Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Scythe Festival

Scythe enthusiasts recently gathered in England for the sixth annual Scythe Festival and Green Fair.

In an article in Smallholder, Jane Osbourne reported that "...Record crowds gathered on Sunday 13th June to watch the heats of the UK’s National Scything Championships, held at Thorney Lakes on the Somerset Levels near Langport. This event is held every year on the second weekend of June when the grassland is at its most verdant. The Green Scythe Fair and its scything organiser Simon Fairlie are in the forefront of the resurgence of interest in scything as a sport – agriculture’s answer to snowboarding!
...Everyone agreed that, as in previous years, the Green Scythe Fair had been a great success and was, in these troubled times, a very uplifting and much needed joyful event."

Two weeks after the Scythe Festival, a Scything Weekend was held at Wimpole Hall near Cambridge.  Activities included the Eastern Counties Scything Competition. 

(Sources:  Scythe Festival poster image copyright 2010 James Brown, General Pattern, London.  Used with permission. 
"Scything - a smallholding support that is a cut above the rest", by Jane Osourne, Smallholder, 24 June 2010,


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Certified Organic Wood Finish for Snaths

Whether you buy a wooden snath or make one yourself, it will need a finish to give it some resistance to the elements.  The classic finish for snaths is a mixture of linseed oil and turpentine, though I've read of linseed oil being used alone with good results.  

"Boiled linseed oil" can now contain solvents and drying agents with heavy metal content (typically cobalt), even if it's not listed on the container.  I was looking for an alternative, and I found one in my refrigerator.

Since flax oil is essentially linseed oil, I tried it on my homemade snaths.  The results are shown in the photo above.  The finished snaths appear above the unfinished hardwood blanks of the same material (Oregon white oak milled locally from salvaged trees).  The only finish is the flax oil that I otherwise use with my food.  

The flax oil was applied at least ten times during the first month, and the drying time may be longer than normal due to the natural vitamin E added "to maintain freshness".  To avoid the waste and potential fire hazards of oil-soaked rags, I put small amounts of oil in the palm of my hand to rub onto the wood surface.  

I used what I had on hand to do the job, and I'm happy with the results.

Monday, June 14, 2010

John Muir's Scythe Clock and Hay Rakes

"...mowing and cradling, the most exhausting of all the farm work..."
                                       - John Muir  (1838-1914)

John Muir was no fan of the heavy American scythe and cradle, but his many inventions include a pendulum clock shaped like a scythe with "All flesh is grass" written on the snath.

John Muir was eleven when his family emigrated from Scotland to "Amaraka."  They initially were headed for Canada, but they ended up in Wisconsin to establish a farm and grow wheat.  This is a picture of Muir's Lake (Fountain Lake) and Garden Meadow that he sketched from their shanty roof: 

Of his farming life, Muir later wrote:

"In those early days, long before the great labor-saving machines came to our help, almost everything connected with wheat-raising abounded in trying work — cradling in the long, sweaty dog-days, raking and binding, stacking, thrashing — and it often seemed to me that our fierce, over-industrious way of getting the grain from the ground was too closely connected with grave-digging. The staff of life, naturally beautiful, oftentimes suggested the grave-digger's spade. Men and boys, and in those days even women and girls, were cut down while cutting the wheat. The fat folk grew lean and the lean leaner, while the rosy cheeks brought from Scotland and other cool countries across the sea faded to yellow like the wheat. We were all made slaves through the vice of over-industry. 

"The same was in great part true in making hay to keep the cattle and horses through the long winters. We were called in the morning at four o'clock and seldom got to bed before nine, making a broiling, seething day seventeen hours long loaded with heavy work, while I was only a small stunted boy; and a few years later my brothers David and Daniel and my older sisters had to endure about as much as I did. In the harvest dog-days and dog-nights and dog-mornings, when we arose from our clammy beds, our cotton shirts clung to our backs as wet with sweat as the bathing-suits of swimmers, and remained so all the long, sweltering days. In mowing and cradling, the most exhausting of all the farm work, I made matters worse by foolish ambition in keeping ahead of the hired men. Never a warning word was spoken of the dangers of over-work. On the contrary, even when sick we were held to our tasks as long as we could stand. Once in harvest-time I had the mumps and was unable to swallow any food except milk, but this was not allowed to make any difference, while I staggered with weakness and sometimes fell headlong among the sheaves. Only once was I allowed to leave the harvest-field — when I was stricken down with pneumonia. I lay gasping for weeks, but the Scotch are hard to kill and I pulled through. No physician was called, for father was an enthusiast, and always said and believed that God and hard work were by far the best doctors."

