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'...
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" (...is 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.