Thursday, July 20, 2017

Book review: The Scything Handbook

Reviewed by Peter Vido


I wrote the review below as a response to Peter Redden's review of the same book, published in Rural Delivery -- a small country living-oriented magazine based in Nova Scotia, Canada. The former owner editor of that publication (to whom we sent the piece) merely responded that he is no longer involved with it. Instead of tracking down some 'still responsible' persona to have this be considered, I chose to take a simpler route and post it here. If truth be told, I care little if my words are printed in any 'official' source (since it often gets edited 'all to hell'...)

However, doing this 'partial piece' has inspired me to review The Scything Handbook more comprehensively, along with another recent book in the same field -- Learn to Scythe, by Steve Tomlin of UK. Consequently, I've begun a sort of two reviews under one cover... but during this time of a year here in the Northern hemisphere, writing time is in short supply; it may take a while to get that task done...

Interim, may this be of some use to someone 'out there'...

Peter Vido


Perhaps The Scything Handbook (by Ian Miller, of USA) indeed deserves Peter Redden's evaluation of "mediocre". I myself am unsure how to average out its score, however, because the various sections of its content so differ in their quality and their merit to scythe users-to-be.

The portions meant to be inspirational I have no issue with, even if they take up more than their share of space and closely resemble what anyone doing a bit of research on scythes can find all over the internet, or in the previous two books on the subject in the English language. Same goes for the 20 pages devoted to describing what it took to make a scythe blade during a certain period of history, since the process has gone through many changes since then. Would it not be of more interest to briefly outline how exactly those blades are made now? Then again, the topic might be considered 'trivial' in a rather short book that purports itself to be a comprehensive how-to manual. As for the discussion of the nutritional merits of grains, along with the sourdough-making and bread baking recipes, those have been better covered in numerous other more topic-specific books, and here I view them as a mere filler. But at least they will do no harm...

My concern is primarily with the instructional material directly pertaining to the scythe, because I perceive that a portion of it is likely to have a negative effect on some newcomers' scythe-using experience. What? Such a nicely put together little book and one that comes across in such a holistic manner? And one so beautifully illustrated?

On the topic of artwork, I must salute Sandra Pond (the listed illustrator) on her talent. Still, her drawings could not quite save the day; in spite of them, and many other good bits of advice scattered throughout, I consider the instructional portions of The Scything Handbook, hmm... just shy of shoddy. 

The author obviously tried to do what he thought would be helpful and must have considered himself up-to-snuff. So did the editors and publishers. Unfortunately, their combined efforts do not, in my view, "cut the biscuit". Nevertheless, book-writing projects can take an ungodly amount of time, and this author deserves some credit simply for trying, no? But no worries there; before the book even hit the market he was already showered with praise by the publishers and the rest of the selected promoters who wrote the raving mini-reviews for the book's first page and its back cover. None of them, so far as I can tell, understand much about this tool, and their praise of the author's scythe-related credentials as well as the book's purely instructional content is way overblown. Yes, that will greatly help with the sales of the book, but is it fair, I ask, to its green and innocent prospective readers?

You see, had this very book landed in my lap 25 years ago, I likely would have been enamored with it (as I once was with David Tresemer's equivalent) and swallowed its content 'hook, line, and sinker'. The publisher's oh-so-glamorous promo phrases such as "written by a master of the scythe professionally trained in Austria... drawing deeply on research into original German texts" and "brings centuries-old scything techniques into the 21st century" would have had me, back then, rush like mad to get my hands on such a promising treasure. And I suspect that this is what will take place in many cases with the new or 'semi-experienced' scythe crowd, who are still anxious to learn from a 'master' -- because they have no way of knowing to what extent those phrases are hot air.

But I have spent a significant amount of time over a span of 15 years (with scythe learning as the very focus) within those European circles where Mr. Miller's credentials supposedly come from, hence a few cautionary notes below.

