’s sake, get boiled to tenderness.

Yet the issue I wish to emphasize is not one of environmental pollution, scarcity of natural resources or even, yes, even the survival of the species itself. It is rather a question of how to live with respect, integrity, passion and the deep sense of the sacred. (That quote from The Teachings of Don Juan still resonates with merit: “For me there is only the traveling on paths that have heart, on any path that may have heart. There I travel, and the only worthwhile challenge is to traverse its full length. And there I travel looking, looking, breathlessly.”)

I hope not to have been altogether discouraging. Let me assure you that the offerings that are presently available are still fit for Tai-Chi-like mowing. The quality of the experience is predominately determined by you. If you learn to sharpen well and fine tune the unit for a custom fit, you will have in your hands a tool that works better than the finest blade with a neglected edge stuck to the end of a shoddy snath. Yes, scythes have all too often been sold with snaths of poor design or a wrong size and without adequate tools to maintain their edges. Also, I have gradually over the last five years, come to the conclusion that the using guidelines presented in the only source we have — David Tresemer’s The Scythe Book — is seriously incomplete, even flawed.

But what concerns me overall (while we can still have pleasure mowing with these “top of the line” blades) ishow long will they remain even this good? If the standards continue to slide toward the lowest common denominator, in another decade or so we may only be left with what the Chinese make today… and with that I’ll be ready to transcend to some other plane of reality where connoisseur quality is still the norm. The natural follow-up to that question is another one: what can now be done to help preserve the crafts of making and using scythes?

I have already written to the management of one of the five manufacturers that I visited (see note below), the one where I know and get along with the personnel best and where the aforementioned smith works. I asked if they could “sacrifice”, so to speak, the present output of that smith, plus an apprentice or two from their crew, and let them make blades again by the methods of say 40 to 50 years ago. Allow them the time needed to create the once so beautiful pieces of art, with mirror-like finishes, delicately thin yet strong enough for real work and a pleasure to use.

Here we’d have a truly living museum, existing not so much to show the tourists in some quaintly interesting way what a scythesmith is capable of — but rather as a serious gene bank of what was an essential skill for so long. A gene not locked up in some sterile nitrogen tank waiting idly, but a fertile one, producing perhaps several hundred blades a year. As yet I have no idea what the cost of this project would be, nor to what extent the company could afford such a “donation to posterity”.

Perhaps “we” could collectively contribute by organizing a fund to help financially with such a preservation project. Every little contribution (even a $1.00 donation) might be viewed as one of the first steps in a thousand mile journey and become a voice speaking on behalf of the craft. Another variant could be the pre-ordering of name-engraved or otherwise custom finished blades. Some of the special editions of the old production that I have seen are, even to the average scythesmith today awe-inspiring.

Any of this would, of course, require organized commitment of many people. What I have in mind is an international education-oriented mowers network, which would also function as a cooperative supplying scythe users with better quality equipment, possibly at no higher price than individuals usually pay for the top of the line products today. As a collective we could reward the makers by offering them say 50% more money for a product which received 25% worth of extra care (and of course cost).

Note:
This is, by the way, that same enterprise forging blades since 1540, presently supplying Marugg, Smith and Hawken, Johnny’s as well as the large wholesaler/importer of tools, the Seymour-Smith Company (where Cumberland General Store, Lehman’s and A.M. Leonard purchase their blades. All these, made to same standards and of the same steel, were within the industry referred to as “Billige Sensen” (literally “cheap blades”” or “economy line”, if you prefer) not so many years ago. The quality line was last made in the “Union” plant in Germany, which ceased production in 1989.