Sunday, August 31, 2014

Scythe Fiction (Scy-Fi)

Here's a story that was published 102 years ago:


"In choosing a scythe, John, same as in lots of other things, it's a pretty good plan to be medium".

Sylvester Bristow cast a shrewdly critical glance at the well-made but unusually long scythe that his son had picked from the rackful in the village hardware store. "There are places, John, I'll admit, where the stroke you'd get with that thing would work mighty fine, and then again there are places where it wouldn't. It's a long hard pull across Amasa Barton's Big Twenty -- and it's a long day, John, from sun to sun in July."

"But you know what I'll have to meet, father. I shall need the best there is."

The older man laid a big, wrinkled hand on the square shoulder of his stalwart son. "Even if he is past fifty, Amasa Barton claims to be as good with a scythe as the best in this end of county. And perhaps he is. He's in a hurry to get through haying, too. He'll rush things. He doesn't like his neighbors to be ahead. That's why he's offering pay and a half for hands provided they'll stay with him in the field. But, John," -- his shrewd eyes had been scanning the rack, and his big hand now held a scythe much like the one that his son picked out, but several inches shorter, -- "There you are, now, for a pull on a long, hot day and an all-round pull in all kinds of grass -- medium, John. Your father's been there."

 A smile lighted up the young fellow's lean brown face. Replacing the long scythe in the rack, he carefully balanced in his hands the one his father had selected.

"I guess it'll be this one, father. Amasa Barton may be the best in these parts just now, but if you hadn't the rheumatism, I should be prompt to dispute it. I don't know whether I can 'stay with him' as he calls it, or not, but I'm going to try. If you say this scythe," -- his gaze returned for an instant half-regretfully to the long, rakish one, but he finished decisively, -- "why, this one it is. I hear Ben Langton came on a day or two ago to help Barton."

"Yes, Langton is there. I've heard a number say the young fellow is a clipper with a scythe -- fully up to Amasa. He's a great talker, but unlike most big talkers he can perform. He's stocky and wiry, but I guess you needn't worry."


John Bristow hung his new scythe, ground to a razor edge, in a convenient crotch of the old greening tree in his father's yard, and glancing speculatively at the cloudless evening sky, sauntered slowly to the house. From the porch his sister Kate called to him, "So it's Waterloo for sonny boy tomorrow, is it -- eh, John?"

"Must be, if you say so, Kate."

"And Benny Langton, too, John -- of all others. Whose black eyes will dance if you take second place, little boy?"

"Possibly, now, she means Sue Barton's," said John, tranquilly. He sat down beside her, and after a while he said, "I wish I had more of the 'gift of tongues,' Kate -- could talk, you know, like Langton and such fellows. It's a great gift. Sue likes that chap -- and I don t blame her. He can talk on all occasions -- right word for the right place, and all that, you know. But my tongue, now, when I want it the most, is about as valuable as a piece of beefsteak.

"Yes, I like Sue," he continued. "I may as well own up to you, because I know you know it already. But there it is. She's bright and quick herself, and a bold, bright, quick-witted talkative chap like Langton would naturally take her fancy. Just compare him yourself with a thick tongue like me."

"Startling contrast, that's a fact," commented his sister. "Ben Langton can talk, we all know, in all places and under all conditions. But did it never occur to you, John, that a girl might like to apply some of father's ideas to persons and things?"

"Such as?"

"Medium, John. Think it over now and then."


"This is the field, boys -- the last one, and I'm glad of it. It's the Big Twenty, you know." Amasa Barton cast a proud glance over the broad meadow, its tall grasses swaying lazily in the early morning air. "Grass hasn't hurt any to speak of yet, and won't if we get it before another rain. Is it pay and a half, boys? All right, that suits me exactly. We'll make a mark in the Big Twenty before sundown I guess."

Big and brawny, a trifle stout, perhaps, but hard as nails, the farmer, with his huge arms bare to the elbow, looked the picture of rugged health as he unslung his scythe and stepped promptly to the front.

Langton came next. Both men glanced sharply at John's scythe, and Langton, catching the farmer's eye, grinned slightly, and received a wink by way of response.

John had already noticed that each of his opponents carried a long scythe, formidable in appearance, and almost the exact counterpart of the one that he had so nearly selected shortly before. He cast a critical glance over the big meadow. Although fairly tall, the grass did not seem particularly thick on the ground. He wished most fervently that he had stuck to his own choice of scythes. The outlook seemed decidedly dubious. But swish! -- Barton had struck out. The day's work had begun.

