Death of a Lawn Mower

The novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald knew that Americans find public expression of their successful lives in a neatly groomed lawn. Jay Gatsby was so horrified at Nick Carroway’s ragged lawn next door that he sent his gardeners over to mow the offending sward. As the nation was more prosperous by the 1920s and homes were set back from the road, owners mimicked the greens of Mount Vernon, Monticello and the great estates of 17th and 18th century Britain and France. Inventions of mechanical and powered mowers to replace laborious scything offered much encouragement.

A lawn is an expensive investment, but realtors know the kerbside appeal of perfectly manicured grass helps house sales. It is a sine qua non for the modern suburbanite. Impressions of something familiar we grow up with are hard to budge, and when lost we feel bereft, but if we can step back mentally, it may be seen in new light. When I look at a ‘perfect’ lawn now my mind toggles between lawn and desert (call it cognitive dissonance if you like).

Looks more like a barren landscape on second thoughts

Why desert? Because among nuanced meanings lawns and golf courses are desolate and barren landscapes. If anything tries to nestle in a monoculture of non-native grass it is quickly doused in herbicides and pesticides, which gardeners use even more profligately than farmers. We fight frantically to conquer every weed and bug. Striving for perfection is a virtue better reserved for indoors because outside nature hates uniformity and tidiness.

Nick Carroway is more my kind of guy than his rich neighbor, although I came round lately. I am letting my lawn grow long and wild, like my hair and coronabeard. You might wonder if they are all reactions to the current contagion, yet I argue it is mindfulness and not just a lazy mower.

I love to watch knee-high stems swaying in a breeze. The sward is too dense for weeds to anchor, except the pretty polkadots of white clover and a few wildflowers on the lawn. Did I say lawn? I can now call it meadow. Deer and cottontail rabbits feed and fertilize; butterflies dance by day and lightning bugs cruise at night; goldfinches cram on seed heads; our dogs love to romp and nuzzle there. And, so, besides aesthetics and entertainment value, new and more abundant life sprouts from the death of lawn.

Ben approves of the lawn transition

It is no longer a source of noise and atmospheric pollution (gasoline mowers produce 10x more per hour than a new car). Clover is a bugbear of lawnists, but the virtuous plant boosts soil nitrogen and protects the crust in drought. Without a sprinkler system no water is wasted (more an issue in the West). Overseeding is natural and spontaneous instead of broadcast by hand from a packet, and better quality because the seeds originated from parents that thrive by natural selection. There are obvious savings from lawn chemicals, and precious time is captured from edging, raking and aerating. No more is surplus phosphate drained into streams that open into the Chesapeake Bay.

Lawns only feed pride, yet their collective acreage exceeds that of any food crop in America. What a terrible waste of resource! There is still no shame cultivating a chemical lawn (not yet!), and some homeowner associations and local authorities levy outrageous penalties when people neglect their front lawn, like the retired Florida man threatened with foreclosure when he didn’t pay fines. Lest my readers worry the lawn police will turn up on my doorstep my experiment is neither overlooked by neighbors nor is it kerbside. But I still need to observe politics at home.

There is another reckoning, however, when land is left fallow, and mine will arrive later in the summer with the scorching Virginia sun. That is the time to mow, and not a light task even with a lean and keen Austrian scythe. But it will be a day for looking back with satisfaction and enjoying a rare kind of pride by mowing as our ancestors did in the great estates of yore. 

A Scythe for all Seasons

Cyrus McCormick
Cyrus McCormick

Old Cyrus thought he had killed off the scythe for good when he invented the mechanical reaper. The scythe has mowed hay for fodder and harvested grain for bread since the Roman Empire, and its diminutive cousin, the sickle, was used in the times of Cyrus the Great and the Ancient Egyptians. No one lamented its passing, least of all Cyrus whose patents made him a fortune, and the little factories that manufactured the Anglo-American type closed one by one. Until its resurrection, the scythe only provided service in Reaper stories.