While Peter Redden seems a bit put off by the length/wordiness of the text, my take is that not enough of certain useful details are presented in order to make Mr. Miller's guidelines be as practical and self reliance-oriented as the promos make it out to be. Beyond what I consider omissions, the book also contains numerous blunders. Here is a brief sampling:

One category of blunders concerns those historically or technically inaccurate bits that may have little to do with what a person actually needs to know in order to learn how to cut some grass, but I reckon they have no place in a treatise by a "master". A prime example -- a portion of which was surely borrowed from The Scythe Book by Tresemer (one also flawed in numerous respects) : 

"American and English scythes are stamped (and thus not possible to peen) and were developed to harvest sugar cane and reed and are therefore not suitable for hay and small grain harvesting" 

That statement is simply humbug, and given that this topic has been addressed by numerous voices on the scythe scene for more than a decade (and David Tresemer's uninformed notions thereby presumably corrected) I wonder where Mr. Miller has been... Taking his above statement at face value implies that millions of hectares of grass and grain in the British Isles, North America, and Australia were cut with a version of a scythe "not suitable" for the task. Hmm...

(I'd have thought this would get Peter Redden's goat, because when I met him in 2005, both he and his wife entered the mowing competition in Truro with American scythes -- and back then I could not convince them that there is an easier version of the thing to use... a version in front of their nose -- one that our son won the first place with, and his 15 year old sister put a big man with a professional steel-bladed "brush saw" to shame... So not even a word in defense of this continent's generations-old standard in Redden's review??)

Although for more than 20 years my family has been advocating the use of the scythe's "Continental" version, opinions as to which principle design is preferable (and I mean for harvesting hay and small grains, not sugar cane or reeds) still do vary. Interested readers can google, for instance, Benjamin Bouchard (the most prominent among contemporary advocates of the American scythe), and those among RD's readers attending the N.S. scything competitions can ask the oldest participant -- a 90 some year old -- what his take is on the issue...

Another category of The Scything Handbook's blunders are the grossly exaggerated statements that are likely to move a newcomer to be either needlessly cautious or overly optimistic. Among them, these two top the list:

"A scythe, improperly handled or treated with too little respect, could maim or kill you or someone else"

"... no effort whatsoever is required of your arms to produce the mowing stroke"

Upon reading the first of these statements I did not know whether to laugh or cry... Regarding the second: Wouldn't "not much effort" ( required) be enticing enough?? 

Peter Redden did also wonder about the validity of comparing the dynamics of a scythe in use under varied field conditions to the action of the den-den daiko, which Ian Miller chose as an underlying analogy to promote his preferred (and somewhat odd) mowing movement. While expressing his doubts, open-minded fellow as he is, Redden promised to settle the issue this season out there in the field; let's see what he comes up with and I'll keep my mouth shut on this one for now.

The third sort of blunders are actual instructional hints inviting potential disappointments, lack of efficiency or edge-shaping mishaps. Those blunders may be the least forgivable in a book which -- according to Dr. Ross Mars' (author of The Permaculture Transition Manual) review -- "...will enable you to proficiently master... (the use of a scythe)".

One of many examples (which, interestingly, Peter Redden reviewed on a positive note) is the 'troubleshooting' section on page 64 and 65, dealing with consequences of improper peening. In my view, all 'explanations' as to reasons for the troubles (illustrated in figures 47-49) are either partially or wholly flawed (mostly the latter). Yes, it could be claimed that the issue is 'subjective' and a matter of opinion. And yes, a portion of the whole subject on how best to apply this tool is just that. But while the multitude of blade patterns, snath designs, hammer/anvil versions, honing and peening methods, etc. have long been expressions of regional and/or personal preferences, there are certain aspects of all this about which there has more or less been consensus among the really experienced mowers.

