Old scythe

ESSAY

Back to the basics.

Words by & illustration by Antoni Hidalgo


Snow had sketched the outline of a house, a barn, a few sloping shacks, the elfin roof of a root cellar, and a stand of giant maples against the backdrop of pine forest and flat gray sky. We knew this was the place for us: a nineteenth-century Lithuanian homestead in a forgotten village, about twenty kilometers from Simona’s hometown of Anyksciai. The outbuildings suffered in disrepair, but the house, for all its faults, was livable. Our water would come from the well. We’d warm ourselves by the bread oven, and spend the long nights writing by lamplight.

 

In January, we rummaged through the junk and treasures the previous owners had left behind. We drew up plans for renovations. We dreamt of a myriad of writing projects we’d complete in this dream setting. But we were too cold, too used to plumbing and hot showers, too unprepared to move so far out of town and back in time.  When the sub-zero days of February set in, I started coming alone. I used a sled I found in the woodshed to haul horse shoes, scales, crates of rusty nails, broken yokes, metal spikes, shovel heads, washboards, chests, spinning wheels, benches, tables, spools of barbed wire, pitchforks, barrels, schoolbooks, violin cases, forgotten photographs, and seven antique bed frames from one building to another. Sled tracks marked the shortest path from barn to house, house to cellar, cellar to woodshed, woodshed to sauna. In the stable, erected 1851, I unloaded a feeding trough, sheets of metal, most of a gas oven, bent pipes, tangled wire, bicycle parts, broken plows, and odd pieces of farming equipment. Walking back into the barn to contend with wet school books from the 1960s, inked with math problems and bookmarked with Soviet propaganda, I tripped over a curved piece of metal attached to a stick that lay hidden in the straw. It was light and flimsy, not at all what I imagined a scythe to be. I considered tossing it onto the scrap pile, but brought it to the woodshed instead, where I had gathered other tools that might make good museum artifacts: see, this is what they used for raking hay in the olden days, and this is how they cut the grass.

Months wore on, and my writing journal filled with things to attend to as spring approached. The snow melted, and that vague thought of cutting grass grew pressing. Green strands sprouted from the sun starved moss. In the first days of warmth and light, the strands thickened into a shaggy meadow, swallowing all in its wake.

 

*

 

Everyone I told about my grass problem recommended buying a yard tractor. I’m not one to drool over gas powered toys, but when prescribed as a necessity for the life I was embarking on, I felt I was reaching a new stage of adulthood. I imagined myself high up on the seat, the grass below succumbing to the whirring blade, row by tidy row, until I was left with a vast flat lawn. Easy. Satisfying. Necessary.

 

But I couldn’t just go out and buy a yard tractor. I had to educate myself. One of the first things I discovered was that a yard tractor averages ninety-six decibels, which is only four decibels quieter than a Boeing 737 taking off at 300 meters’ distance. Birds sing in the morning.

I can almost hear the clouds forming at noon. A machine that loud would be death to peace and tranquility. Second, the oil needed changing after every cutting. I already had a load of oils in leaky containers, which the previous inhabitants had stashed in the outbuildings. If you’re constantly reminded of anything living close to nature, nearly off the grid, it’s that use makes waste, and there is nowhere to hide it. Dump oil in the woods and it will end up in your drinking water. All those poisonous liquids had to be stored safely away until enough amassed to justify the eighty-minute roundtrip to the waste disposal center. Finally, the price-tag was discouraging for a machine mainly designed to cut grass. At two thousand dollars, this was like buying a used car – one with a cracked drain pan and no muffler.

 

Push mowers are much cheaper, but they’re just as loud. They, too, need a regular oil change. Besides, what I have is not a two-acre lawn, but grass pocked with tree stumps, stones, roots and mole hills. A push mower is just not practical in this terrain – especially an old fashioned rotary push mower.

 

I learned this the hard way. I thought I had found the answer to my grass problem in a 200-euro state-of-the-art rotary mower. It’s grandma’s mower with the latest tweaks, and it sings like a hummingbird’s wings as it glides over a green expanse. The salesman thought I was crazy. He said with two acres, I needed a lawn tractor. He showed me a model that featured a beer holder, right between the legs. Ain’t that the dream?