Long before the first long, straight swaths had been laid across Amasa Barton's "Big Twenty," John Bristow fully understood what confronted him. The grass in the Big Twenty proved to be, as he had thought, not especially heavy on the ground. With long, easily carried strokes, the two leaders swept up the long meadow; they swung their scythes in perfect unison and with but little apparent effort, and each, as John well knew, watched out of the corner of his eye to see how the new hand was doing.

By using all his art and covering every possible inch of his shorter blade, John was able to keep stroke, through the first long swath, without loss of place. But well he knew that when the others warmed to their work, the pace would be far swifter -- and for several reasons. Barton was shrewd, and as his neighbors said, a trifle "close." He was not the man to offer "pay and a half" without expecting the better end of the bargain, He knew well his own endurance, his skill and prowess in the field, and he loved to excel. John knew how his boisterous laugh would ring out if a younger man should fall behind. And John particularly wished to stand well in the opinion of the stalwart owner of the Big Twenty.

Langton and John had never been very good friends at best, and just now John knew that nothing would give Langton greater pleasure than to see him discredited with his employer. For an hour or two they mowed steadily. Once or twice, Langton had said something trivial in itself, but containing, as John well knew, a thinly veiled innuendo. He understood that the others felt they had taken his measure. He also understood that sooner or later, one or both of them would attempt that crowning proof of superiority in the hay field -- mowing him "out of his swath."

Along toward noon, when it was John's lead, the two strong mowers behind crowded up nearer than at any time before. Well warmed to their work, they were lengthening the stroke of those long scythes without diminishing the time. Langton, next to the leader, was almost abreast. He was beginning to roll his swath just enough to make it difficult for John to "toe in" properly for the beginning of his stroke.

John knew there was but one thing to do -- he must quicken his stroke. It called upon his reserve of strength and endurance, a reserve that he was carefully hoarding, and that he ought not to call upon until far later in the day, if at all. He was quite conscious of all this, but he was not going out until forced out. With a quick bracing of muscles, he "broke stroke" and forged ahead slowly to his proper lead.

Langton slightly increased his peculiar whistling. Barton glanced up quickly with a look of surprise. Each quickened stroke a trifle, but not much. They knew it was not necessary.

As they "carried swaths" for the next trip, Barton told with gusto the story of one of his former triumphs at a mowing contest. Langton commented freely, and laughed heartily at the right places. But the new hand had nothing to say. His quickened breathing and flushed, perspiring face showed the beginnings of distress and the fact that if he had comments to make, he had little breath with which to make them. At the foot of the field he whetted his scythe with the others; but Langton ostentatiously dressed his scythe with a rattling accompaniment of the stone on the blade -- plainly the mower's challenge. It was his lead, and he stepped promptly to the front with a slight nod -- which was returned -- at Amasa Barton.

John Bristow got through that long swath somehow, he hardly knew how; but he found at the end, almost to his surprise, that he was still in his place. And no sound that he had ever heard seemed sweeter to him than the loud clang of the farmhouse bell, which then boomed out the noon dinner call.

Except for John, it was a jolly group that gathered about the table in the long, cool dining room. Barton himself seemed in an especially genial mood, and Langton quite outdid himself as a talker. Sue Barton, keen-witted as ever, met his raillery with quick repartee. John thought that he had never seen her more charming. And he had had more cause, he thought to himself, to regret his own obstinate, thick-tongued silence.

Amasa Barton dwelt much on the fine progress that they were making in the Big Twenty; and Langton took occasion to say that would make a still better showing before night if they all held out.

With a glance at Sue, he added that he thought they would all hold out, with exception, perhaps, of her father and himself -- a thrust at which Barton and he laughed boisterously. John saw that the girl understood. She laughed, but somehow her laughter did not seem quite genuine.

The first swath or two after the short noon hour were as hard for John Bristow as those of the morning -- a little harder, perhaps, because the pace at the start was swifter. And now again it was his turn to lead. Although he more than half-believed that this swath would be his "Waterloo," he stepped to the front with dogged resolution.

That morning he had noticed out in the big meadow a vague line that seemed to mark a different quality or kind of grass, but he had had time to give it only an occasional glance. Now the mowing had brought them fairly to this line, and he understood what it was -- a wide piece of "new-seeded."

Amasa Barton was a good farmer. The ground had been cleared of stones and well tilled: there had been an excellent "catch." The new growth stood rank and thick, and although not lodged, was still a tremendous burden. Eying the thick growth askance, John struck into it tentatively; to his intense relief, his scythe came through clean and free. Again he reached forward, this time with nearly a full stroke, and again his scythe came through without a "buff."

