Thursday, June 17, 2010

Just Say Mow.

An atmosphere imperiled by fumes and an ocean poisoned by hemorrhaging oil--what can a self-proclaimed steward of Creation do?

There are options besides the "paralysis of analysis." You could reduce your own petrochemical use and collect spare hair or pantyhose for the cause. You could volunteer with the wildlife rescue teams or support locally-led reclamation programs in affected communities. If you happen to be an ArchDruid, you can guide people towards a more holistic understanding of the situation. Or, if you happen to be the Archbishop of Canterbury, you could bury your head in your mitre and obsess about something completely different.

We don't have hairdressers or pantyhose, and our budget for largesse is pretty much nonexistent, no matter the urgency of the cause. But there's one thing we can do: we can Just Say Mow.

We have a gasoline-powered lawn mower. It works well, though it's noisy to run and our uneven terrain causes the operator some unwelcome excitement with dips, bumps, scraped rocks and ejected debris. If a verdant expanse of precise and coordinated stem length was the central pride and joy of our lives, starting that machine up might be worth it. If we lived in a gated or planned suburban community, perhaps others might compel us to rev up the mower, citing terms of the Community Covenant.

But we don't live in a suburb. We live in Maine, the state where Katherine S. White wrote her great 1962 essay, "For the Recreation & Delight of the Inhabitants," on the bizarre, unnatural notion of "the lawn." Our sloping, rambling dooryard full of violets and clover may not, strictly, BE a lawn, but it is a rapidly-growing expanse that ought to be managed one way or another.

Our first thought was that the cows would take care of it. They do a decent job, though not a neat one, when we set up a temporary electric fence and turn them from their pasture into the yard, but there are some things they won't eat. They DO do a nice job, though, of fertilizing our "lawn," and the free-ranging chickens are good at distributing the fertilizer when they tear it apart in their quest for tasty grubs. When the cows are done, there is a mostly well-cropped expanse dotted with cowpats, lush tufts of unmunched grass, (where the cows peed), and tall, healthy weeds (which, for some reason known only to themselves, the cows occasionally refuse to eat).

So, what to do with the tufts--or with a whole yard--that must be mowed when the cows are engaged in their standard rotational grazing pastures? Time to requisition some equipment from our Luddite arsenal: get out the whetstone, the peening jig, and the scythe!

A scythe--how quaint. It triggers images of old-country peasants sweating in their masters' fields--poor unschooled bumpkins. Surely this tool could not be used today by those seeking improvement and innovation and a better way forward...or could it?

The fact is, a well-made scythe is a marvelous tool: beautifully crafted, exquisitely well-balanced, easy to heft, use, and maintain for decades. It requires no "inputs" other than the moderate strength and comfortable movement of the average human. How many gas-powered devices can make that set of claims?

The best thing about working with a scythe is the way it draws a person into active presence, opening rather than limiting one's ability to engage with nature. There is no engine's roar, whine, and sputter. There are no petrochemical fumes to urge one's movement away. There is just the feel of the smooth wood in your hands, the satisfying "snick" of the blade through damp grass, and the dance-like gentle movement of step-swing, step-swing. It is a simple and pleasant pursuit, particularly when accompanied by a friend with rake in hand, ready to gather and pile up the fresh cuttings for composting back into good, rich soil.

Unlike gas-powered mowers, scythes work best when the grass is wet: at daybreak and before, after, and even during a shower of rain. And so I rise in the morning, when the air is still full of birdsong and the dew is scattered like a hundred thousand jewels along the grass. I pull on my boots and my favorite work gloves, smiling at the now-faint "women's work" logo emblazoned on their backs. I take the scythe from its hook on the wall of the shed and the whetstone with its belt-clip holster. I add just enough water to the metal holster to keep the stone wet. I take a moment to admire the whetstone, another low-tech marvel. It is formed to fit two things precisely: the enfolding grasp of the human hand and the slope and curve of the scythe's long blade.

Once the stone is well-doused, I take it up and give a few ringing strokes along the blade. It's fun to make the blade sing, both of us tuning and warming up for a grand performance, preparing to step out onto the stage. When the blade is sharp, it is time to go. I survey the tall, grassy expanse around me. I swing the blade down and wrap my hands around the honey-coloured wood of the handles. I take my place at the edge, move into position, and begin the dance that is scything: step, reach-and-swing. Step, reach-and-swing. Step, reach and swing.

I hardly notice the reach. It is not an awkward extension but rather a subtle adjustment of eye and hand that has become, with practice, nearly automatic. (I'm still new at this, but I'm getting there.) If my arms begin to tire, I remind myself to use the rest of my body more, to let the scythe balance and skim along as I plant my foot and pivot my waist. The grass and clover fall in soft arcs before me. Looking back, I can see the cleared swath that is proud evidence of a working blade--all of this accomplished with barely a sound.

Around me, the birds have not faltered in their singing. The chirp of crickets goes on. I can hear our rooster proclaiming his place in the scheme of things, and the neighbor's sheep in their distant pasture offering a response. If a yellow admiral flutters by on bright wings, no hazardous, loud-motored machine keeps me from noticing and admiring it. Even the blade of my scythe tells me things about the world: the juiciness of grass stems, the playful sprawl of clover...and if a honeybee should land on a clover blossom near my blade, it is no trouble at all to turn and mow elsewhere until it has gathered its fill.

Even with all these things to admire, the work gets done. There is a slight variance in the newly-mowed expanse--after all, I'm still learning and perfecting my techniques--but, while this yard may not make the cover of "Cosmopolitan Home," it makes us happy and proud. I feel good about my work, at home in my body, in love with this land. I need extract no oil nor pay any corporation to tend this beautiful green place.

Huzzah for the scythe!


God_Guurrlll said...

What a great workout idea. It reminds me of a lovely scene out of Anna Karinnina where the rich land owner joins his peasants in cutting hay with a scythe.

Songbird said...

That's a beautiful piece of writing.

Jinger Howell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mama Pea said...

Huzzah for the woman using the scythe.