Life before lawn mowers

CANADA's ocean playground, which is Nova Scotia, is the only province to have by royal charter a flag of its own. This is a good thing to know. King James VI of Scotland and I of England arranged for the flag in 1621 when he gave ``New Scotland'' to Sir William Alexander. There's a blue cross of St. Andrew on a white field with a rampant Caledonian lion doing a Highland fling in the middle. I mention this flag as a way to get to my subject, which is the handscythe. Nova Scotia has been showing some tourism advertising on our Maine TV stations, hoping to entice the Yankee dollar, and at ancient Fort Louisburg we see a bonny Scot in early costume swinging a scythe in careless abandon.

I am a virtuoso in that instrument from away back, and I can see that Nova Scotia should fetch me over at liberal stipend to teach the Louisburgers how to make hay while the sun shines. There aren't too many of us left.

The muggy heat wave that struck Maine in early August engendered much conversation, mostly to the effect that it was unpleasant, but I found it useful in my annual attack on the advancing wilderness. I have a lawn mower but I use it sparingly. This leaves certain places that need to be swamped out once a year with a handscythe, and August is the time.

August is the downside of the growing year. Trees and bushes make growth in spring and early summer and then along in August they begin to get ready for winter. Sap dries, cambiums harden, and the roots store energy for next time. If you cut bushes in June, they'll sprout again; but those cut in August will likely never throw a new bud.

Along with the bushes I get thistles and goldenrod and other volunteers, and an August passage around the edges keeps my property as neat as I need. So the hot spell was ideal for my purpose, because at night the humidity gave down copious dew, and a scythe works best when the crop is wet. Let things dry, and the sharpest scythe hangs back.

The heat wave really was excessive, so I didn't overdo. After breakfast I would whet my blade, pass along the garden to the battlefield, and begin swinging. I would swing until I decided not to swing some more, and then I would hang the scythe in its place and go and have another shower. It was that kind of heat, and I was not under the handscythe necessities that went with yesteryears.

The parts of a scythe are the snath, the blade, and the two handles - tug and lug. The snath was designed by a genius, and permits the mower to attend the exercises without cutting off his own feet. The blade must be attached - or ``hung'' - so the mower can just touch the point with his extended right foot when he holds the snath in easy position. (Axes and scythe blades are hung just so, which gives us the expression to ``get the hang'' of something.)

The tip of the blade is the toe, and the opposite end, attached to the snath, is the heel. For easy mowing, the kind that can be kept up from daylight until the dew dries, the toe and heel are kept level with the ground on long swings from far right to far left. The feet move one-two-one-two with the swings. This Nova Scotian on the TV was scooping with his blade, like a golfer, and that would tucker him in two minutes and he would ``cut out the halves.''

All right - cutting hay on the halves has two meanings. One farmer would offer to cut the hay on a neighbor's field for half the hay. Those were the days when country people knew how to get along without the bother of money. As the field was harvested, one load went to me and one load went to you.

Some farmers who didn't have land enough to grow sufficient hay for their herds would go looking for hay to cut on the halves. So when a mowing machine was dull, or when a man didn't know how to make it work, or a handscythe was unskillfully scooped, or for any other reason a field got choppily cut, it was easy to see that somebody was cutting on the halves - cutting half and leaving half. Those were also the days when country people were easily amused.

I could teach that boy down in Nova Scotia in no time. My grandfather taught me to mow, and later my father urged me to keep up the good work. Mowing machines were in use, but we still trimmed around trees and along fences with a scythe. ``Toe down, heel down, reach so-fashion - and take just so much at a swing!'' That's all there is to it, and all the instruction a novice needs. You are now a mower, and the rest is the work of repetition. I'm very good at that. I am available for Nova Scotian television.

Now and then the word handscythe brings remonstrance from readers who say it's redundant - when mowing by hand you use just a scythe. But there is a machine scythe in a mechanical cutter bar; and I think the interaction of the tug and lug emphasizes things, so handscythe is all right. I understand the only anagram of scythe is chesty. If you need to know more, I'll be up mowing on suitable mornings for a few more weeks. Unless I get called to Nova Scotia.

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