One instance in this regard would be the distance of forward advance at a stroke -- which this book's guidelines suggest to be 1 ½ inches (or about 4 cm). Could it have been a typo (say, he meant 4 inches instead 4 cm)? If not, I'm quite certain that anyone who has swung a scythe over much more ground than (seemingly) has the author of that advice, would shake his head in disbelief or think it is meant as a joke. Taking such a very narrow sliver off the face of the stand may be fine for the very first few strokes during a beginners' course. But beyond that?
To the (4 cm) suggestion Mr. Miller adds, in brackets, "somewhat more for experienced mowers and for longer blades" but he does not specify what "somewhat" and "longer" mean, in this context, to him. Nor does he anywhere suggest an average blade's length recommended for the general task of today's beginners. That is a serious omission. Nor does he suggest a good/comfortable/efficient width of a cut/swath. That is another serious omission. Yes, both of these (the width of swath in good mowing conditions and the average blade length to be recommended to beginners) are examples where opinions vary. But not to even address the topic? Who then, if not a master, can help enlighten us all?

Although throughout the book the author does expound on certain sub-topics, a portion of it remains rather useless without more solid experiential background on his part and subsequent hints of merit. The haymaking chapter is the most glaring example, to me.

Because so little has been written (and so much forgotten) about the art of haymaking, on the one hand I applaud him on including what he did on that theme, especially as he brought into the discussion the concept of curing hay on "racks". Still, I cannot in good conscience give him an "A" for anything more than trying... So far as I can see, he has spent far more time reading about how to best employ the various styles of racks than actually curing hay on them. And because those old texts from which he copied the info and the attractive photos (of hay curing in the field) were written for members of a culture that already understood the basics of 'loose' haymaking, they skipped certain crucial bits of advice, and so did Mr. Miller. And, as we eventually often learn -- "the devil is in the details"...

As a hay-making connoisseur (though still by no means a "master") who has spent the past 40 years learning how to bring in the leaves (as opposed to mostly just stems) for the winter's hay supply, I pray that God would not someday play a prank and transform me into a cow or a goat that is to subsist on the hay made by Ian Miller in the rain, putting freshly cut grass on the "Swedish wire rack" (or any other rack, pole, tripod or whatever structure standing under the open and rainy sky). 

All in all, I think that if he re-reads his own scythe-using and haymaking guidelines several years hence (provided he does not -- as did David Tresemer -- leave the scythe-related learning to become just a short spell in his life's story), he will want to do a major revision of the text. Unfortunately, in the meantime the book will have influenced the on-the-ground experience of countless people -- something that cannot ever be 'taken back'... In other words, my overall impression is that he ought to have learned a whole lot more before taking on the task of writing a widely promoted book. 


Friday, March 3, 2017

Harvesting Rice with a Scythe

"Using the scythe, we could easily manage to harvest between half to one acre of paddy in 6 hours of working thereby saving a considerable amount of time and effort."


Harvesting Paddy with a Scythe

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Scythe instruction videos -- in Hindi

Anant Chaturvedi of Kanpur, India, is producing a series of scythe tutorial videos with narration in the Hindi language. Here are the first five videos of the series:

#1: Unboxing your new Scythe (HIndi)

#2: Assembly of Snath and Blade (Hindi)

#3: Cradle Assembly (Hindi)

#4: Peening with the Jig (Hindi)

#5: Edge Treatment following Peening (Hindi)


YouTube Channel Vikalp

Friday, December 9, 2016

Scythe basics, illustrated?

Some preliminary sketches made while considering the concept of a pictorial booklet of scythe instructions.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The high cost of scythe stones

A tragic story published in 1854, the same year the above drawing was sketched.


In the heart of a high table-land that overlooks
many square leagues of the rich scenery of
Devonshire, the best scythe-stone is found. The
whole face of the enormous cliff in which it is
contained is honeycombed with minute quarries;
half-way down there is a wagon road, entirely
formed of the sand cast out from them. To walk
along that vast soft terrace on a July evening is
to enjoy one of the most delightful scenes in
England. Forests of fir rise overhead like cloud
on cloud; through openings of these there peeps
the purple moorland stretching far southward to
the Roman Camp, and barrows from which
spears and skulls are dug continually. What-
ever may be underground, it is all soft and bright
above, with heath and wild flowers, about which
a breeze will linger in the hottest noon. Down
to the sand road the breeze does not come; there
we may walk in calm, and only see that it is
quivering among the topmost trees. From the
camp the Atlantic can be seen, but from the sand
road the view is more limited, though many a
bay and headland far beneath show where the
ocean of a past age rolled. Fossils and shells
are almost as plentiful within the cliff as the
scythe-stone itself, and wondrous bones of
extinct animals are often brought to light.

