Wednesday, 18 July 2012

The Mowing of a Field by Hilaire Belloc

So great an art can only be learnt by continual practice; but this much is worth writing down, that, as in all good work, to know the thing with which you work is the core of the affair. Good verse is best written on good paper with an easy pen, not with a lump of coal on a whitewashed wall. The pen thinks for you; and so does the scythe mow for you if you treat it honourably and in a manner that makes it recognise its service. The manner is this. You must regard the scythe as a pendulum that swings, not as a knife that cuts. A good mower puts no more strength into his stroke than into his lifting. Again, stand up to your work. The bad mower, eager and full of pain, leans forward and tries to force the scythe through the grass. The good mower, serene and able, stands as nearly straight as the shape of the scythe will let him, and follows up every stroke closely, moving his left foot forward. Then also let every stroke get well away. Mowing is a thing of ample gestures, like drawing a cartoon. Then, again, get yourself into a mechanical and repetitive mood: be thinking of anything at all but your mowing, and be anxious only when there seems some interruption to the monotony of the sound. In this mowing should be like one's prayers—all of a sort and always the same, and so made that you can establish a monotony and work them, as it were, with half your mind: that happier half, the half that does not bother.
(from The Mowing of a Field by Hilaire Belloc )

This is an example of an easy clarity of exposition falling naturally into a shape that has the inevitability of truth. He is right about the tool teaching you the best way that it ought to be used and that this comes to you when you forget to struggle with it. In woodworking too you have to apprentice yourself to the bench and find the best way to do any task with the tools that you have.

A scythe blade and its handle or sned/snathe are simple tools but the peasant's cunning has wrought a wilful complexity. I read somewhere that the word snathe is from the Anglo-Saxon for snake. Taking that etymology the continental sned is more like a straight pole with its doles differently arranged to the snake like, steam bent, apparatus of the English and the American sort. The blades are also different not in terms of general shape but in weight and tempering. The Anglo-Saxon kit is much heavier and requires grinding or filing to produce an edge which is dressed with a heavy cigar shaped stone generally of natural coarse sandstone. The continental scythe is a more subtle instrument whose thinner blade can be peened along the edge with a hammer to extend a thin sliver of steel which gives an extra sharp cutting edge and requires but a few strokes of a light stone to dress it.

Having used both sorts of scythe my un-expert opinion is that for grass the continental wins hands down but that if you have rough margins to cut with brambles and saplings the weight of the true snaithe and the stiffness of the blade is more effective. There are short continental blades for this but the heavy scythe can do that and cut grass without a lot of fettling. Sharpness is all.

It is most pleasant exercise, the long flat continental sweep or the pendulum swing of the snathe. Belloc's essay is taken from the collection Hills and the Sea and is available for free download from Project Gutenberg.

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