John Muir was no fan of the heavy American scythe and cradle, but his many inventions include a hand-carved wooden clock shaped like a scythe, which he displayed at the 1860 Wisconsin State Fair.  A drawing of the Scythe Clock is shown above; the original document and actual components of some of John's inventions, including the Scythe Clock, are kept at the Wisconsin Historical Society Museum and can be viewed here:

Regarding this Scythe Clock, Muir wrote:

"Inventing and whittling faster than ever, I made another hickory clock, shaped like a scythe to symbolize the scythe of Father Time. The pendulum is a bunch of arrows symbolizing the flight of time. It hangs on a leafless mossy oak snag showing the effect of time, and on the snath is written, "All flesh is grass."

An acquaintance of Muir's named Harvey Reid wrote this description of the clock:

"The other clock, also fashioned with no other tools than a jackknife and a hammer, was a wonderful revelation of rustic ingenuity and poetic instinct. It was wholly emblematic of old Father Time, being a combination of scythes, wheels and arrows. A rough bough of burr oak was set upon a base incrusted with moss. In one of the branches hung a miniature scythe with a regularly fashioned snathe and handles. At the place of union were attached two wooden scythes [blades], swelling slightly from each other, but united at the points. Filling the space between the scythes from heels to points was a succession of wooden cog-wheels and small wooden dials.

"Depending from the scythe points was a wooden pendulum in the shape of an arrow, hanging point down. At its lower end forming the ball of the pendulum, was a cluster of six copper arrows, crossed. These had been hammered out of the large copper cents in use at that day. To the upper end of the arrow pendulum was attached two tin copper scythes (also formed out of coins) which, as the pendulum swung, would move as in mowing, the points of the scythes at each swing catching a cog in the little wheel placed there, thus setting in motion the whole machinery. In addition to the records of the larger clock, this one told also the month and the year, and could be attached to the bed alarm... [...an apparatus attached by a light cord to a delicate set of levers at the foot of his bed. The frame of the bed was hung on trunnions; and, at a desired hour the clock would release a catch and the sleeper be tilted to nearly a standing posture.]"

In 1864, Muir went to Canada for a few years, where he got a job in a woodworking factory in Ontario.  He was contracted to produce 12,000 hay rakes and 30,000 broom handles, as well as to make improvements to the production process. 

From an essay by Bruce Cox:

"...he nearly doubled the production of broom handles...  He placed one handle in position while the other was being turned. It required great activity for him to put away the turned handle and place the new one in position during the turning process. When he could do this there would be eight broom handles turned in a minute."  

"...He designed and started making several automatic machines for the manufacture of different parts of agricultural tools, for example a machine to make teeth for the rakes, and another to install them. The man who designed the alarm clock bed now had a number of ingenious new arrangements of gears, belts and pulleys to play with."

During this time when Muir was making hay rakes and broom handles, he wrote the following in a letter to Jeanne Carr:

"I have been very busy of late making practical machinery. I like my work exceeding well but would prefer inventions which would require some artistic as well as mechanical skill. I invented and put in operation a few days ago an attachment for a self acting lathe which has increased its capacity at least one third, we are now using it to turn broom handles, and as these useful articles may now be made cheaper, and as cleanliness is one of the cardinal virtues, I congratulate myself in having done something like a true philanthropist for the real good of mankind in general. What say you?

"I have also invented a machine for making rake teeth, and another for boring for them, & driving them, and still another for making the bows, still another used in making the handles, still another for bending them, so that rakes may now be made nearly as fast again. Farmers will be able to produce grain at a lower rate, the poor get more bread to eat. Here is more philanthropy - is it not?"

Muir later went on to become a well-known naturalist, writer, and advocate for the preservation of wilderness.  He was a co-founder of the Sierra Club, and his activism helped establish Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks, among other accomplishments.

Although he survived the affliction as a child, Muir died of pneumonia at age 76.  The US Postal Service honored Muir with stamps in 1964 and 1998, and the California Quarter issued by the US Mint in 2005 featured John Muir in Yosemite Valley.

