The Scythe Dance

Now that the bull had been safely returned, scythe practice could start in earnest. After a delicious porridge – my taste buds are developing a keen sense of taste, and really getting to know a food’s true essence – I gathered my gloves, scythe, attached the whetting stone and pouch to my pant’s waste, and set off to mow the access road to the barn. I was psyched and determined to find the enthusiasm that drew scythe enthusiasts from far and wide to participate in P.’s workshops. There must be a joy that comes from slicing ultra thin blades of grass down to the quick with one fell swoop, and I intend to find it. 

I assumed the scythe position and took a deep breath. Remembering bent knees, thumbs down, lean right then left and follow through with a twist, I led the blade around. I was thrilled! A definite path of sorts of cut grass revealed itself. I went over it again, to see if it was truly possible I had just made this obvious indentation. This time I didn’t notice having picked up any more, so obviously my technique caught some serious grass. I stepped the requisite four inches forward first with right foot then lifting and placing left, and sliced through again. It really seemed to be working. I had to keep reminding myself to follow through, and then to press down with the thumbs. Only a slight variation of degree of the blade position will result in a failed flattening of the grass instead of a cut, and too much pressing down of the thumbs on the handles will force the blade to dig into the dirt, which happened quite often with my strokes. After several yards of scything, I looked behind me to see how it looked. Golf course quality it surely wasn’t, and I became disheartened by the little tufts of grass that refused to be cut, no matter the angle of the blade or my knee position or swinging motion or attacking them. At several obstinate grass tufts I forgot all about etiquette and protocol and swiped at them with indignant machete strokes, until I started laughing at myself out loud. I paused, conceded the win to the grass, remembered the obstinacy of the bull, and pulled back the scythe to rest and breathe. That’s it, I thought, I’m working too hard at this. I need to just breathe and let the blade do the work. Concentrate on the shifting of the feet, thumbs down, rhythmic movements and hang on loosely. Swoosh. That’s a very satisfying sound. Ok, I thought, I can do this. Visualize it. I thought maybe the blade needed sharpening. Maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s the reason and not that it’s my first twenty minutes of scything ever in my life. I take out the whetting stone, an 8-inch, diamond-shaped piece of metal, and carefully sharpened each side as instructed. Now I was ready to go. 

But not a whole lot happened. In fact, the more convinced I was to get it right, the worse I became. Since when had I become such a perfectionist? I felt a side of me emerge I never knew I had. It was grass against man out there, patience having fled the scene. This is ridiculous! I was having silent conversations with grass! Again I started laughing out loud, at how silly I was behaving, that whether I cut it correctly or not I was absolutely cutting some of it, and that in a week or less, it would all grow back anyway. Well then I thought, why am I taking this so seriously? 

Around that time, P. came around to see how I was doing, and I explained the situation to him, that either my blade isn’t sharp enough or I’m doing it all wrong. He looked closely at the blade, brought down the scythe and sliced through with precision, ease, swoosh and effect. “Hmm. I guess it’s me,” I said. 

“You know what this is like?” I continued. “This is like a dance. You have to find the right moves.” 

“That’s exactly what it is.” He handed me back the scythe and I wondered how long till lunch.

So I danced, not the waltz or the tango, but an archaic form of cave man dance with bent knees and twisting torso. If anything, I must have resembled a child’s wind up toy and the more I thought of looking at myself from a bird’s eye view, the more I kept laughing at myself, and then I forgave myself for not having mastered this in a morning, and maybe never mastering it at all. If I understood it correctly, I am helping them prepare for an upcoming workshop on scything. If I were to attend such a workshop and drove up to this bad hair cut, I would really be wondering about the qualifications that convinced me to sign up. 

But I had made progress, despite stiffness and soreness, unconditioned muscles, mismanaged rhythm, unsynchronized moves, tense hold, and holding my breath. There was evidence of an effort. There was evidence of a good struggle, and for that I felt redeemed. Soon M. came out to find me. I had an image of the both of them in their warm, dry kitchen, applying postage to boxes of scythes that will be picked up by UPS later today and sent to optimistic and ambitious farmers who are entertaining the romantic movement of returning to the earth without machinery, and discussing my potential in this endeavor. Maybe they were both in agreement that I should try something else in this organic permaculture living.

