Country diary: cutting-edge technology from the stone age
It was the first cut of the season, and I was out with my friend and UK scything champion Andi Rickard. We headed for a small triangle of common land known affectionately as Norman’s Folly.
We laid our scythes down and stood among the tufts of grass, dead nettles and celandine. Andi showed me how to attach the blade by sliding down the ring at the top of the handle and fitting the protruding metal knob into a socket. Once the tang was snug against the snath – I was starting to enjoy all the lingo – I copied her as she stroked the whetstone across her blade to hone the cutting edge to razor sharpness. For a pipe smoker, half the pleasure comes from the tapping and cleaning and general palaver; the same for scything, I think.
Curved cutting instruments have been used since the late stone age, and over the centuries and across the world they have evolved into different shapes suited to different purposes. My scythe – the Austrian or European variety – took its current shape around the 12th century. The blade is shaped like a toucan’s bill, and the long wooden handle has the pleasing curve of a well-balanced spine. The flat of the blade is patterned where it has been smartly tapped with a hammer, making the metal taut and resilient.
We set to work. After a couple of false starts – the tip of my scythe stuck in a clump of mud – I find my rhythm. The cutting edge bites into the wet grass with a satisfying crunch, like a granny smith apple. The air is fresh, the birdsong sweet. Unlike scissors or shears, the dominant verb for a scythe is not “to cut” but “to gather”. Each sweep of the blade leaves a pile of cuttings or windrow. As we worked our way around the patch, sweet-smelling piles of hay grew around the base of the trees to form nutritious mulch.
In Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy writes of Levin that as he mowed there were times when “it seemed not his hands that swung the scythe, but the scythe mowing of itself, a body full of life and consciousness of its own”. I began to see exactly what he meant.