Saturday, September 15, 2012

My inner Anglo-Saxon and the right tool for the job

I was pretty much a card-carrying white Anglo-Saxon Protestant to begin with, but I got a birthday present last month that made me feel even moreso.  My husband gave me a beautiful new scythe from Scythe Supply in Perry, Maine, and I've been learning to use it to mow the grasses and weeds in the clearing around our house.

Learning, in this case, has involved some trial and error, and also some diligent reading of David Tresemer's classic The Scythe Book, which came with the scythe.  Tresemer has a deep sense of the history and lineage of this particular hand-tool, and the book reminded me of how the pre-modern continues to lurk in many aspects of our supposedly postmodern world.  You can definitely hear it in the old English words that turn up in scything:  peen, tang, snath, windrow.  And Tresemer also notes that in the days before standardized measurements, there were many variations on how large an acre was, perhaps based on what could typically be mowed by a person in a day--a metric that was influenced by differences in local and regional methods, tools, and levels of skill.  Mowing a field with a scythe evokes some sense of connection to peasants haying in preindustrial Europe and yeoman farmers carving out farms in colonial New England.

The scythe's renewed popularity seems to be part of a recent trend toward "reskilling" and the somewhat longer-standing "appropriate technology" movement.  These and other related movements (for example, DIY and urban homesteading) emphasize hand tools, small-scale production, muscle-power, and low energy inputs, all of which also tend to support personal and local agency rather than top-down or large-scale control of resources and production of all kinds.  Among the hybrid farm/history sites that I've been keeping an eye on as I've been thinking about the intersection of historical knowledge about farming and contemporary farm economies, there are two that have clearly embraced this approach:
  • Tillers International, in Michigan, connects the dots among historical and small-scale modes of farming, energy conservation and efficiency, and rural self-determination.  Its classes and projects are a fascinating blend of the nostalgic and the forward-looking, and it treats the historic farm tools in its museum collection as "models of innovation" that can be used to inspire re-designed and re-invented technologies for contemporary farming.
  •  The Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in New York state has recently launched a "Slow Tools" project that aims to create efficient, ergonomic tools and machines suited to the small scale of most new young farmers' operations.  Beginning with a small electric tractor that can serve multiple purposes (above), the engineers and inventors working on the project plan to offer open-source designs for a variety of energy-efficient equipment.
 Scythe Supply's "Why Use a Scythe?" page includes a list of many different kinds of people and groups who find scythes preferable to petroleum-powered mowers, and the list reflects the heartening diversity of the hand-tool and back-to-the-land movements.  Farmers, gardeners, ranchers, and growers of various kinds are represented;  so are those who want to limit the environmental impact of their mowing by avoiding heavy equipment (an argument sometimes put forward for the use of draft horses in small-scale logging operations).  The page mentions "A pair of 81 year olds who remember mowing in their youth and have returned to scything for exercise" as well as "Living history centers needing period equipment"--all in all, an interesting blend of the nostalgic, the practical, and the representational.

A dissenting voice on this comes from a commenter on a post I wrote earlier this year extolling the virtues of small-scale farm equipment.  When the piece was re-posted recently on the National Young Farmers Coalition "Farm Hack" blog, a fifth-generation Wisconsin farmer took me to task for ignoring the many downsides of old equipment, including safety concerns and costs in time and effort.  It was a useful reminder that we always need to ask the question, "Why did we move away from doing this in the first place?", a historical approach that can be an important corrective to assuming that anything old or small-scale is inherently better.

"What's the best tool for this particular job?" is perhaps an even better question to ask, with an awareness that "better" might encompass everything from fuel costs and environmental impact to the aesthetic/physical/personal satisfactions of feeling a sharp blade slicing through damp grass in the early morning.

1 comment:

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