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 (of Scythe Works) 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 widespread use, due to a lack of common vision between Alexander and the local 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, 2016

Below is an excerpt from a follow-up 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, ...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, 2016



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.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Scythes go viral in India

Screenshot from recent video with 1.3 million views.

Scythes got a lot of attention this past month during the wheat harvest in northern India, thanks to Alexander Vido and Sy Schotz, who travelled there to demonstrate the cradle scythe at numerous villages. This short video was posted on April 1, and got over 1.3 million views in less than a month!

Link to the video

Monday, March 28, 2016

Scythe Success in Costa Rica

Rolando (left) and Michael honing their blades. Rolando's snath seen in this shot was made of dry balsa, supposedly 'good for nothing' wood, and along with a narrow old 65 cm blade the unit was truly 'featherweight'. After being used from day one, it was still in one piece when I left...

"...the rage of the weed-whacker has not been heard from for over a month now.  Nobody, not even the workers who once rejoiced in weed-whackers, mention them; the scythe has clearly been universally accepted.  Given how workers typically cling to ingrained procedures, this is an enormous achievement!"
 -- Jagdish, from Sat Yoga Institute, Costa Rica

The Yogis and the Scythe
by Peter Vido

This little 'scythe success story' began when permaculture teacher Scott Pittman taught a course at the Sat Yoga Ashram in Costa Rica, and suggested that they 'need a few scythes on the place'. Trusting his advice, they did some research and decided to contact us. 

After a short exchange of emails, one of the members, Jagdish, promptly hopped on a plane and spent a week-long intensive scythe session on our farm in September. He went back with 50-some blades and accessories. But, being educated in other ways than hand tool use, he didn't in the end feel confident to 'properly' introduce this strange new tool to the ashram's full-time work crew of ten local farm-raised Costa Ricans who, it would appear, were born with machetes strapped to their sides. So we decided to take the efforts a step further... 

In mid-January I shed my long johns and travelled south to swap the snow for the heat of tropics, not looking forward to that part of it -- because excessive heat has never been my cup of tea. But I was surprised that up there high in the mountains, with nearly constant breeze present, a northerner could actually function. The ashram is situated amidst the breathtaking scenery of a cloud forest and though it was the 'dry' season, the landscape was green and growing vigorously. And much of it -- in line with the ashram's objectives -- needing to be cut.

The objectives are twofold:  One is to maintain a very diverse, permaculture-style ecosystem where edible crops are interplanted in creative patterns with ornamentals and native flora. Obtaining material for compost making, mulch and erosion control is an ongoing task. The other objective is the ashram's obsessive manicuring of certain portions of the grounds -- and those were maintained in accordance to the dictate of the "American Lawn Culture". Such a lawn can indeed be cut with a machete, but only at a great cost to some humans' comfort and health.

In the past I've read exclamations by those who have never tried to 'walk a mile in the machete-swinging man's moccasins' to the effect that the African or Latino men 'are not averse to working with a bent-over back'. That -- after talking to numerous such men from different countries -- I conclude, is uninformed bullshit! Those men do such work because they have to, or believe they do. Strong and agile as they generally are, many have told me that their backs and right shoulders are routinely sore. Accidents of sometimes serious cuts to the left leg are also not uncommon...

Nevertheless, I did witness much excellent machete work during the first half of my month-long stay there, and it was impressive. These men keep their machetes sharper than I saw anywhere else. The daily routine consists of scraping (not filing or grinding) the edges -- lengthwise -- with a tool self-made of a sideways-tapered 12" file, its one side shaped to a knife-like profile. This, in a way, can be likened to the grinding of Scandinavian, British or American scythe blades, except the steel is removed lengthwise and no grindstone is needed. Then the edge is finished on a stationary water-lubricated stone. In the field a smaller version of the 'scraper' is carried along and used as needed to mend the frequent nicks (because a machete's edge, more typically aimed downward, 'finds' more earth and rocks than does a scythe blade in experienced hands). 