“So how are you doing?” M. asked in that ever so pleasant voice.

“Well, I’m fine, but the grass doesn’t look very good, does it? Is it the blade?” I couldn’t let it go.

“Let’s have a look then, shall we?” And without any sharpening or inspection of the blade, she swooshed through with such precision and ease and beauty, I almost bowed in deference. 

“I just can’t get it like that. Are you sure you want me to do this?”

“It just takes some getting used to. You’re doing fine!”

And off she went. 

I had been scything for three hours now, and my body, arms, and legs were so tense, they could no longer produce anything of value, my swings became erratic, and and yet I plodded on. Soon I have a wide range of area covered with strewn grass clippings. I had come at the grass at all sorts of different angles. Finally, towards 1 pm, Phillip came out.

“Are you alright?” He must have seen seen my furrowed brow, heard me laughing, or muttering under my breath, and witnessed machete actions. 

 “I think I need a rake. I have no idea whether the grass is cut, or just lying flat.”

He assured me that it just takes time; anyway, it was time for lunch. 

I was so relieved it was over. 

After lunch I rolled a wheelbarrow, a pitch fork, and a rake to an upper field where P.  had held a scythe workshop several weeks ago and the mounds of cut grass in piles needed to be composted. I felt much better suited for this job, and cleared half the mounds, one mound at a time in the wheelbarrow, back down to a large compost heap. 

Dinner that night was white rice, stewed vegetables and very thinly shaved bits of bacon. P does all the cooking, and I’m thinking maybe he needs to keep his diet very plain, for one reason or another. In any case, I’m finding my taste buds adapting, out of necessity probably, but still acquiescing nevertheless.

Phillip left for a scythe festival in Somerset, England the following day; I finished more scything around the yurt area, and when the rain started, it didn’t let up for another full day, so the following day I was under the shed once again sawing and cutting wood for their wood stove (the one that heats the house, not the stove top, which is electric). A few things I’ve noticed since P has left: a bowl of raisins was placed on the table for the breakfast porridge; a large pot was left on the table for self serve; and M made a delicious chili/cumin/red paper stewed vegetable topping for the rice. 

On Saturday, we trekked to town to catch the bus to Newcastle Emile, where a yearly food festival was underway. Oh the delights! It was like a farmer’s market, each local offering their own product: cheeses, chocolates, honey, fudge, savory pies both meat and vegetarian, pasties with sausages, hams, cheese, mead, beer, candies, roast pig, pizza, hamburgers, goat burgers, lamb burgers, a coffee wagon, ice cream, and oh my gosh – jam combinations I would have loved to bring home: blackberry jam with whiskey, a different fruit with rum… it was all tantalizing, especially after the week of grains and dairy. I chose to eat a ground cashew and mushroom pasty and a roast pig sandwich. The family each tried a burger variety and together in silent sensual delight wolfed down the once-a-year delights with a vengeance. I was reminded of a yearly pilgrimage to a fair, carnival, or trading post where exotic and faraway peoples and tastes got together for spice exchanges and betrothals.

Then it was time for dessert. I bought a little pack of honey pecan fudge that may not make it back to the states for anyone to confirm its savor and a mixed variety pack for E. and F, and a hunk of thistle cheese for M. There were so many samples out of every kind of sweet, we simply feasted on the samples, and with a satisfied, full-bellied, lazy cat syndrome, walked through town to the castle ruins, where as the story goes, the last dragon was slew. 

The more we talk, the more familiar we are becoming, and we laughed and discussed everything on the walk home – from education, to living, to farming, to Brexit, to families; how P and M met, their story which lead them here, to taking care of this land.

Back on the farm, we retreat to our places; there’s tomorrow’s pitchforking hay, more wood to chop and goats to milk, and scything the shortcut through the woods, which is really a perfect place to practice because there are no necessary aesthetics involved. After the intoxicating mingling of sweet and salty aromas and grilled fatty meats, after the measurable amount of people mingling and laughing and sharing quite normal, modern lives and stories, returning to the quiet wild was quite soothing, and I was surprised at how I welcomed the stillness, and it me. 


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