All day long, summer and winter, in the sombre
fir-groves may be heard the stroke of the
spade and the click of the hammer; a hundred
men are at work like bees upon the cliff, each in
his own cell of the great honeycomb, his private
passage. The right to dig in his own burrow
each of these men has purchased for a trifling
sum, and he toils in it daily. Though it is a
narrow space, in which he is not able to stand
upright, and can scarcely turn — though the air
in it that he breathes is damp and deadly — though
the color in his cheek is commonly the hectic of
consumption, and he has a cough that never
leaves him night or day — though he will himself
remark that he does not know among his neighbors
one old man — and though, all marrying
early, few ever see a father with his grown-up
son, yet, for all this, the scythe-stone cutter
works in his accustomed way, and lives his short
life merrily, that is to say, he drinks down any
sense or care that he might have. These poor
men are almost without exception sickly drunkards.
The women of this community are not
much healthier. It is their task to cut and shape
the rough-hewn stone into those pieces wherewith
"the mower whets his scythe." The thin
particles of dust that escape during this process
are very pernicious to the lungs; but, as usual,
it is found impossible to help the ignorant sufferers
by any thing in the form of an idea from without;
a number of masks and respirators have been more
than once provided for them by the charity of the
neighboring gentry, but scarcely one woman has
given them her countenance.

The short life of the scythe-stone cutter is also
always liable to be abruptly ended. Safety re-
quires that fir-poles from the neighboring wood
should be driven in one by one on either side of
him, and a third flat stake be laid across to make
the walls and roof safe, as the digger pushes his
long burrow forward. Cheap as these fir-poles
are, they are too often dispensed with. There is
scarcely one of the hundred mined entrances of
disused caverns here to be seen, through which
some crushed or suffocated workman has not
been brought out dead. The case is common.
A man can not pay the trifle that is necessary
to buy fir-poles for the support of his cell walls;
the consequence is, that sooner or later, it must
almost inevitably happen that one stroke of the
pickax shall produce a fall of sand behind him,
and set an impassable barrier between him and
the world without. It will then be to little purpose
that another may be working near him,
prompt to give the alarm and get assistance;
tons upon tons of heavy sand divide the victim
from the rescuers, and they must prop and roof
their way at every step, lest they too perish.
Such accidents are therefore mostly fatal; if the
man was not at once crushed by a fall of sand
upon him, he has been cut oft from the outer air,
and suffocated in his narrow worm-hole.

Whiteknights is a small village at the foot of this cliff,
inhabited almost entirely by persons following
this scythe-stone trade. The few agricultural
laborers there to be met with may be distinguished
at a glance from their brethren of the pits; the
bronzed cheeks from the hectic, the muscular
frames from the bodies which disease has weakened, 
and which dissipation helps to a more swift
decay. The cottages are not ill-built, and generally
stand detached in a small garden; their
little porches may be seen of an evening thronged
with dirty pretty children, helping father outside
his cavern by carrying the stone away in little
baskets, as he brings it out to them.

Beside the Luta rivulet, which has pleasanter
nooks, more flowery banks, and falls more musical
than any stream in Devon ; beside this brook,
and parted by a little wood of beeches and wild
laurel from the village, is a very pearl of cottages.
Honeysuckle, red-rose, and sweet-briar hold it
entangled in a fragrant net-work ; they fall over
the little windows, making twilight at midnoon,
yet nobody has ever thought of cutting them
away or tying up a single tendril. Grandfather
Markham and his daughter Alice, with John
Drewit, her husband and master of the house,
used to live there, and they had three little chidlren,
Jane, Henry, and Joe.