Following this maintenance routine, I was told that the ashram's workers, on average, wear out (or break) 2-3 blades, each, per year. In view of the combined outlay ($5-10 apiece) for such a short period of use, the cost of a scythe blade (provided it is obtained through dealers who do not triple its FOB price) seems to offer a very good EROEI.

There is no doubt in my mind that both tools can (or 'ought to'?) have their niche-specific places in tropical agriculture. The machete, I agree, is an utterly useful multipurpose creation, and watching a competent native gracefully swinging it is a joy to behold. For certain tasks, the same can be said of the scythe. Not so with the other more recent among the grass-cutting alternatives -- the tool that (in his Love and Revolution) Alaistair McIntosh calls "an accursed strimmer"...

Contrary to what one might expect somewhere amidst a near pristine wilderness, I had to put up (both philosophically and psychologically) with the noisy racket of just such a thing, at least initially. The yogis had obtained 6 of them -- at the cost of $800 each -- to both ease the drudgery of their workers and to expedite the manicuring process. (For the same reason -- with the 'lawn disease' first paving the highway -- the petrol-dependent strimmers are making significant inroads into many corners of even the very poor countries around the globe. And, of course, most spiritual/ecological centers in the West are 'taken care of' in a similar manner...)

Here they were used practically on a daily basis in some place or another of the ashram's extended territory. As opposed to watching the machetes in action (when I felt 'sorry' only for the men's bodies), while witnessing the strimmers blasting small rocks in all directions, I felt additional compassion for the shredded up little beings whose homes were being mercilessly ransacked whenever the men with plastic aprons, work gloves, face masks and protective head gear showed up. With the manicure completed they departed, leaving behind the torn-up ends of plant stems crying...

But hopefully, at least in this one place, that is now over.

Here each of the workers exhibits a different posture. The nearest one is probably leaning over momentarily to pick up some trampled stems, the middle one is in the average 'comfort zone', and Rolando (furthest away) seems to be angling his tool so as to trim a side of a steep ditch. Note the heaps of grass behind them, piled up in short spells between, and nearly simultaneously, with the actual cutting. Previously, the machete or strimmer-scattrered vegetation required more work to gather for removal to composting sites, with much of it remaining behind.

And, it is a beautiful place. I had never before mowed where the equivalent area was so diverse with regards to topography, variety of plants and spacing between what was not to be cut. And it is a 'land of ditches'. Even the few relatively flat patches are rimmed or crossed with drainage ditches from a few inches to two feet in depth, all covered with vegetation that is periodically trimmed. New tree seedlings continue being planted and need to be 'protected' from disappearing in the sea of wilderness. There are raised or wood-framed garden beds with very narrow paths between them and floral designs rimmed with immaculately managed grass. The banks along the roads of this whole property (that only four wheel drive vehicles can navigate) are from two to 'infinity' high, and in places virtually vertical.

One of many examples of a snath with multiple grips. Such specimens are 'a piece of cake' to make, and as you can imagine, the left hand has more options as where and how to hold the snath than the actual grip per se.

While 'setting-up' a scythe the "ideal" lay of a blade becomes a joke. All in all, this is a paradise-like terrain for a scythe-swinging person who likes diversity. Our friend Niels Johannsen from Denmark -- the most creative mower, when it comes to scythe-wielding techniques that I know of -- would be in 'seventh heaven' there; he'd have done all that work with his one and only snath -- the one that in much of his daily work travels through his hands as if it were alive. 

A portion of the snath/blade combinations I left behind.