In Terry Pratchett's zany Discworld, Reaper Man takes Windle Poons to his just reward
In Terry Pratchett’s zany Discworld, Reaper Man takes Windle Poons to his just reward

I bought a scythe from an old man for $20. Its blade was rusty and the snath riddled with woodworm, but a grindstone restored a keen edge. After casting it across swaths of stiltgrass, I leaned back to look at the weeds leveled in neat swatches around me, but it was heavy work and the bent snath forced me to stoop unnaturally. I doubt if a farmer who had hung up his scythe in the 19th Century could foresee a time when suburban man might take it down again, except as a museum piece.

Without mechanization, prairie farms would still be tiny, and how would we have harvested enough food for a burgeoning population? Besides, machines liberated field labor for more agreeable pursuits. But scythes are mowing again. They may never return as a tool of a trade, but scythes offer healthy exercise for sedentary suburbanites (instead of pulling levers in expensive sports clubs) at the same time as fresh air and sounds of nature (instead of being drowned out with a smoky, gas-guzzling weed-whacker). Farmers of yore who swayed while singing hymns in little white churches would be amazed to see the new piety of suburban man rolling with his scythe over devilish weeds. But I admit that any virtuous feelings I ever had of being in tune with nature and drawing energy from my silent internal combustion engines (mitochondria) vanished after a half-hour workout, leaving my limbs aching and stiltgrass insolently upright. Were pre-Industrial age farmers Herculean? I hung up my scythe to forget about it.

Never underemployed in this job
Never underemployed in this job

Then I discovered another type of scythe, one that really could sustain virtue—the Austrian scythe! It became my favorite tool. It made me an ardent enthusiast. It gave me a new vocabulary of almost obsolete terms: honing, peening, snath, tang, and chine. Every part and corner of the scythe—from nib to toe—was carefully named by folk for whom it brought home their daily bread.

It is a cool tool but Lederhosen, suspenders, and a felt Alpine hat are not mandatory garb for users. And, being so much lighter than the Anglo-American type, women can swing with it too. The blade is razor sharp, but this isn’t a dangerous tool like a sickle which like its sister, the machete, can accidentally clip a passer-by or even yourself in a weed frenzy. It was never used as a weapon, being too ungainly and designed to be swept like a broom an inch over the ground. My new scythe is a breeze to use since it was custom-made for my height and arm-length. Cut half-an-acre of hay a day? No bother, mate. Cut brush, ditches, even mow the lawn with the grass blade. Piece of cake. The rhythm of the blade swings to a mowing song.agriculture-in-ancient-Egypt5

One man went to mow

Went to mow a meadow;

One man and his dog, Spot,

Went to mow a meadow.

Two men went to mow …

The Scythesman by John Prescott Knight, 1852. Trustees of the British Museum.
The Scythesman by John Prescott Knight, 1852. Trustees of the British Museum.

A new Austrian scythe admittedly costs a tad more than $20, but you are buying something that has been hand-forged by a craftsman after a lengthy apprenticeship in a European foundry going back centuries. The cutting edge is drawn out by hammering on a peening jig, and finished by honing with a whetstone. More than an heirloom, more than a good tool, it is an object of beauty.

Austrian scythes have a straight snath
Austrian scythes have a straight snath

Modern scything is heading for cult status in parts of North America and Europe, encouraged by associations and competitions that are springing up. Don’t imagine it is the pedestrian equivalent of a quaint steam tractor chugging into a state agricultural show—a fit man can match a motor-mower or weed-whacker in leveling a grass field. Perhaps there is an Olympic sport in the making, though Old Cyrus would shake his head.



SHARPENING. These scythes should not be sharpened on a grindstone. They were hand-wrought and should be hand-sharpened. While working the scythe the blade is kept keen by regular honing with a whetstone, but eventually its edge is no longer drawn to a thin taper and needs to be hammered out (peened), as I demonstrate here.


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