A little room over the porch was especially
neat. It was the best room in the cottage, and
therein was lodged old Markham, who had, so
far as the means of his children went, the best
of board as well. He was not a very old man,
but looked ten years older than he was, and his
hand shook through an infirmity more grievous
than age. He was a gin-drinker. John Drewit
had to work very hard to keep not only his own
household in food and clothing, but also his poor
old father-in-law in drink.

John was a hale young man when first I knew
him, but he soon began to alter. As soon as it
was light he was away to the sand-cliff by a
pleasant winding path through the beechwood
and up the steps which his own spade had cut.
One or two of them he had made broader than
the rest, at intervals, where one might willingly
sit down to survey the glory spread beneath; the
low, white, straw-thatched farms gleaming like
light among the pasture-lands, the little towns
each with its shining river, and the great old city
in the hazy distance; the high beacon hills, the
woods, and far as eye could see, the mist that
hung over the immense Atlantic. This resting
on the upward path, at first a pleasure, became
soon a matter of necessity, and that, too, long
before the cough had settled down upon him;
few men in Whiteknights have their lungs so
whole that they can climb up to their pits without
a halt or two.

The old man helped his son-in-law sometimes;
he was a good sort of man by nature, and
not a bit more selfish than a drunkard always
must be. He ground the rough stones into shape 
at home, minded the children in his daughter's
absence, and even used the pick himself when he
was sober. John, too, was for his wife's sake
tolerant of the old man's infirmity, though half
his little earnings went to gratify the old man's
appetite. At last necessity compelled him to be,
as he thought, undutiful. Print after print vanished
from the cottage walls, every little ornament,
not actually necessary furniture, was sold:
absolute want threatened the household, when
John at last stated firmly, though tenderly, that
giandfather must give up the gin-bottle or find
some other dwelling. Alice was overcome with
tears, but when appealed to by the old man,
pointed to her dear husband, and bowed her head
to his wise words.

For two months after this time, there were no
more drunken words nor angry tongues to be
heard within Johns pleasant cottage. Nothing
was said by daughter or by son-in-law of the long
score at the public-house that was being paid off
by instalments; the daughter looked no longer
at her father with reproachful eyes, and the
children never again had to be taken to bed
before their time— hurried away from the sight
of their grandfather*s shame. At last, however,
on one Sunday evening in July, the ruling passion
had again the mastery; Markham came home in
a worse state than ever; and in addition to the
usual debasement, it was evident that he was
possessed also by some maudlin terror, that he
had no power to express.

Leaving him on his bed in a lethargic sleep,
John sallied forth as usual at dawn; his boys,
Harry and Joe, carrying up for him his miner's
spade and basket. Heavy-hearted as he was, he
could not help being gladdened by the wonderful
beauty of the landscape. His daughter told me
that she never saw him stand so long looking at
the country — he seemed unwillingly to leave the
sunlight for his dark, far-winding burrow. His
burrow he had no reason to dread. Poverty never
had pressed so hard upon John Drewit as to induce
him to sell away the fir props that assured
the safety of his life. Often and often had his
voice been loud against those men, who, knowing
of the mortal danger to which they exposed their
neighbors, gave drink or money in exchange for
them to the foolhardy and vicious. Great, therefore,
was his horror when be went into his cave
that morning, and found that his own props had
been removed. They had not been taken from
the entrance, where a passer-by might have 
observed their absence ; all was right for the first
twenty yards, but beyond that distance down to
the end of his long toil-worn labyrinth every pole
was stripped away. Surely he knew at once
that it was not an enemy who had done this; he
knew that the wretched old man who lay stupefied
at home, had stolen and sold his life defense for
drink. All that the poor fellow told his boys
was that they should keep within the safe part
of the digging while he himself worked on into
the rock as usual. Three or four times he brought
out a heap of scythe-stones in his basket, and
then he was seen alive no more.

Harry, his eldest son, was nearest to the
unpropped passage when the sand cliff fell. When
he heard his father call out suddenly, he ran at
once eagerly, running toward the candle by which
the miner worked, but on a sudden all was dark;
there was no light from candle or from sun —
before and behind was utter blackness, and there
was a noise like thunder in his ears. The whole
hill seemed to have fallen upon them both, and
many tons of earth parted the father from his
child. The sand about the boy did not press on
him closely. A heavy piece of cliff that held 
together was supported by the narrow walls of the
passage, and his fate was undetermined. He
attended only to the muffled sounds within the
rook, from which he knew that his father, though
they might be the sounds of his death struggle,
still lived.