Close behind, and still with that irritating whistle, came Langton, swinging vigorously. With a full, unhesitating stroke he swung into the thick new-seeded.

John listened attentively and watched from the tail of his eye. Langton's whistling ceased abruptly. and in its place came an explosive ejaculation of disgust. He had found three forceful thrusts necessary to drive that long scythe of his through the thick, tangled growth.

A moment later Barton's scythe struck the line of new-seeded. Although no word came from the sturdy farmer, John's quick ears caught a distinct and most expressive grunt. The young haymaker laughed softly to himself. He said nothing, but carefully using a medium stroke that almost invariably brought his scythe through clear and free, he mowed steadily across the wide field. Then he turned back.

Several rods away, and fairly close together, the two were pulling along. By lifting their left hands to a high, strained position, they had contrived somewhat to shorten stroke. They were coming -- after a fashion.

As he waited for them, John looked carefully round. He smiled contentedly as he noticed that nearly all the rest of the big field was covered by new-seeded grass.

Breathing hard and perspiring freely, the two men finished their swaths. As Barton turned at the end, he cast a sharp glance at John's swath. He said nothing, for there was nothing to say; the swath was plainly the cleanest cut of the three. This time there was no story-telling as they carried swaths.

Twice more they cut through the heavy tangled growth, the new hand easily, the champions of the morning only through grim determination. Again at the foot of the field, they wiped their scythes with the fresh-cut grass, preparatory to whetting them.

Whetstone in hand, John Bristow looked for a moment square into the flushed faces of his two opponents. Then, once more over the Big Twenty there rang out, in no uncertain tones, the peculiar sharp rattling notes of the haymaker's challenge. But this time the new hand played the tune!

Although John was not in the least vindictive, he did believe that in certain times and places people should be given a good strong dose of their own medicine. He thought that one of the times was this July day, and one of the places was Amasa Barton's big meadow.

Whenever either of the men, visibly fretting over his long and now unwieldy scythe, took the lead, he followed closely. He was sure at last that he could easily mow either out of swath; more than once he was on the point of doing it. But he refrained; the extreme course is seldom the best. He smiled as he remembered his father's words with their wide application. But steadily, sharply he crowded the work; for perhaps two hours not a word was spoken by any one of the three.

Finally, it was easily to be seen that both Langton and Barton, seasoned workmen though they were, had nearly reached the limit of their endurance -- and especially Langton. That hitherto complacent young man gazed time after time anxiously across the meadow in search of a possible end to that killing new-seeded. But apparently there was no end. It stretched far back, wide and menacing. To add to his discomfiture, it really seemed as if the victim of the morning were carrying his stroke stronger and growing fresher hour by hour. Finally, at the end of a swath in which he had kept place only by using every last shred of his reserve strength, he stopped. Without looking up, he ran his finger over the edge of his scythe, shook his head, and saying gruffly that he "must go and grind," left the field.

For a moment Amasa Barton eyed his slowly retreating "help." He was himself breathing heavily, and perspiration streamed down his face; but his mouth was set, and there was evidently still some fight left in his sturdy frame. He looked at John silently.

"Fine piece of new-seeded grass this, Mr. Barton," remarked John, cheerfully.

Although the sun beat down relentlessly and there was not a breath of air, the sturdy old veteran of the field held his place twice again across the wide meadow. Then at the end a swath he deliberately shouldered his scythe.

"John," he said, slowly, and in his voice was a note of respect that the young man had never heard before, "my scythe isn't dull, and I'm not going to pretend that it is, but -- I'm going to sit in the shade a while. It's pretty hot."

He started toward the house, but stopped to call back, "You understand, John, that you don't have to mow any more today unless want to?"

"Yes," said John, "I understand. But I guess I'll mow till night, thank you."

Twice on his way to the house, Amasa Barton turned to look back at the solitary mower steadily swinging along in the Big Twenty meadow. He understood perfectly well that more than once that stifling afternoon, the young man's courtesy alone had saved him from the disgrace of losing his swath.

From the wide farmhouse porch his wife and daughter glanced up inquiringly as he went slowly past. He scowled at Sue; then suddenly his face relaxed. Stopping, he jerked his big thumb in the direction of the meadow. "That young fellow allows he'll mow till night," he said in an odd tone expressive of mixed emotions. "He's gritty enough -- but it's frightful hot down there. I guess he'd appreciate a jug of our Cold Spring water, if you have time, Sue." And he stumbled into the house.


