Why every permaculturist should own a Scythe

Categories: Permaculture

What does a scythe mean to you? A quaint antiquity? A barn decoration? The tool of the Grim Reaper? In fact, argues Paul Kingsnorth, no self-respecting permaculturist should be without this most useful and practical of tools.

One for all, and all for scythes...

How often do you find yourself using a tool which, in one form or another, dates back at least a millennia, and yet which outperforms its modern equivalents in pretty much every way that matters? How often do you find yourself using a tool whose basic principle can be traced back almost to the dawn of agriculture, and yet which, with a lot of smart but fairly minimal modernisation along the way, is still in use globally because it still works? And what are the chances of this tool also being physically beautiful object, and a delight to use?

I've been using a scythe for six or seven years now, and every year that has passed has seen my mild but pleasing addiction to it growing. Quietly, but in growing numbers, there are a lot of people like me now around Britain. We are like people who have discovered a new band and want to tell the world about it, but at the same time want to keep it to ourselves for fear it will be ruined. Still, I think it's worth taking the risk, because I think more people need to hear about what a wonderful thing the modern scythe is.

Scything: the rebirth

Scything is undergoing something of a renaissance at present. Scythes were used in Britain from Anglo-Saxon times right up until the 1940s, initially to mow grass for haymaking and later also to mow cereal crops. They were operated by large mowing teams in the summer months and they were, and are, a terrific example of what used to be called 'appropriate technology.' The wooden handles, known as snaths, can be made anywhere there are trees by any competent woodworker, and the blades can be made by any blacksmith. They're a genuinely pre- and post-modern tool, and will doubtless be around long after the Flymo has faded into legend.

If you keep the blade honed and peened, and know how to use one, the scythe is perhaps the most efficient and effective tool for cutting grass ever developed. This is proven entertainingly year after year at the Somerset Scythe Festival at the annual 'scythe versus strimmer' contest. The scythe always wins.

Like many other rural crafts, scything pretty much died out in Britain after the Second World War, though this was not the case in many other European countries. In eastern Europe, mowing grass with scythes is still widely practised, and both skills and tools are passed on from generation to generation. Even Western Europe still has a working scythe culture. Here in Britain, as in so much else, we are both ahead and behind: the industrial revolution and enclosure rendered our fields empty and our slums full long before this happened anywhere else, and one of the consequences has been the widespread death both of small-scale agriculture and of the crafts, skills and ways of seeing associated with it.

The recent rebirth of scything in the UK was kick-started by farmer, land reformer and former Ecologist editor Simon Fairlie, who, a few years back, began importing, selling and teaching the use of scythes manufactured by the 600-year-old Schröckenfux company in Austria. Austrian scythes are terrific, lightweight instruments with a vast array of interchangeable blades, that can be used for anything from mowing your lawn to harvesting wheat to trimming grass around trees on a forty-five degree slope. They are a whole different beast from the old English scythes which you may have seen in the backs of barns or hanging up on the walls of pubs. Old English scythes are much heavier and have bigger, tougher blades. Austrian scythes are lighter and easy-to-use. And once you learn to use one, you will never go back to your lawnmower.

Two Austrian scythes

My life with scythes

My progress through the world of scything is a case in point. Having initially bought one to mow a little bit of grass on my allotment, and having done so very badly for the first couple of years, I eventually plucked up the courage to go down to Simon Fairlie's annual Scythe Festival, which is held every June on the Somerset levels. I had refused to believe for a while that a scythe festival could be anything other than weird, but when I got there I found it was a surprising amount of fun. I also found that I was doing almost everything wrong with my scythe, and I learned very quickly how to put it right. To top it all, I couldn't resist entering the annual scything competition, in which I did spectacularly badly, guaranteeing that I would have to come back next year and try and do better.

Things spiralled from there. Going to the scythe festival is now an annual pilgrimage for me and my family, and I have graduated in the ensuing years from hopeless learner to qualified and experienced teacher. These days I teach groups of people across the North of England and Scotland how to use the scythe, and I have been fascinated to see the numbers of students growing, and to see the diversity of the uses to which they put these tools.

On my courses, I have taught people who want to mow their lawns, smallholders with hay meadows, people who want to clear weeds or brambles, greenkeepers on golf courses, wildlife reserve managers, permaculture smallholders and people with mental health problems for whom learning practical outdoor skills is useful therapy.

What I have seen over the past five years is a great resurgence in interest in these old tools and their use in the modern world. Sometimes people come on my courses expecting to have a bit of fun learning to use an interesting but basically useless heritage tool. By the end of the day they are pretty much always excited by the simple fact that it is still possible to use a simple, beautiful and ancient tool in a very efficient, modern setting. They never look back.

For me, the resurgence of interest in scything is a small sign of hope. Whatever the future looks like, this is just one example of how human-scale technologies can answer problems that many people do not even know exist. 

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