The Tao of grass cutting

I’ve been contemplating the most sustainable way to keep both my lawn and my longer grass under control. I’ve seen a new push mower advertised that claims that its ergonomic design makes it 60% easier to push than other mowers. But although it uses muscle power rather than petrol, it’s still a fairly complex piece of kit with parts that no doubt come from all over the globe and have a relatively high ecological footprint.

And there is an alternative. Hanging in the shed is an old fashioned English scythe. It’s rather a beautiful thing with a substantial steel blade attached to a long and gently curved wooden handle, referred to as the snath. I bought it several decades ago in Saffron Walden market, taking great care as I threaded my way back to the car park through the throng of busy shoppers! A kindly technician at Otley College set it up for me – the two handles can be positioned along the snath to suit the height of the user – but I never took time to learn to use it properly.

So last week I consulted local expert, Simon Lamb, who, like many modern-day scythe enthusiasts, uses an Austrian scythe. Sadly, the English scythe is less popular now because the Austrian blades are hand-forged and carefully shaped to increase their efficiency. They are also lighter, which means that the snath can be lighter. The Austrian factory that supplied the blade of my newly-purchased scythe has been operating for over 500 years.

Simon came and viewed my unkempt lawn and overgrown wildflower patch and showed me how a well-sharpened scythe wielded by an experienced hand can cut quickly and efficiently through grass and weeds. He made it look very easy, but then it was my turn. Surprisingly, I found it rather meditative. The gentle swinging action is not unlike a tai chi exercise and I felt disinclined to stop. The experience of guiding the blade through grass, adjusting to the vegetation as it changes across the site, builds a relationship with the garden that you don’t get from dominating it with a heavy petrol-driven piece of machinery. And there is great pleasure in developing the knowledge and skill needed to do a job well, especially when the alternative pollutes the atmosphere with noise and fumes.

Simon Fairlie, who imports and sells Austrian scythes, expresses it beautifully on his website when he says: “There is a magic in mowing which puts the rhythm of the body and the dynamics of a community in touch with the breathing of the earth”.

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