Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Scythe

photo from Wikipedia
A hand scythe came up at auction the other day. It was one of those grass scythes with the long curving wood handle. (A brush scythe would have had a shorter, thicker blade). As the auctioneer started the bidding, a man beside me said, "Boy I've swung one of those many a time."

Another man nodded. "My dad had us kids out all summer, sproutin' on the hillsides. Wore me out, I can tell you. Those things are heavier than they look."

I smiled, remembering my early days on this ridge. I had a scythe too, one of those wood-handled beauties that could put some muscles on a girl's arms. I had to learn to swing it right-handed because that's how most of them were made, for a right-handed swing. The swing had to be perfected too--swooping down and through the grass or brush and continuing the arc right up to shoulder height or thereabouts. Stopping the swing short meant losing the power of the speed and the quick cut. It was similar, I suppose to splitting wood with an axe--you swing as if you mean to bury that axe in the ground right up to the handle. The scythe required the same kind of force.

A year or two later I bought an aluminum handled scythe with a short, tough brush blade. It worked so much better for the filth, as it was called--that messy weed/small shrub/vines combination that grows along banks and ditches. I remember one year when I was cutting a ditchline in front of the house, and got into a yellow jacket's nest. I made for the house at top speed, shedding clothes as fast as I could. Those bees got inside my bib overalls and were hard at work as I stripped down. My sons watched me dancing in amazement, sure that I had lost my mind. I'd never gotten into a nest before and I gained a healthy respect for yellow jackets, I can tell you.

Young man sharpening a scythe, by Pekka Halonen 1891. From Wikipedia
As these thoughts passed through my mind at the auction I realized that those two men and I were part of probably the last generation (outside of the Amish) to have a personal connection to the scythe. In the late 1970's weedeaters with brushcutting blades became widely available and affordable, and the scythes were hung up in barns to gather dust. When I tell a story that includes the mention of a scythe, I have to throw in a quick definition for young audiences "You know, that long handled thing with the long blade that the Grim Reaper carries?" They know then what I am referring to; without the definition, they would not have a clue.


I still own a wood-handled scythe and even a replacement handle. I have one for sale, too, in my Marietta booth. I suppose men and maybe women of a certain age see it hanging there and recall the days when they were young and strong, swinging that heavy blade in a perfect arch on hot hillsides when life was simpler and a the swish of the scythe cleanly cutting grass was the only sound in the brilliant blueness of summer.

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.

5 comments:

Erin said...

My grandfather used to collect scythes. I think they reminded him of his youth. I think I would prefer it to the weedeater--a lot less vibration. I always enjoy your writing and visiting your blog. Also, I have been chased by yellow jackets and hope to never repeat the experience

Michelle said...

My husband (45 yrs old) used one when he was growing up to clear out fence rows. He says he and his twin brother used them quite a bit!

annie said...

we have used one of those, but it was early on in our days together. we still use a handheld curved grass knife sometimes, my husband sharpens it at times, but mainly it's weed eaters here too. enjoyed your post, hope I never get in a yellow jackets nest!!!

Nance said...

bees and wasps don't usually sting me unless I sit on them or otherwise threaten them. I do know scythes (could never pronounce the word, said my mother) and weed whips. Do you know weed whips? Straight handle with about a 12 double-sided blade and you 'whacked it right and then whacked it left".

Jeff said...

Thanks for this, Susanna. I've looked online for scythes to buy in recent years, and you can still get them but the good ones ain't cheap! A good one is as much like a dance partner as a tool. It'd be a treasure to find one that's been well used, well cared for, but the few I've seen in recent years had been hung outside as decorations or something. That ruins both the wood and the steel, making it hard to put it to good use again.

I haven't used one for many years but I don't think I ever had a moment of troubled thought while working with a scythe; it demands such close attention to footing, weight placement, rhythm and balance ... and the location of yellow jackets! If you allocate any thought at all to worry while mowing, you just might throw out your back (or worse).

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