To the people outside the alarm had instantly
been given by the other child, and in an incredibly
short space of time the laborers from field and
cave came hurrying up to the rescue. Two only
could dig together, two more propped the way
behind them foot by foot; relays eagerly waited
at the entrance; and not an instant was lost in
replacing the exhausted workmen. Every thing
was done as quickly, and, at the same time, as
judiciously as possible, the surgeon had at the
first been ridden for, at full speed, to the neigh-
boring town; brandy and other stimulants, a rude
lancet — with which many of the men were but
too well practiced operators — bandages and blankets
were all placed ready at hand: for the disaster
was so common at Whiteknights that every
man at once knew what was proper to be done.
Those who were not actively engaged about the
cave, were busy in the construction of a litter  —
perhaps a bier — for the unhappy victims.

How this could have happened? was the whispered
wonder. John was known to be far too
prudent a man to have been working without
props, and yet fresh ones had to be supplied to
the rescuers, for they found none as they
advanced. The poor widow  — every moment made
more sure of her bereavement — stood a little way
aside; having begged for a spade and been refused,
she stood with her two children hanging
to her apron, staring fixedly at the pit's mouth.

Down at the cottage there was an old man
invoking Heaven's vengeance on his own gray
head and reproaching himself fiercely with the
consequences of his brutal vice; he had stolen
the poles from his son's pit on the previous morning,
to provide himself with drink; and on that
very day, even before he was quite recovered from
his yesterday's debauch, he was to see the victim
of his recklessness brought home a lifeless heap.
He saw John so brought in, but with the eyes of
a madman; his brain, weakened by drunkenness,
never recovered from that shock.

Basket and barrow had been brought full out
of the pit a hundred times; and it was almost
noon before, from the bowels of the very mountain
as it seemed, there cam up a low moaning
cry. "My child, my child," murmured the
mother: and the digging became straightaway
even yet more earnest, almost frantic in its speed
and violence. Presently into the arms of Alice
little Harry was delivered, pale and corpse-like,
but alive; and then a shout as of an army was
set up by all the men.

They dug on until after sunset — long after
they had lost all hope of finding John alive. His
body was at last found. It was placed upon the
litter, and taken, under the soft evening sky,
down through the beech wood home. Alice
walked by its side, holding its hand in hers,
speechless, and with dry eyes. She never knew
until after her father's death, how her dear John
was murdered. She used to wonder why the
old man shrank from her when she visited him,
as she often did, in his confinement. The poor
widow is living now, though she has suffered
grief and want. Her daughter Jane has married
a field laborer, and her sons, by whom she is now
well supported, have never set foot in a pit since
they lost their father.


Picture is from the Ottery Gazette article Maintaining an Edge - Devon's unique whetstone industry, with the caption: "Peter Orlando Hutchinson visited the mines in September 1854, when he made this watercolour sketch. Picture courtesy of the East Devon AONB and the Devon Heritage Centre". The Ottery Gazette article (written by Al Findlay, and Chris Wakefield, Ottery Heritage Society) is highly recommended.

The story Sharpening the Scythe appears in
Harper's New Monthly Magazine,Vol. IX, No. XLIX, June 1854, p. 73-76 
after originally appearing in the weekly magazine edited by Charles Dickens,
Household Words, 1 April 1854, No. 210, p. 150-152.
(The story was republished later in 
The Churchman's Monthly Magazine, Vol. 1, No. 10, October 1854, p. 598.)

According to the Dickens Journals Online, Sharpening the Scythe was written by the novelist James Payn (1830-1898), and was "a prose variant of Payn's 'The Scythe-Stone Cutter' in Stories from Boccaccio and Other Poems" (1852).