 

But I stuck to my conviction. About forty minutes into my first foray, so pleased with myself for finding so cheap and reliable a solution, so pleased that technology had brought us to a sound, sustainable method of lawn maintenance, I hit a rock the size of a thumb tip. It jammed between the blade and the plate. I spun the blade back a bit and the rock dislodged, but now the blade was misaligned. Effective cutting rested on the precision of the blade’s adjustment to the plate. Too close to the plate on either end, the blade scraped. Too far from the plate, the blade tickled the grass. It needed perfect symmetry on four points – left and right blade, left and right plate. After 2 hours of slightly tightening and loosening the adjusting bolts, I had the cutting mechanism nearly back to its default setting. Only now, the sound of wings slicing air was accompanied by a rhythmic dinging, as though the humming bird now wore a brass bell on its neck. But I pushed, the grass fell, and so I was satisfied.

 

Soon I was adjusting the blade and plate again. I had hit another stone. This would go on for days. I was determined to at least finish the yard around the main house. I was sure I would become more adept at adjusting the blade. I was wrong. By the time I completed this meager goal, the place where I started was ready for another shave. In total, I finished less than a quarter of an acre in two weeks of daily morning effort, most of that time devoted to blade adjustment.

 

I wheeled the mower into the woodshed. Leaning against the wall in the tool crate was the collection of old scythes I had found wasting away in the barn. I grabbed the scythe that appeared to be in the best condition. I carried it out to the thigh-high meadow, got into a stance, and took a swing at the grass. Then I pulled and twisted until the blade got unstuck from the ground. I swung again with the same result. I changed my position from that of a batter trying for a homerun to a golfer teeing up. The blade swished across the ground, taking up as much grass as I might have with a stick.

 

At Simona’s suggestion, I kept trying. I imagined I was in one of those mobster movie scenes where they unload a scared shitless informant from the trunk of a sedan and beat the piss and blood out of him with a baseball bat. That’s not so much to describe my frustration, but the general motions I was making at the ground with my implement, and the resulting effect on the grass. Maybe the blade needed to be sharpened. Again, Simona suggested that. It was rusty and probably hadn’t been used in a few decades. But how do you go about sharpening a blade? A wet stone? I’d seen one in a box or a drawer in one of the buildings. It wasn’t like I was going to attempt to sharpen anything, though. I couldn’t even sharpen a kitchen knife. Simona had complained about that, too. There is a Lithuanian folk expression that roughly translates to “when all the knives are dull, there’s no man in the house.” My response was to try harder, put a little more back and shoulder muscle into it, slice with more vigor, and say that if I see a man I’ll ask him for the favor. The blade is dull? Time for a new knife.

 

*

 

On a trip to the hardware store, I did a little poking around and discovered an entire nook devoted to scything. The tool was still alive and well in Lithuania. These scythes were curved steel poles with wooden handles about midway. The blue blades had a substantial weight to them. A pliable plastic strip covered the length of what I supposed was a very sharp edge. I forgot what I had come for and purchased the new scythe for ten euros.

 

Nothing improved. The blade was dull. When they’re new is when scythe blades need their most rigorous sharpening. It was time to consult expert sources. The section on scything in the third edition of Back to Basics is an illustration with a caption that says to cut with a sweeping motion, stand with feet apart, keep the blade sharp, and wear heavy boots. The end. I turned to the internet.

 

In the first video I found on Youtube, an old man stands in a field holding a scythe in one hand and a stone in the other. A woman off screen, probably his grown daughter, prompts the man to “Show how it’s done. Go on, show.”

He sharpens the blade: two swift swipes down the inner edge, one long slide along the outer edge. Repeat.

“Explain what you’re doing.”

The man looks beyond the camera to the director, confused, perhaps wondering what it is that needs explaining. He is sharpening the blade. Is that not plain?

“You’re sharpening the blade,” the woman says. “In preparation for what?”

The old man throws a glance over his shoulder at the field stretching all around him in way of an answer to her question. He doesn’t feel like talking to a camera. Just let him cut grass.

 

The next video is a Bunyan-esque competition between a man with a scythe and a man with a gas-powered weed whacker. It is a close race, but the scythe wins. I watch this one again and again. I share it on Facebook. How fluently the blade slips through the grass! No effort at all for the blade, I realize, but the man wielding the scythe could not go on swinging like that for long. Give those men two acres each instead of a mere strip, and then we’ll see who wins.