"Thirsty, John?" John Bristow looked quickly at the end of his long swath. A look of delight came into his face at sight of the bright-eyed girl in the wide sun-hat. Her eyes were twinkling roguishly, and he wondered whether she understood the situation. In the true back-handed style he tossed up the jug and took a deep, refreshing draft.

"Thank you, Sue; this certainly is kind of you," he said, as he handed back the jug. And then, much to his surprise, he suddenly found himself talking with fluent ease.

Soon he again took up his scythe. The girl, with a half smile on her lips, had been looking out over the long row of swaths. Now she looked at the tall young mower, holding his scythe so easily, and said:

"Benny Langton came up to the house a while ago, John. He said he'd dulled his scythe, but he went home without grinding it. And father's lying on the couch in the sitting room." She laughed softly. "I heard them talking at noon. They said you weren't in their class -- that you couldn't stay, and that they were going to put you under the fence before night. They didn't do it, did they?" She hesitated a moment, and then added shyly, "I'm glad, John." And John was alone with his mowing.

The shadows were falling when, with his scythe over his shoulder, John turned into the home lane. Milking was over; his father was putting up the pasture bars. They understood each other, these two, and they said little as they went together up the green lane.

But soon the father said, and there was a pleased light in his eyes, "I saw someone mowing alone this afternoon in Amasa's Big Twenty. It couldn t have been you, John?"

"I guess it was, father."

"Scythe work pretty well, John?"

"Best in the world, father. The very best in the world."

His father nodded appreciatively; then he added, "Taking things by and large in this old world, it's a pretty good plan, John, to be medium."


The Youth's Companion, Vol. 86, No. 18, May 2, 1912, pages 230-231
Illustration drawn by Charles Hubbard

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Q&A: Left-handed scythes?

Mowing with ease at seven years young.

Q:  I'm planning to get a scythe, but I'm left-handed. I know there are left-handed blades out there but, in your experience, do southpaws simply adapt to scything with a right-handed bias (as with so many other things)?

A:  [from Peter Vido] The basic 'switch' to an opposite-handed scythe can -- in some cases -- be made before the morning's worth of mowing is over (after which the refinements will continue, of course). My daughters, one naturally left-handed and the other right-handed, would agree. They both started with right-handed blades at the age of 7 or so, and only tried a left-hand version several years later, 'just for fun'. But it was no big deal for either of them to make the 'wrongly-aimed' blades cut grass just fine.

However, my daughters (as well as their uncle Alexander Vido, who is a natural left-hander) continued to use primarily right-handed scythes. The chief reason is that they were interested to try out different blade patterns, and during any one season would end up 'fooling around' with many of them. And, although left-handed blades have long been produced, the diversity of available models was always FAR less. The privilege of our left-handed scythe collection notwithstanding, they can try out MANY more right (as opposed to left) handed models, and so they stuck with the 'right-hand bias' for the most part.

I have recently experimented 'somewhat' (meaning about 10-12 hrs of actual work) with left-handed scythes because my long ago right wrist injury more or less 'ordered' the trial. As a fringe benefit, it was an interesting way to gain insights about the learning process for a beginner -- something I now feel I ought to have done long ago...

We can speculate that it would be easier for a natural left-hander to begin with (or later switch to) a right-handed scythe than for a natural right-hander to meet the same challenge, simply because in our 'right-dominant' culture the left-handers grew up adapting to many 'right hand only' tools. (An example -- ever heard of a left-handed chainsaw? Yet thousands of natural left-handers have made professional careers of using them just the same; a statement to our potential ability to adapt.)

So let's speculate why would someone specially chose to use a left-handed scythe?

Some of the possibilities:

a) They're one of the 'committed left-handers' who prefer left-handed equipment whenever it's available.

b) They are a natural left-hander who initially learned to mow with a left-handed scythe and do not want to relearn (or override) the motions.

c) They are natural right-handers but as a result of an injury to the right shoulder/arm/wrist have more available strength in their 'unnatural' side and consequently can mow better with a left-handed scythe, especially in dense and/or tall grass when the strength factor comes more into play.

d) Some people simply desire to balance their body's muscle usage in general, and while scything they can occasionally switch between right-handed and left-handed scythes.
[Yes, we do know individuals actually doing this.] 