(Sources:    Wisconsin Historical Society, 816 State Street, Madison, WI 53706:  
 Scythe Clock full image at higher resolution:  http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/whi/fullimage.asp?id=4949;
 Wisconsin Historical Museum, 30 N. Carroll St, Madison, WI 53703, http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/museum/visit.asp;
"The Story of My Boyhood and Youth", book by John Muir, with illustrations from sketches by the author, 1913,
"College Friend Describes Muir's Mechanical Marvels", article by Harvey Reid, Outlook, November 28, 1903, v. 75, pp. 763-764,
Reprinted from The John Muir Newsletter , V.4, No.3, Summer 1994:
"John Muir and His Canadian Friends", essay by Bruce Cox, http://www.johnmuir.org/canada/cox_essay.html;
Letter from John Muir to Jeanne C. Carr, 1866 Jan 21:
Other references:
"A passion for nature: the life of John Muir", book by Donald Worster, Oxford University Press, 2008)

Friday, June 11, 2010

"They must have some beer..."


What noise is that? It is the mower in the field whetting his scythe. He is going to cut down the grass. And will he cut down all the flowers too? Yes, everything. Now we must make hay. Where is your fork and rake? Spread the hay. Now make it up into cocks. Now tumble on the haycock. There, cover Harry up with hay. How sweet the hay smells! Oh, it is very hot. No matter; you should make hay while the sun shines. You must work well. See! all the lads and lasses are at work. They must have some beer, and bread and cheese. Now put the hay in the cart. Will you ride in the cart? Huzza!

- from "Harry's Ladder to Learning", by Anonymous, 1850

(Source:  http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/24644)

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Q&A: Undocumented scything techniques

Q:  We love our new scythes!  We did a lot of scything this past week.  After a couple of days, we started to understand the required motion (or motions - which depends a lot on the conditions).   One thing that I did not see emphasized in any documents was the importance of the tip of the blade in cutting grass.  Peter did mention the importance of taking a shallow but wide swath.  But when I tried to work out the motion for cutting in between rows of plants, where the width is shorter than the scythe blade, if I led with the tip, it worked fine, but if I led with any other part of the blade, it did not cut well. Same with cutting grass in other situations: leading with the tip is more natural, and seems to be the key to cutting grass.  Not the same with thicker-woodier stems, which must be cut with the part of the blade between the middle and the snath.  Any comments?.

A:  You are learning from one of the best teachers of scything technique; namely, experience.  (To avoid picking up bad habits that are hard to unlearn, I suggest that beginners also pay attention to instructional readings and videos, if not live instructors.)

In most cases, leading with the tip of the blade is the best technique for cutting grass, since it assures a slicing motion using the full length of the blade.  And yes, woody stems generally are best cut with the back half of the blade (nearest the snath) to minimize the torquing of the blade resulting from the increased resistance to cutting.  Exceptions do exist, as you have found, especially when trimming in confined areas.

The following techniques were described by Peter Vido in response to your question: 
For "tight" trimming, the front half of the blade can be used, with the heel off the ground a bit to fit in the limited space.  For "very tight" trimming, without much forward distance available for the blade to travel, a back-and-forth "sawing" motion can be used, where the blade is cutting in both directions.  The scythe can cut backwards with a diagonal backstroke (back and to the right, for right-handed scythes).  This backward cutting stroke is useful for cutting behind trees when the mower is standing in front of the tree, as the blade edge can be brought very close to the tree trunk.  The back and forth technique, cutting on both forward and back strokes, is also good for cutting around other obstacles.  

The moral of the story is that scythe technique is not limited to what is found in written materials, so keep experimenting!

(Source:  "Tree trunks in the grass" painting by Vincent Van Gogh, 1890, from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tree_trunks_in_the_grass.jpg)

Friday, June 4, 2010

"The Mower knew not rest nor haste..."

...The world's possessors lay abed,And all the world was ours—

"Nay, nay, but hark! the Mower's tread!
And we must save the flowers!"
The Mower knew not rest nor haste—That old unweary man:

But we were young. We paused and raced
And gather'd while we ran...


You and I and Burd so blithe—
Burd so blithe, and you, and I—

The Mower he would whet his scythe
Before the dew was dry.

And he woke soon, but we woke soon
And drew the nursery blind,

All wondering at the waning moon
With the small June roses twined:

Low in her cradle swung the moon
With an elfin dawn behind.

In whispers, while our elders slept,
We knelt and said our prayers,

And dress'd us and on tiptoe crept
Adown the creaking stairs.

The world's possessors lay abed,
And all the world was ours—

"Nay, nay, but hark! the Mower's tread!
And we must save the flowers!"

The Mower knew not rest nor haste—
That old unweary man:

But we were young. We paused and raced
And gather'd while we ran.

O youth is careless, youth is fleet,
With heart and wing of bird!