 

In the third video, I start to learn something about stance: feet apart, one leg slightly in front of the other, handle at the hip, and a slow and deliberate shuffle forward. I might have learned this from watching the men in the other videos, but I guess I was too absorbed by the familial subtext in one, the competitive drama in the other. This video has a single purpose. You are going to learn how to cut grass with a scythe. And if you think watching grass get cut is exciting, watch it slowed down to half speed. The video starts normally enough, regular speed with the man facing the camera, sharpening his blade with a wet stone. Then he puts the wet stone in a neat little sheath he wears on his belt. Then he sets off down the field: slice, shuffle, slice, shuffle, further and further he goes by small degrees. But then the video clips back to that first swing and plays it at half speed. There is no mistaking he swings with an upper body twist, the blade describing a circle one meter around him, the grass falling and swept up in the same motion, raked into tidy lines on the left by the butt end of the blade. I watch the man shuffle down the field again, very slowly, and then he stops to sharpen his blade again.

 

*

 

I had a small wooden box full of wet stones, but only one had that narrow oval shape of the stones the men used in the videos. At the edge of my meadow, I rubbed the stone down the length of the blade. Whether this was sharpening the scythe or not was beyond my novice perception. I dropped the stone into the old aluminum teapot at my feet. Sadly, my scything kit did not include a stone holster.

 

The first swing buried the blade in the ground, as usual. I swung again, and the blade swished through the grass in an arc. A notable amount fell. An obvious attempt at cutting was in evidence. I shuffled forward and repeated the swing. Same result. Slice, shuffle, slice, shuffle: I inched my way down the field. I went for ten minutes that way, sometimes taking a step back to go over a particularly rough spot. I stopped to sharpen. For the first time, I really noticed the details of the blade. It had splintered bits like jagged teeth. It had dints and bends and curves – kind of like a shred of metal found at the site of a plane crash. I looked back at my work and was reminded of the time I cut my own hair right before getting on the bus for school in fourth grade.

When I got home and my mother saw what I had done, she made an emergency appointment for a real haircut. It was time to get a sharper blade, or give in and buy a yard tractor.

 

*

 

They have yard tractors at the hardware store in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital. It was a big shopping day: paint for the walls, oils for the furniture, a drill, a sander, a level, measuring tape, screws, nails. While Simona sunk into hour two of puzzling out the shades of white and fretting over the differing toxicity levels in the paints, I took a side trip to the garden and yard section to see what I could see. I strolled by the yard tractors and gas powered push mowers, turned a corner of hedge clippers and garden shears, a wall of shovels and a bin of rakes until I stood before a section dedicated to scythes. Who else was buying these? I picked up a blade. I peeled back the plastic strip. Dull and thick as a river stone. I couldn’t imagine any amount of effort with a wet stone putting a sharp edge on a piece of steel that blunt.

 

It was then that I noticed the old man staring at me. He looked like he had seen many days of hard work, slightly bent as though he carried a heavy load, ready to heave it onto a cart and go back for another. He’d been waiting for me to notice him. He had a look of a wizened herald ready to see a young adventurer off on his quest into a belated manhood. The only flaw in his plan, which he could not have foreseen, was that I understood very little Lithuanian and spoke even less than that. Here’s what might have been said:

“I see you are enamored with the way of the scythe, a skill of old much forgotten in these times.”

“Sorry, I do not speak Lithuanian. I understand a little, but I don’t speak much.”

“Oh. Let me tell you the same thing again, but in Russian. I see you are—”

“I don’t speak Russian. Sorry.”

“Do you understand Polish?”

“Polish? No, sorry. I only speak English.”

“Well then, let me continue in Lithuanian, but this time I will speak louder. Not many people these days use the scythe or care to know just how perfect an instrument this tool is. When I was a little boy—”

“Wait, here’s my wife. She’s Lithuanian. Simona, this guy knows about scythes.”

The man explained how to sharpen the blade. Of all the things he could have explained – for there are many points to explain when it comes to scything—he chose the topic on which I sought wisdom. He picked up a little anvil with a spike on one end. He said to spike the anvil into the end of a pole and spike the pole into the ground. Then line up the edge of the blade with the ridge of the anvil and hammer it until the blade thinned to a sharp edge. Then smooth the edge with a wet stone, from butt end to the tip.

“Always watch the blade,” he said. “Do not look away for even a moment. Maybe keep your beautiful wife inside so you are not distracted. One wrong move: fwit!” He fanned out his hand. Gone was half of the middle finger. We had come to the main point of his lecture. We were not just talking about how to sharpen the blade. This was a cautionary tale. It was about the loss of one of his digits.

