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Scything in Suburbia

Last summer, I chucked out my lawnmower and bought an Austrian scythe with a five foot ash handle, and a huge curved blade like an enormous cut-throat razor.

My lawn is on the small side — about 50 square metres — and I’ve always found mowing it a nuisance. I hate lawnmowers. They’re big and ugly and require lots of room in the shed. Worse, I hate the way their engines disfigure the silence of suburban weekends. I also hated the raggedy inefficiency of my manual one which was hell to push, gave me blisters and skidded on wet grass.

Surely, I thought, someone can come up with a better manual lawnmower. Well, they have. It’s two thousand years old and it’s called a scythe.

When people hear the word “scythe” they sometimes picture a sickle. A scythe is not a sickle. A scythe is very sharp and very big. You need two hands to hold it. It’s what the Grim Reaper carries. Father Time has one slung over his back as he tends the bails on the Lord’s weathervane.

And unlike my plastic B and Q lawnmower, the scythe has a primal simplicity that speaks directly to archetypal images in the unconscious. It is ancient and a little terrifying. It also happens to be fantastic for cutting the grass.

My epiphany came at last year’s Port Eliot Festival where a man called Simon Fairlie was conducting a demonstration of scything. There is a renaissance of interest in this amazing tool. Used well, it is an efficient, low-carbon way of cutting grass and managing weeds. And of course, until the lawnmower was invented in 1827, everything — bowling greens, cricket pitches, the croquet lawns of stately homes — was cut with them.

But the real attraction of the scythe to me is aesthetic. I love the elegance of it, and the way that it turns a tiresome chore into a moving meditation. The scythe is almost silent. You can hear birdsong as you work. The geometry of its set-up embodies centuries of wisdom about the human form, and figuring out how to use it makes you aware of the structure of your own body in a way that I would compare with yoga or tai ch’i. Sounds far-fetched? Have a look at this Wisconsin farmer scything his way through a field of hip high grass. His waist-driven swing is more than a good way to mow the lawn. It’s a living embodiment of the effortless action that the Taoists call wu wei.

My efforts at scything have none of this elegance. I am fully aware that I cut a comical figure as I stride out to cut my patch of grass in rural Tooting, armed with a scythe and whetstones and a peening anvil. (The basic lesson of scything, I think, is that if the thing isn’t set up right and the blade isn’t wince-inducingly sharp, it’s impossible.) And my first efforts at cutting the lawn weren’t impressive. One time, I nearly cut off my thumb while I was trying to hone the blade while chatting to next-door neighbour.

But lately I sense a new efficiency in my technique. I look forward to cutting the grass. I can do it in any weather — a little rain actually helps; and I can do it with the grass at any length. I love the vocabulary of the scythe: the snath, the tang, windrows and haft. The nearly-cliché “to cut a swath through something” regains some of its power when you see what it means.

And in a tiny way, this slow, meditative activity gives you an insight into our culture’s disparagement of manual labour: the push towards automation and convenience which has left us our bodies decaying through underuse, or being pounded into an early senescence on specially designed machines in air-conditioned gyms.