The lark flew up beneath our feet,
To his copse the pheasant whirr'd;

The cattle from their darkling lairs
Heaved up and stretch'd themselves;

Almost they trod at unawares
Upon the busy elves

That dropp'd their spools of gossamer,
To dangle and to dry,

And scurried home to the hollow fir
Where the white owl winks an eye.

Nor you, nor I, nor Burd so blithe
Had driven them in this haste;

But the old, old man, so lean and lithe,
That afar behind us paced;

So lean and lithe, with shoulder'd scythe,
And a whetstone at his waist.

Within the gate, in a grassy round
Whence they had earliest flown,

He upside-down'd his scythe, and ground
Its edge with careful hone.

But we heeded not, if we heard, the sound,
For the world was ours alone;

The world was ours!—and with a bound
The conquering Sun upshone!

And while as from his level ray
We stood our eyes to screen.

The world was not as yesterday
Our homelier world had been—

So grey and golden-green it lay
All in his quiet sheen,

That wove the gold into the grey,
The grey into the green.

Sure never hand of Puck, nor wand
Of Mab the fairies' queen,

Nor prince nor peer of fairyland
Had power to weave that wide riband
Of the grey, the gold, the green.

But the Gods of 
Greece had been before
And walked our meads along,

The great authentic Gods of yore
That haunt the earth from shore to shore
Trailing their robes of song.

And where a sandall'd foot had brush'd,
And where a scarfed hem,

The flowers awoke from sleep and rush'd
Like children after them.

Pell-mell they poured by vale and stream,
By lawn and steepy brae—

"O children, children! while you dream,
Your flowers run all away!"

But afar and abed and sleepily
The children heard us call;

And Burd so blithe and you and I
Must be gatherers for all.

The meadow-sweet beside the hedge,
The dog-rose and the vetch,

The sworded iris 'mid the sedge,
The mallow by the ditch—

With these, and by the wimpling burn,
Where the midges danced in reels,

With the watermint and the lady fern
We brimm'd out wicker creels:

Till, all so heavily they weigh'd,
On a bank we flung us down,

Shook out our treasures 'neath the shade
And wove this 
Triple Crown.

Flower after flower—for some there were
The noonday heats had dried,

And some were dear yet could not bear
A lovelier cheek beside,

And some were perfect past compare—
Ah, darlings! what a world of care
It cost us to decide!

Natheless we sang in sweet accord,
Each bending o'er her brede—

"O there be flowers in Oxenford,
And flowers be north of Tweed,

And flowers there be on earthly sward
That owe no mortal seed!"

And these, the brightest that we wove,
Were Innocence and Truth,

And holy Peace and angel Love,
Glad Hope and gentle Ruth.

Ah, bind them fast with triple twine
Of Memory, the wild woodbine
That still, being human, stays divine,
And alone is age's youth!...

But hark! but look! the warning rook
Wings home in level flight;

The children tired with play and book
Have kiss'd and call'd Good-night!

Ah, sisters, look! What fields be these
That lie so sad and shorn?

What hand has cut our coppices,
And thro' the trimm'd, the ruin'd, trees
Lets wail a wind forlorn?

'Tis Time, 'tis Time has done this crime
And laid our meadows waste—

The bent unwearied tyrant Time,
That knows nor rest nor haste.

Yet courage, children; homeward bring
Your hearts, your garlands high;

For we have dared to do a thing
That shall his worst defy.

We cannot nail the dial's hand;
We cannot bind the sun

By Gibeon to stay and stand,
Or the moon o'er Ajalon;

We cannot blunt th' abhorred shears,
Nor shift the skeins of Fate,

Nor say unto the posting years
"Ye shall not desolate."

We cannot cage the lion's rage,
Nor teach the turtle-dove

Beside what well his moan to tell
Or to haunt one only grove;

But the lion's brood will range for food
As the fledged bird will rove.

And east and west we three may wend—
Yet we a wreath have wound

For us shall wind withouten end
The wide, wide world around:

Be it east or west, and ne'er so far,
In east or west shall peep no star,
No blossom break from ground,
But minds us of the wreath we wove
Of innocence and holy love
That in the meads we found,

And handsell'd from the Mower's scythe,
And bound with memory's living withe—
You and I and Burd so blithe—
Three maidens on a mound:

And all of happiness was ours
Shall find remembrance 'mid the flowers,
Shall take revival from the flowers
And by the flowers be crown'd. 

- from The Vigil of Venus and Other Poems by "Q"
  (a.k.a. Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch), 1912

(Source:  http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/10133)