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The Tool with the Restorative Edge

A fresh look at the scythe

A tool can grow out of man’s control, first to become his master and finally to become his executioner. Tools can rule men sooner than they expect: the plow makes man the lord of a garden but also the refugee from a dust bowl. Nature’s revenge can produce children less fit for life than their fathers, and born into a world less fit for them. “—Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality

The ax, the plow and the scythe, following on each other’s heels, had two simultaneous effects on Earth’s life systems: they enabled our species to expand at a rate far greater than other mammals, and they caused extensive damage to the ecology of the planet. The time has now come to fundamentally re-examine our tendencies. And although many viable solutions to the present challenges of mankind can be found in the realm of ever-evolving new technology, for certain tasks facing humanity very appropriate tools were developed long ago.

The scythe is one such tool, and today — far more than the ax or plow — it can help us in healing the inflicted wounds.


Hand-made hay, Austria

People have cut grass with the scythe for approximately 2500 years! Many continue simply because they like to work with their hands and/or doing so makes practical sense. In the relatively affluent countries where environmental concerns have received increased attention, the scythe also makes sense as a restorative tool.

It is therefore difficult for us to understand why, for instance, while manicuring the greenery around their homes, so many eco-conscious citizens are content adding carbon dioxide to the already crying skies.

Perhaps they haven’t considered the scythe as an alternative because they never saw an accomplished mower at work. After all, television programs on the scythe in this “land of milk and honey” are even rarer than honest political speeches. And, unfortunately, for at least a generation now, television has been this culture’s number-one information source.

The fact is that if the combined units of energy required to manufacture and then to operate a tool are measured against its potential longevity, dependability and output, the efficiency of a good scythe will be difficult to surpass — even “the day after tomorrow”.

In any case, millions of hectares of lawns and areas of diverse or steep terrain (small homesteads, orchards, parks, nature trails, roadsides) could effectively be cut in a much more sustainable manner.

AN ECOLOGICAL CHALLENGE

In hopes of inspiring serious research in this regard, we would hereby like to challenge all ecology- and health-oriented organizations, as well as individual environmentalists with conscience, to re-examine the present approach to the caretaking of small areas (several hectares or less) of grass, be it for livestock feeding, composting, aesthetic or other purposes.

To respond to the challenge, many comparative trials, studies and follow-up reflections should be undertaken. While we readily admit that motorized grass cutters are mostly, though not under all conditions, faster than the scythe and that to operate them requires no special skill, let us take a look at the complete issue:

  • the obvious side effects—the unpleasant and unhealthy vibrations the operator must accept, the noise to which everyone in the vicinity is subjected and the air pollution spreading afar;
  • the less apparent, and often unpredictable, maintenance and repair costs (nearly always higher than the buyer expects);
  • finally, least considered by the user—”hidden” costs of environmental degradation caused during oil drilling, manufacture of the machine as well as the parts needed to keep it going throughout its relatively short life. After its death comes the problem of disposal. . .

A well-maintained scythe [1] used each season by those now reading these lines will last throughout the rest of their working days — or beyond — requiring interim no replacement parts, and (to quote Wendell Berry) will “run on what you ate for breakfast.”

 

By all means, compare the scythe also with the noiseless solar powered lawnmowers (which only the wealthier of the eco-conscious lawn owners will purchase) and the much more earth-friendly improved reel mowers. Neither will handle the size and variety of plant material, nor the terrain that a good scythe can take care of with relative ease.

To wield a scythe gracefully requires the learning of a skill, an “inconvenience” to be offset by the potential health benefit of the movement. To operate the hand-powered reel mower does exercise the body, yet is not nearly as therapeutic as the dance-like motion of scything, well performed. read more

Lastly, even though it now seems generally accepted that operating a machine (or staring at a computer screen!) may be a respectable profession for a 21st century Homo sapiens, we could give some thought to the question: “What are People For?”[2]

While seeking the answer we may ponder a statement, written more than half a century ago…one even more timeless than the scythe.

” It is a tragedy of the first magnitude that millions have ceased to use their hands as hands. Nature has bestowed upon us this great gift which is our hands. If the craze for machinery methods continues, it is highly likely that a time will come when we shall be so incapacitated and weak that we shall begin to curse ourselves for having forgotten the use of the living machines given to us by God… ”

               —Mahatma Gandhi

We will assist those who already see the usefulness of the scythe in their present endeavours to promote sustainability and local self-reliance (see An Offer of Support) and keep our readers posted on any serious responses the Challenge may generate.

NOTES

1. By this we mean, in part, that the blade must not be sharpened on a grinder — a process that relatively quickly reduces its size — but rather peened (re-shaped with a hammer).

2. The title of a collection of essays by Wendell Berry. This book, along with Jerry Mander’s In the Absence of the Sacred should, we think, be required reading for all high school students….


Feb. 2005