Some related information can be found at the University of Southampton's "Stone in Archaeology Database" entries for Honiton Scythe Stones, including the following details:

Main Details
...The best stone was about 80 feet beneath the surface and four beds were favoured by the miners. They were locally known as 'fine vein', 'gutters' (most commonly used for scythe stones) 'bottom stone' and 'soft vein' (Fitton 1836: 236- 238)...The Blackdown Greensand was extensively exploited for siliceous concretions in the vicinity of Blackborough Common. This was an irregularly cemented micaceous sandstone containing glauconite and sponge spicules and rare silicified shells, with traces of ripple marks and horizontal and vertical burrows (Devon County Council n.d.). These concretions were of "just the right lightweight porous composition and abrasive surface" to provide material for whetstones (Stanes 1993). Geologically this stone is described as a quartz-muscovite-tourmaline grit...
These whetstones were often known as 'Devonshire batts'.

...Quarrying began in the 18th and 19th centuries on Blackborough Common, working extended along to Ponchydown and perhaps as far south as North Hill. A thriving industry was developed which provided whetstones of a very high quality to a huge market. The stone was soft when first dug and could be shaped, but later it hardened on exposure to air (Edmonds 1975: 70). Unfortunately by 1900 most of the stone was worked out and only three mines remained, and by 1910 the invention of carborundum meant the end of the whetstone industry (Rugg 1999). The mines were driven horizontally into the hill for up to 400 metres and today the remains of the mines can just about be discerned as hollows on the surface (ibid.)

...This stone was primarily used for the manufacture of whetstones, these were stones used for sharpening the edges of implements, such as scythes and sickles etc. The ones made at Blackborough were more or less rectangular in shape with bevelled corners and tapered at the ends, and approximately 31x4x3cm (Moore: 1978: 62).


Edmonds, E.A, McKeown, M.C. & Williams, M. (1975)
British Regional Geology: South-West England.

Fitton, W. H. (1836)
Observations on some of the Strata between the Chalk and the Oxford Oolite in the South-East of England.
Journal: Transactions of the Geological Society of London, 2nd series. 4. pp. 103 - 388.
Moore, D. T. (1978)
The Petrology and Archaeology of English Honestones.
Journal: Journal of Archaeological Science. 5, pp. 61-73.
Stanes, R. G. F. (1993)
Devonshire Batts, The Whetstone Mining Industry and Community of Blackborough in the Blackdown Hills
Journal: Report and Transactions of the Devonshire Association. Vol. 125, pp. 71 - 112.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Scythe Initiative in India - Video

"Contest" between scythe and sickle (from the video)

Here's a new video by Alexander Vido about his Scythe Project in India:

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Sowing seeds for a scythe revolution

The following report was written by Sy Schotz about the recent introduction of scythes to India (population 1.25 billion). Some background: 80% of the farms in India are considered “Small” or “Marginal". The average size of land holdings is 1.3 hectares, and manual labor plays a large role. More than 50% of India's working population is involved with agriculture (compared with 2% for the USA, and 4% for Western Europe), and there are still shortages of agricultural labor.

Sowing seeds for a scythe revolution
by Sy Schotz

For one month in the spring of 2016, I had the opportunity to join Alexander Vido in demonstrating the use of the scythe to harvest wheat in India, where the tool has been practically unknown. That country perhaps stands to gain more from the use of scythes than any other, because of the hundreds of millions of its farm workers who still harvest wheat and rice with sickles.  Replacing the sickle with the scythe would make it possible for crops to be harvested in a fraction of the time, besides being much easier on the bodies of the users. 

The seed of this scythe mission was sown in Alexander's heart ten years ago, when he first visited India. Moved by the living conditions of the lower classes, it struck him that the application of scythes could greatly improve many lives.  In 2011, he made his first attempt to introduce the scythe to farmers who'd only used sickles: the Scythe Project in Nepal (SPIN).  Despite his focus and dedication, SPIN failed in its purpose of putting the scythe to use, because of the lack of common vision between Alexander and his co-organizers. 