But to meet the needs of more common people along with these diversified tasks, I ended up making nearly 30 snaths of different sizes and with grip positions breaking many normal rules. Some snaths custom-fit for those steep banks were not much longer than their long (80 cm) stiff blade, and some had 3 or 4 grips, plus (as the need called for it) were meant to be held in more positions than that. I was glad that Ashoka, one of the yogis, had fashioned a 'shaving horse' before I came, and that two of the workers were commissioned to gather a large heap of snake-shaped branches of trees they routinely trim. Thus there was material to work with in order to make both grips and shafts in an infinity of shapes. Not many turned out typical-like. It so happens that I enjoy working with such a diversity. And between what Jagdish initially took home from our place and what I brought additionally, I had ample room for fooling around with blades/snaths fitting. The inventory of blades included products of scythe industries from Austria, Germany, Italy, Russia, Slovenia and Turkey, and they ranged from short and heavy (or light) to long and light (or heavy and stiff) and with diversely-set tangs.

Here a Costa Rica-born woman -- the chief mind behind the truly perma-cultural flavor of the ashram grounds -- is showing a fine bodily posture (but not one that in that terrain can be maintained for very long without various shifts).

One notable thing regarding 'blade suitability' was that not too many mowing sessions into the experience, the two most talented of the mowers (Parvati among the yogis and Rolando among the workers) came to appreciate the blades of the lesser weight, and overall, the 'grass' models were used far more than the heavier (per length) 'bush' blades. I was also surprised how few nicks ended up on the blades' edges in all that challenging terrain with some rocks in most places. Rolando -- the supervisor of the workers, a talented jack of all trades, but who initially seemed very reserved about the scythe's introduction -- 'made' one of my days when (as we worked near each other on his third morning of the hands-on experience and he was trimming a shallow ditch with graceful diagonal strokes) he exclaimed, more to himself than to me: "THIS IS AN AMAZING TOOL".

I was surprised how practically all of the seemingly (visually) 'tough' vegetation could be cut with a scythe. Here some dry sorgum-like plant, allowed to die and partially lay down, is easily handled with a 45 cm/300gram blade.

In closing, here is an excerpt from email I recently received from Jagdish, the ashram's member who traveled to our farm and continues as one of the primary scythe enthusiasts:

"This morning, like many these days, included a delightful hour of mowing in the stillness as the sun broke over Bodh Gaia.  You can imagine it well. Not so far away Roy and Parvati are usually found cutting the grass somewhere around Hridaya. The agricultural team will soon be joining us.  You’ll be pleased, though not surprised, to know that the rage of the weed-whacker has not been heard from for over a month now.  Nobody, even the workers who once rejoiced in weed-whackers, mention them; the scythe has clearly been universally accepted.  Given how workers typically cling to ingrained procedures, this is an enormous achievement!

The blades' edge maintenance proved to be less of a challenge on this place than I expected, perhaps because bulk of the students are already sharp-tool-using men. Rolando took to the freehand peening like fish to water, and even two of the yogis (Parvati and Kalyan) were not far behind. Here is the robust Michael at the task.

-- Peter Vido


Text and photos from Peter Vido, and used with permission.
A shorter version of this story, with the title "Scythe Mission to Machete Land" appears in  
The Windrow, Newsletter of the Scythe Association of Britain and Ireland, No. 11, March 2016.
More information and photos can be found at the Sat Yoga Institute blog, in the post by Jagdish titled
The Scythe Comes to Arunachala

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Scythe Initiative in India

Alexander Vido (of Scythe Works) was contacted by a number of enthusiastic people from various parts of India in response to his Scythe Project in Nepal, so he arranged a trip to "lend a hand" where he could. While there, he found that a cradle scythe could successfully harvest paddy rice, as long as it wasn't too ripe. He plans to return in the Spring for the wheat harvest in northern India, where he was invited to assist with the local adoption of scythes (instead of sickles) for the task.

A slideshow of his recent trip can be found at his Scythes in the Developing World site. Here are some samples:

All photos from Alexander Vido, used with permission.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Go ahead... with a scythe

I want to go ahead of Father Time
with a scythe of my own.

-- H.G. Wells


Line-engraving titled Old Father Time of Wiltshire,
by Stanley Anderson, R.A., 1944
Royal Academy of Arts Collection

H.G. Wells quote from the Introduction to
The Book of Catherine Wells
by Amy Catherine Wells
(Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran, 1928) p. 22