Using a scythe may take time to master but it is at its heart very simple. It is that simplicity that led us to choose the name A Stick and a Blade. That is all that a scythe is. The name leaves out one essential element though, and that is you, the mower.
I find it helpful to split things into clumps of three as it helps us to remember. So the complete mowing outfit consists of the scythe blade that cuts the grass, the human that is “doing” the mowing, and the snath or stick which connects the two.
The blade of the scythe needs to be sharp, lie flat on the ground and move in an arc. We will leave the sharpening for another time. For a scythe blade to cut well it needs to lay almost flat on the ground. The cutting edge should be a couple of millimeters higher than the rib, and the nose is usually slightly raised too. The blade wants to perform a slicing action rather than a chopping or hacking motion. It does this by moving through an arc.
Each scythe blade has a different shape, character and purpose. They all want to move in an arc though. When watching someone use a 110cm competition blade with a very wide stance it may look as though the blade is moving straight, but it isn’t – at least not quite. If we zoomed out and extended the lines we would notice that the blade is actually moving in a small segment of a much larger circle. We get the best results with the least effort when we allow the blade to move through its own natural arc.
The snath is our connection with the blade and the ground. It is possible to pick up any scythe setup and begin to mow, even mow well. The snath is adjustable though and we can adjust it to the material, terrain and our own bodies.
At the point at which the blade is attached to the snath with the clamp we have the opportunity to change the lay of the blade – the amount the cutting edge is raised. We can change the hafting angle – to match the blade’s arc. At the user’s end we can adjust the grips or nibs so that our body follows the blades motion with ease. Simply put, the lower grip should be set to hip height and the upper grip a cubit (shoulder width or elbow to finger tip) above that.
The whole point is to adjust the setup for the best and easiest mowing experience. A more detailed description of the setup process is available in another section.
The mowing action takes place in three phases. A cutting stroke, a return stroke, and a pause between each. There is a great temptation to put all of the emphasis on the cuttings stroke, as this is what is “doing the work”. Each phase is equally important though.
It is best to start on an area of flat grass such as a lawn. Somewhere clear of obstacles and bystanders. We can “set” our ideal action here, and it is well worth returning to it from time to time to check in with our stroke. Mowing a lawn is a real challenge.
We want our bodies to be relaxed, legs hip distance apart, knees slightly bent, a straight back and arms loose by our sides. In time we can learn to sit more into the stance. A more detailed description of the posture will be given it’s own article.
All in the same moment, the action begins. We start to breathe in as our arms move to the right and feel our body weight shift right to follow. Our left leg pushes gently and our right leg bends slightly allowing our backs to stay vertical. The blade hasn’t left the ground. As the blade moved to the right our body felt the ground through its belly and the sward ahead of us through the rib. Now it sits ahead and to our right waiting to cut.
There is now a slight pause similar to that just before a sportsperson strikes a ball. In this moment we can feel the energy gather just before we release it again. It is similar to the point at which a pendulum is at it’s highest, just before it falls again.
The blade is released by a slight pull on the left arm. What follows is very similar to the back stroke. Our body weight follows our arms and the blade. The right leg pushes and the left bends as our outgoing breath releases the energy of the cutting stroke. The blade never left the ground and is now to our left with the grass that it gathered.
There is another pause before the cycle repeats. The energy is released here before it is time to gather it in again. These pauses are more interesting than it may first appear.
As can be seen from these descriptions, there is a lot going on when we mow. This is not meant to be a set of instructions. If it were it would be overwhelming and get in the way of learning. It is intended as a description of the process itself. An attempt to describe what it feels like to mow so that a student will recognize it when they feel it too.
Read it, absorb it, and then try to forget all about it when you mow. Much of our learning happens when we aren’t even aware of it. Of course there are times where we need to get frustrated, and practice and drill things into our muscle memory. There are a few different ways of learning and we can always add to them.