Simona was already gravitating back to the white paints, so I bid farewell to this ancient man with his tale of foreboding. I did not buy the anvil though. I had thrown a few of these onto the scrap metal pile back in February.

 

______

 

“You know, Victoras has a scythe,” Simona said in the car on the way home. “He and his father use them. He can show you sometime.” Victoras is a good friend from Anyksciai. Simona must have told me all of this before, probably a dozen times, but now was the first time I was really hearing her. Now I had acquired all of the pieces of the puzzle that is the scythe, including the correct way to pronounce it in English and Lithuanian, but I still did not know how to properly use it. Hammer the blade? Line it up?  Smooth it with the wet stone? Any attempt I’d ever made to sharpen a knife with a stone resulted in a duller knife. No way I had this yet.

 

Victoras’ parents live just outside the main part of Anyksciai. Their land spreads out from a house with a lawn and garden to hilly grasslands that dip to a stream. Behind the house is an old stable where they keep a horse and a he-goat. The way Victoras explained it, his parents have the horse to cart in the hay, which they grow to feed the horse. It’s a neat little closed system if you factor out the human labor in all that haymaking. The he-goat is there to keep the horse company.

 

It happened that when we called to ask for a scything demonstration, major grass cutting was going on at the parents’ home. It was a rainy day. We arrived and all the grass along the driveway had already been taken down with a gas-powered weed whacker, and in the back, along the side of the barn, there were a few tidy rows of green blades felled by the scythe. After a brief greeting, Dad went to the shed and got out two scythes. He handed one to Victoras. Dad is a stout man with thick hands. He has all of his fingers. He took the scythe to the grass and it was like watching a magic trick. Here was what I had been trying to do, and just like that he was clearing a straight path. Victoras fell in line beside him and they scythed in unison, quickly clearing a double row. When they stopped, they cleaned their blades with handfuls of wet grass, demonstration complete. Victoras asked if I want to try, and he handed me his scythe. As I got into the stance I had practiced, he explained that the grass should only be cut when it’s wet. I swung, the blade whispered, and down the grass went. I swung again. And again. I couldn’t stop myself.

“He’s a natural,” Victoras said. He didn’t know what I had been through. The butt of the blade raked the grass into a windrow. I cleared a row the length of the barn.

The lesson continued. We gathered around to a post with a scythe anvil pegged to the top, set up in the garden where black and red currants grew. Dad set his blade on the anvil and peened away. The blade was a long smooth curve, and I feared I would ruin it when he told me to try. Here was my chance to apprentice under an expert. The first thing I noticed, though, was the shortness of this scythe’s pole.

“How tiny,” I said. “It’s a baby scythe.”

“It’s made for the size of the user,” Victoras said. “My father is not tall, see? The handle goes up to his waist when he holds the pole straight up from the ground. Yours should be like that for you.” And in my embarrassment, I learned yet one more important secret to the art of scything.

When I went home, I adjusted the handle of my scythe for my height. I spiked the anvil to a post and stuck the post into the ground. I peened the blade and honed the edge with a wet stone.I had nothing left to do but begin.

 

*

 

How do you cut two acres of grass? Get a scythe. Start in the places you need to get to when the grass is at the height you feel you’re wading through it, just before the summer solstice. Cut pathways to the house, from the house to the well, from the well to the garden. Go around the garden, and from there make a path to the sauna, then work back to the north side of the house to clear an area for the St. Jonas Eve celebration. Start on the left edge of the chosen area, finish each row, and stop to sharpen when the grass resists the blade. If the blade is sharp and the grass won’t fall, shift your stance. Is the grass wet? This is morning work, when the bats are flitting home and the birds are waking up, when the wood is draped in a cloak of dew and words have filled pages under a bare lightbulb at the kitchen table. A few more rows for today as the veil lifts. Beneath the grass that falls is a bed of moss, the same you’d find in the wood beyond the fence. Crickets hop out of the way. The grass dries under the rising sun. At the fence, the end of the row, wipe the blade—the same blade that had been buried in the straw in the cluttered barn, forgotten for years. There are still a few dints left in it. Most traces of the jagged teeth are gone, smoothed into a crisp line. Another year goes by, and the grass at my feet looks different from last year. There’s a patch of wild thyme growing. I’ll leave it alone. Perhaps it will spread. I’ll cut the west side late in August, and summer long I’m a part of the morning landscape, witness to the fall of every blade I scissor with my honed instrument.

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