We are proud to welcome accomplished writer, journalist, activist and according to the New Statesman one of Britain’s top 10 trouble makers Paul Kingsnorth as our latest guest blogger as he turns his hand away from trouble making to the ancient and gentle craft of scything.
It’s that time of year. The grass is beginning to grow, and faster than you would imagine it could. Suddenly, it’s getting to the stage where it needs cutting, lest it overwhelm your food crops or smother your flower seeds or simply ruin your well-tended croquet lawn.
What are you going to do about it? Well here is what you are not going to do: you are not going to get your Flymo out. Or your strimmer. You are not going to do it because there is a much better way to mow grass; one which, paradoxically, is also much older. And once you know how to do it, it is also easier, quieter, more enjoyable and better for the grass and the planet.
I’m talking about the scythe. I’ve been using a scythe for six or seven years now, and these days I’m a confessed addict. I’m not the only one. Scything is undergoing something of a renaissance at present, and it seems to be gaining momentum.
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. Keep the blade honed and peened, and know how to use them, and you have probably the most efficient and effective tool for cutting grass ever developed. This is proven entertainingly year after year at the Somerset Scythe Festival where the annual ‘scythe versus strimmer’ contest is always won by the scythe.
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: 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 former, 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 lightweight and easy-to-use.
Having initially, and nervously, bought myself a scythe 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 the 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 deeply strange, 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 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 what they use these tools for.
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’ve 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 usually excited by the fact that it is still possible to use this simple, beautiful and ancient tool in a very efficient, modern setting.
So if you want a sustainable, green, human-scale and self-sufficient way of cutting anything from grass to heather, I’d advise you to forswear petrol and electricity and learn, instead, to sharpen a blade and swing a snath. You’ll never look back.
Paul Kingsnorth is running scything classes for beginners and improvers all summer. For more information, see his website:
Paul can be contacted by e-mail on firstname.lastname@example.org