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A Good Scythe

In his essay “A Good Scythe,” Wendell Berry writes about buying a Sears Roebuck “power scythe” after he and his family moved to a farm in the Kentucky River Valley in 1965. The farm was “mostly on a hillside” and covered ground that was difficult to mow. So Berry bought the power scythe to solve that problem, only to find that it created more problems, among them that it was heavy, clumsy, dangerous, noisy, tempermental and undependable. His friend Harlan Hubbard then shows him an “old-fashioned, human-powered scythe” that had, Berry writes, “an intelligence and refinement in its design that made it a pleasure to handle and look at and think about.” Wendell is so enamored that he orders one himself from The Marugg Company in Tracy City, Tennessee. The essay is only five pages long, and I’m certain scythes everywhere (at least the non-power ones) have surely memorized every word of this love letter to their kind. Berry concludes by praising all the virtues of his new, Marugg scythe: it is light, less dangerous, quiet, cheaper and requires no fuel.

This being our first summer as homeowners, we now have a lawn to tend. Growing up in my (Ben) family, lawn-mowing was something of an art form. We had a large yard, with many slopes, some leading down to a stream that ran along our property. Our yard now is much smaller in comparison, a corner lot, with just three sections (front, side, back) and almost no slope. We really have no need for a gas mower, so my father-in-law gave us an old push mower with a wooden handle. I want to say it’s a good scythe, but I’m still getting there.

It is lighter, quieter, cheaper, less dangerous and much less gas-guzzling than a push mower with an engine. It also gives me blisters and jams every time I run over a pine cone. My arms want to fall off after I’m done using it. And it takes quite a bit longer than a mower with an engine would. Corners are harder to negotiate, and it spits the grass up and back so that when I take off my shoes inside, a good portion of the lawn is stuck to my ankles and socks.

On the plus side, I sweat like a beast, something Erin finds terribly attractive. And it is a good workout. Wendell says as much about his scythe:

The other difference [between the two scythes] is between kinds of weariness. Using the Marugg scythe causes the simple bodily weariness that comes with exertion. This is a kind of weariness that, when not extreme, can in itself be one of the pleasures of work. The power scythe, on the other hand, adds to the weariness of exertion the unpleasant and destructive weariness of strain. This is partly because, in addition to carrying and handling it, your attention is necessarily clenched to it; if you are to use it effectively and safely, you must not look away. And partly it is because the power scythe, like all motor-driven tools, imposes patterns of endurance that are alien to the body. As long as the motor is running there is a pressure to keep going. You don’t stop to consider or rest or look around. … And because it is not motor driven and is quiet and odorless, the Marugg scythe also allows the pleasure of awareness of what is going on around you as you work.

This last point is very true. You can have a conversation using a push mower, as I have had with several neighbors. “I haven’t seen one of those in twenty years!” said one woman walking her dogs. “Best mower in the city right there,” said a man who stopped his car to talk to me. “I’ll give you two weeks, tops,” said another walker, laughing and shaking his head. “No I like it,” I told him, sweat pouring down my face, arms twitching from exertion, blisters swelling up every second. This is worth it, right? Wendell would be proud of me, I tell myself. This guy isn’t. “Two weeks,” he repeats. As he turns and walks away, I picture a good scythe lodged in his back.

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5 thoughts on “A Good Scythe

  1. Ben, you are a better man than me. I had great intentions of buying a new version of the old- fashioned mower. But there are times when I let my lawn get so tall that it really does need a scythe to cut it and the push mower just doesn’t operate in such conditions. I will have to mow vicariously through you (I will even give myself blisters just to feel your pain).

  2. maybe you should walk backwards and pull it to avoid the grass getting on your shoes? hehe…

    LOVE the blog by the way. Just don’t forget the little people (like me) who enjoyed your thoughts before they became famous.

  3. Hi Ben,
    Great reflections. I am an old Ky boy, now up the creek in Skamania Co, WA. (Columbia gorge). Having been OOT for June my lawn was 2 1/2 ft tall when I returned. So out came the scythe. And it is definately the way to go when the grass is wild. Or shorter. There is a youtube video (http://youtube.com/watch?v=gL2_chKPWjE) 0f the Vido Family mowing away that starts with their 2 young (less than teenage) children honeing pre cutting. Wendell was right !

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