Team mowing with left-handed scythes

One of the most frequently offered reasons against obtaining/learning how to use a left-handed scythe has been "but then you can't mow in teams". Those making this argument may be 'under the influence' of the illustration on page 61 of David Tresemer's Scythe Book. They probably also haven't used the scythe enough themselves, and consequently fail as yet to grasp the range of individual expression that -- potentially -- the use of this tool can entail. That "round and round around the field" represents a 'boxed in' approach to forage harvesting, a must to most forage-harvesting machines. Yes, it may well have been the way the large, flat and evenly-standing areas of America were mown (even with scythes) in bygone days -- but is NOT how a group of mowers traditionally progressed most of the time, in most of the scythe-using world.

Whatever the definition of 'teams' may be and how frequently groups gather (in relation to solo scythe work) these days in the 'West', I do not really know. What I do know is that whether there is a 'team' of 2 mowers or 25 who wish to cut a respective area together, there are usually several ways to accommodate either-sided folks.

Regardless of the specific numbers of people involved, some can begin moving diagonally from opposite sides of a field. Also, the traditional Swiss 'double swath' approach can effectively be implemented by equal number of left and right-handed scythes -- by the leading person (it could be either right or left-hander) starting a strip which deposits the cut matter against the still-standing grass. A person with a blade pointing in the opposite direction can then follow in the leader's heels and deposit the grass against the already accumulating (leading person's) windrow. That is not exactly how the Swiss do it, but the end effect would be the same -- a swath twice the width of one cutting movement of a blade, with all grass accumulated within a 'double windrow' in the middle. (In Switzerland, this approach is still features in at least some of their national mowing competitions. It consists of a person mowing the given length first towards the standing grass, and then turning around and making a pass away from it. It takes more than the usual judgement and skill to assure that everything under that 'double windrow has been shaven clean -- an element, besides the time taken, that is taken into consideration. That is, before the judges announce the final score, all grass is raked away to see just how cleanly the mowing was performed.)

However, the majority of folks making up the Western eco-crowd do not usually mow large fields together as 'teams'. Most end up working in irregularly-shaped terrain where adhering to certain direction is not the issue, or at least shouldn't be. In fact, all seasoned mowers who have faced a wide variety of mowing conditions would likely tell you that there were times they wished their blades were pointing in the opposite direction. That is to say, there are situations where -- due to topography and/or the predominant lay of the plants to be cut -- having a left-handed scythe in hand (or a friend with one at your side) would be advantageous. An experienced leader of a group ought to be able to quickly access the site, and then place the right and left-handers (regardless how many of each the group consists of) in positions where their respective scythe be made best use of.

Availability of left-handed blades

All the above notwithstanding, it would be unreasonable to advocate 'equal rights' in this regard, simply because the present availability of left-handed blades is severely limited.
The Schroeckenfux company of Austria makes one standard (#201 pattern) model - but in 70cm/28" only. They also still, from time to time, make a wider model (#108 pattern) for an old customer in Portugal, where apparently in a few select regions everybody mowed 'left-handed' once upon a time. That (Portuguese) model has been made in lengths from 18" to 28", but is not listed in the company's regular catalogue. Any wholesale customer could, I assume, ask for it although it may not be laying on the shelf in their warehouse in all the lengths at any one time. The Falci enterprise in Italy makes one of their standard models in a left hand version, but only in one (65cm/26") length. That may be the extent of the options today. In Bob Dylan's old words -- "The times they are a'changin'..."

To buck the trend would require a large scale revolution (akin to the feminist, gay or 'black power' movements). Even then, anywhere near matching the right-hand blades' models and lengths availability? Forget it. And this, from my perspective, is the only justifiable reason for advising a natural left-hander against getting stuck on their 'natural right' of bucking the present norm. In the meantime, Scythe Works still offers an inexpensive option to experiment with -- a blade model made in Austria, 20-30 years ago, made for Argentina. It is not extra light (but neither are most scythe blades today), has a relatively steep tang (making it easy to fit the simplest-to-make straight one-grip snath) and comes in 20, 22 and 26 inches, at least for now.

We have in our collection still other left-handed models, but it would take more digging than we can presently take time for to get them all out whatever boxes they are hiding in just to pose for a picture. Hope this suffices as a statement that, yes, left-handed scythe blades have long existed.

-- Peter Vido

Mirror images from Mowing with ease at
Photos from Vido family collection.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Scythe blade repair

Alexander Vido sent these photos of his repairs to a blade that someone had damaged.

Ouch, a major tear. It was fixed by first cutting the metal with aviation snips, removing a tapered strip from both sides of the tear. Then a file was used to even up the line of the edge, followed by a carborundum stone to smooth and re-bevel the edge.

 The result: a scythe blade that can be sharpened and put back to work.
After repairs. Click on photo for enlarged view.