Do scythes really work?
Are these human-powered pairings of wood and steel as efficient as a whirling blade and a 6-horsepower gas-fueled engine?
One dewy summer morning, about six years ago, I was moments from finding out.
In my office-softened hands was a curved hickory handle, called a snath, attached to 30 inches of the meanest, wickedest, most lethal piece of metal I’ve ever seen up close.
I headed to a patch of pasture to see for myself what this minimalist baby would do. Goal No. 2 was to actually cut some knee-high prairie grass. Goal No. 1 was not to become the subject of the newspaper headline: “Man loses legs in antique farm implement mishap.”
I found a spot far removed from small children and slow-moving animals, took a couple of practice swings, stepped up to the plate and let her rip.
Readers may be wondering at this point why a relatively sane man, in his late 50s at the time, would consider a scythe. I had been using an old but functioning walk-behind string trimmer. What possible reason would I have for giving serious attention to a technology that a Bronze Age pastoralist would instantly recognize?
The trimmer produced hay for our farm animals, the number of which I prayed had stabilized. But one afternoon, it fractured a crucial part that caused a catastrophic failure in the mechanism that makes the string whirl like a dervish. Parts for this vintage model had long since gone out of production.
So, I could spend a small fortune on another, or, being the cheap fellow that I am, spend a fraction of that on a scythe. Research convinced me a scythe could do the job.
I ordered one from The Marugg Company, Tracy City, Tenn.
The hammered Austrian blade was shipped, for obvious reasons, unsharpened. It had been peened, but not whetted to the required razor’s edge. I also ordered the whetstone, the whetstone holder that clips to the belt and a peening hammer and anvil. The total bill, as I recall, was about $120, with shipping.
I’ve sharpened enough knives to be confident of my honing skills. I did not fear becoming the subject of the newspaper headline: “Legless man loses fingers sharpening antique farm implement.”
I gave the blade a few licks with the stone and headed out for my tall-grass showdown. Perhaps the vegetation would take one look at the nasty blade and break off, fall over and windrow itself into tidy piles. Unfortunately, my pasture proved more resistant and wasn’t going down without a fight.
My initial efforts were less than satisfactory because of poor technique. The proper movement, I quickly discovered, is vaguely akin to swabbing a kitchen floor with a spaghetti mop (My wife would wonder how I know this.) My other problem was a dull blade.
I scraped the stone across the edge a few more times and swooshed the scythe back and forth until I found a comfortable rhythm, and every 10th swoosh or so, I gave the still-too-dull blade a few licks with the stone.
Then it happened. Swoosh went the scythe . Rip went the grass. I’d discovered the sweet spot! Swoosh. Rip. Swoosh.
The scythe didn’t cut the grass as evenly as the trimmer.
The spot I’d just mowed resembled my head after a friend gave me a free haircut in second grade!
After a half-dozen seasons behind me, I’m getting better at it but not nearly as good as a true scythemaster, who can probably use one of these things to shave in dim light.
Still, I’m satisfied with the results, ragged though they may be. I’ve since learned that the blade must be peened after about two hours of use to maintain its required sharpness. One surprise has been how little effort is involved. The amount of exertion is similar to a brisk walk. And it actually outperforms the gas-powered trimmer in tall, dense grass.
And unlike the trimmer, this is a true multi-fuel machine.
Mine starts right up on whatever I eat for breakfast. The other morning it purred along on one bowl of oatmeal, two pieces of whole wheat toast and a pint of tea.
It’s crowning feature is its immunity from irritating breakdowns. No plugs to foul, no oil filter to unclog, no priceless fuel to add. It only shares one similarity with the string trimmer: Sometimes, the operator is cranky and hard to start.
[guest-author]Gordon D. Fiedler Jr.[/guest-author]