Cutting It Fine: Hand-Mowers of Addison County, Vermont

No 69

There was never a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.

Robert Frost, “Mowing”

When Eben Markowski goes out with his scythe, he finds lots of things living in the grass. Sometimes he'll see a rabbit scurrying a few paces ahead of him. Sometimes a frog hops up in his path. When he carries sheaves of cuttings back to his garden, he brings a variety of insect life with him. A banded garden spider. A field cricket. A big dipper firefly.

Markowski's scythe has two parts: a handle, or snath, and a sharp, curved blade. He gets the blade from Scythe Supply, a company based in Perry, Maine. Scythe Supply's blades are hammered out in Austria by a company that has been making them for more than 400 years. Markowski says that the scythe hasn't evolved much in that time--the original design was close to perfect. The snath he makes himself. Sometimes he and his brother compete to see who can make a snath from the funkiest piece of ash. Usually, though, Markowski gravitates towards simplicity—just a piece of wood, whittled down to fit in his hand. Simple, he says, is all you need.

For Markowski and others in northern Vermont, a bastion of back-to-the-land values, the scythe is a perfect example of their simpler-is-better philosophy of labor. There's a fancy name for this outlook, too: “appropriate technology.” An early articulation of the concept is attributed to the economist E.F. Schumacher, who wrote about it in his book Small Is Beautiful. Schumacher, who published his influential title in 1973, took issue with the idea that complicated machines are an improvement over simpler ones. “Ever bigger machines,” he wrote, “entailing ever bigger concentrations of economic power and exerting ever greater violence against the environment, do not represent progress: they are a denial of wisdom.”

Markowski is part of a growing group of young people—a “movement,” he claims—who have tried to reclaim some of that wisdom by way of the scythe. His skill is on display each summer, at the Addison County Fair and Field Days, where spectators can watch some of the region's best hand-mowers attack a patch of grass. In years past, Markowski says, the participants have been mostly old-timers. Recently, though, a younger crowd has started competing. The appeal of the scythe, and the meditative (if arduous) approach to property maintenance that it represents, seems to be growing.

There's a small-scale argument to be made for this tool, as rural people seek affordable ways to maintain farms and gardens. And there's a large-scale argument to be made for its efficiency. In the United States, for example, gas-powered lawnmowers consume about 580 million gallons of fuel each year. About 17 million of that is spilled while re-fueling. The total cost, human and otherwise, of obtaining and expending all that fuel in the first place is another matter entirely.

The tools and techniques of their New England forebears have proven indispensable to this driven subgroup of Addison County farmers. But Markowski claims that their philosophy isn't simply about reviving the old ways. Embracing “appropriate technology” can involve innovation, too. “If we were to invest our brain power in devising human-powered machines,” Eben suggests, “our economy and ecology might be in less desperate states.”

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