Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association
A Few Thoughts on the Art of Hand Mowing

Publications \ The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener \ Winter 1999-2000 \ Vido Editorial

By Peter Vido
Lower Kintore, New Brunswick

To share with this readership the elements (in somewhat complete, yet very condensed form) of the use of the scythe seems a challenging proposition. It is, without doubt, by far the most multi-dimensional tool I’ve been privileged to use. Considering the cost of the initial purchase, its longevity, and the energy it takes to operate as compared with what it can accomplish, the scythe can be extremely efficient. It enables me to make hay of quality and diversity that I could never buy on this continent. I can mow 1/2 acre of a meadow in three hours using a snath of my own make and design, a 30" blade and a style of movement that allows me to cover a 9' swath at a stroke – without being “worn out” at the end of that period. This is the pragmatic side in a nutshell.

A good friend (whose wisdom and ways I have long respected) just spent an evening here discussing the subject from various angles. He concluded and tried to convince me, however, that I could – or even “must” – emphasize the aspects of hand-mowing most dear to my heart … and so I comply …

The scythe has been the best tool for helping me practice meditation in motion or a form of Tai Chi that fits so beautifully within the context of my present lifestyle as a small farmer. I have not used another tool that enables me to move over extended periods with such a dance-like rhythm. My breathing becomes more complete, moving in and out in harmony with the rest of me – more than during any other activity of farm life. The mind’s share of the task is, well, to be mindful … of the fact that the energy put forth to accomplish the slicing of grass needs not be “lost,” so to speak, with each stroke. I imagine it curling around the tip of the blade in a swirl that follows the return movement and is there to repeat the crescent shape again and again.

Notice that a very slight up or down positioning of your hands will alter the angle at which the steel edge meets the grass. This very effectively changes the resistance of your blade as it whispers forth. In that semi-trance-like state, with eyes half closed, this adjustment happens more or less automatically, and the changing contours of the land can be “felt” with the blade. You hug the earth continuously and this is another source-connecting element of mowing with awareness. I am almost always barefoot when I mow (until October rolls around), which charges me with vitality that my body and I long for throughout the few winter months. But soon enough the circle begins anew, the dandelions bloom, and it is time to start making the most tender of hays.

The well-known Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, in his essay “Breathing and Scything” (found in Peace is Every Step, Bantam Books), concludes, “whenever I see anyone cutting grass with a scythe, I know he is practicing awareness.” Don’t be misled by that “he.” The fine art of mowing can be indulged in – and has been all over Europe – by very young and very old people of both sexes. Our 6-year-old girl picked up the technique in two or three short sessions and can do a tidy job.

My own relationship with this tool is a love affair in the usual sense that we describe an affinity towards an inanimate object. I’m far from being a master of its use, but I continue to learn. As I meet others who use the scythe in North America today, my heart aches to see the unrealized potential for both pleasure and efficiency, because the knowledge of this tool is so limited. The generation of today’s aspiring mowers has – almost without exception – scythe units that do not fit them well. The snath designs have much to be desired. The blade adjustment is frequently incorrect, its maintenance generally neglected, and the majority of artificial scythe stones too coarse to create a keen cutting edge. Simply purchasing the so-called Austrian-style scythe does not guarantee a Tai-Chi like experience. Most of its distributors have little know-how with which to provide the customer the harmonized components of a mowing outfit. I’ve tried to rock the boat in this respect for the last few years with relatively little effect. However, recently I am getting some response.

Now I can recommend Fedco Seeds/Organic Growers Supply of Waterville, Maine, as being the most interested in providing a decent service. The owner of Lehman’s (Kidron, OH 44636) follows in willingness to gather information and share it through periodic bulletins. Johnny’s Selected Seeds (Albion ME 04910) shows interest in being informed and is adding the necessary tools to complete the basic scythe outfit, yet will, at this point, keep the selection comparatively limited. I’ll continue rattling the stiff-boarded cage and share the results in future issues.

Another reason why I do and will continue to use the scythe for the rest of my days here on this Earth has almost a civil disobedience aspect to it. I see scything as an act of conscientious objection to the experimental direction our civilization has taken. As we now appear to be in some serious preservation mode, are we willing, also, collectively, to preserve and keep alive at its best an age-old but ever useful skill, or is it enough merely to relegate it as some quaint relic to the “living history” museums, where its real application continues to degenerate as years go by?

Leaps in technological development allowed this civilization to adopt ways of exploitative interaction that themselves led to the need for preservation of diversity today. As we scramble to undo our errors, at least in part, will our religion of Industrial Growth and continuing creation of “more efficient,” non-human-powered tools serve us well on our path? Will it help us to continue to “grow real corn” decades from now? Praying that this will be so will help. Doing something about it gives substance to the intent …

MOF&G Cover Winter 1999-2000