The redeeming value of SPIN came in the form of videos from that trip, which Alexander posted on youtube.  Three years later, one of those videos came to the attention of Vivek and Anant Chaturvedi, of Kanpur, India.  This father and son team are committed to rejuvenating the life of India's villages and helping to reverse the current trend of migration into cities.  They have already developed two appropriate technologies which could contribute to the quality of village life: a rice hull-powered generator, and an animal-powered deep well pump/fodder chopper.  They had nearly completed a third technology: a solar powered, hand-held, grain harvester.  This contraption was intended to be an alternative to the sickle, that is until Vivek saw a video of Alexander mowing wheat in Nepal, and dropped the 'solar harvester' project.  Instead, they tried to have a few scythes made, but none of the models were satisfactory.

Eventually, the Chaturvedis contacted Alexander when they learned that he and his son Gabriel were already in India.  Alexander and Gabriel were by then only a few days away from their flight home, having already spent six weeks visiting folks who had reached out in the aftermath of SPIN.  Impressed by the Chaturvedis attempts at manufacturing a scythe, Alexander decided to fly back to Delhi in order to leave time to travel another 500 km by car, through the night, to spend but one day at the Chaturvedis' farm in Kanpur.  It turned out to be the most fruitful day Alexander had yet spent in India or Nepal.

What followed, three months later, stands out as a dramatic success amongst other recent attempts to introduce this tool to third-world countries.

After Alexander returned to Canada, he remained in contact with the Chaturvedis, who hurriedly began preparing for an introduction of the tool during the upcoming wheat harvest.  Their ambition was to demonstrate the utility of the scythe to a select audience who might become trainers and distributors in their own regions.  While Anant waded into the bogs of Indian bureacracy, setting up a company to import scythes, Vivek arranged a full schedule of demonstrations across Northern and Central India. 

Our schedule began with an official 'launching' of the tool on the Chaturvedi farm. The press was lured to the event by the presence of Palikarji, a natural farming guru with more than 5 million followers, who endorsed the scythe and suggested its inclusion in his program of 'zero budget farming.'  The launch was covered in major Indian newspapers, and the scythe would be covered by the press a few more times over the course of the month-long tour. During demonstrations, thousands of people witnessed the tool in action, and many had a chance to try it out themselves.  On the last day of our trip the Minister of State of the Indian Department of Agriculture hosted a demonstration at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute.  A number of video clips from this trip have ‘gone viral,' including one of the minister excitedly trying out a scythe for the first time. Needless to say, the scythe is turning lots of heads in India, and elsewhere.

Alexander's dedication notwithstanding, this scythe introduction in India would not have taken place without the contribution of the Chaturvedis to our common vision, nor without Vivek's personal connections across Northern and Central India.  Finding similarly motivated partners in other 'scythe-needy' countries will be the key to reenacting this success story elsewhere.

-- Sy Schotz

Below is an excerpt from a recent email sent by co-organizer Anant Chaturvedi:

Now a month has passed since the extensive demos, and exhausting as the whole 'scythe tour' was, in hindsight it was necessary. The scythe received much deserved attention and respect as "the tool of the future" -- and we have been contacted by enthusiastic people from all over the country. Many, by the way, express dismay at the fact that it took so long for it to reach India...

Clearly, the hopes and excitement have been generated and now it is our responsibility to come up with a package which meets people's expectations and is easy on their pockets. For this to happen, much of the material has to be made with local materials and by local craftsmen. You will be happy to know that we have almost finalised prototypes of quite a few things like the snaths, jigs, anvils and small items like the rings. These will be made locally and it is just a matter of time before things start rolling. This, we anticipate, will also take off as much as 25-30% of the costs. I must again thank Alexander for all the tips and guidance regarding the same.

I hope that we will keep building on the somewhat auspicious beginning to this venture and that the needy and marginal farmers of India reap the benefits of a tool which should have reached them decades ago.

-- Anant Chaturvedi



Statistics on India's agriculture from Mechanization Trends in India, by Sanjeev Goyle, Mahindra and Mahindra, December 2013. 

Photos by Alexander Vido, used with permission.