The other day, wandering down a tool aisle at Lowe’s, I asked a passing sales clerk if Lowe's carried machetes. She pointed to a whole stack of them, with red plastic handles and cardboard-sheathed blades, right under my nose. Then she said she was sorry Lowe’s didn’t carry scythes. She liked scythes. Her mother still had her late father’s old one. She could remember her father out in the field, cutting tall grass with it. I didn't realize I would soon be walking down a very long aisle indeed, leading into the ancient history of this land.
I told her I liked scythes, too, but I was told some years ago that only one company in the entire country still made them with wooden handles. Scythes with metal handles might be easier to come by. She said a metal handle wouldn’t be the same. I agreed.
So, obviously, do the scythe aficionados and craft tool makers to whom everyone now has access on the web. The Seymour Manufacturing Company of Seymour Indiana is evidently the sole large American maker of wooden scythe handles, or, to use the proper Middle English term, wooden snaths. A Seymour official says the company has manufactured snaths since shortly after its founding in 1872, making them primarily of Midwestern ash. But wooden snaths are available from some foreign manufacturers, too, and by looking on the web, it's not hard these days to find one. It‘s not hard to find a variety of steel scythe blades, either.
If you look at old European pictures of scythes, you see tools with straight snaths. In the "Book of Hours" painted for the Duc de Berry in the early 15th century, the June picture shows three peasants scything a field of hay. All swing straight snaths with long curved blades. Dressed in short smocks and wide hats, they move in unison through the hay, practicing labor as ballet.
The modern American scythe (if that’s not an oxymoron) looks way different. The thick end of the shaft — which is much thicker than the opposite end — rises perpendicular from the plane of the blade, curves out away from the reaper, tapers as it curves back toward him, curves away again. The two stubby handles, or nibs, are set at right angles to the shaft. You don’t swing it like a golf club; you use a motion of gathering in.
A European snath will often be straighter, or completely straight, without the sweeping curves or the thick base. The scythe aficionados to whom everyone now has ready access on the web seem to prefer it. (The number of scythe afficionados is no doubt small, but larger than you might think. People actually hold scything competitions in Britain and continental Europe, including one in Poland's Biebrza National Park.)
Still, there is something about the sinuous curve of an American snath that makes it unlike any other common tool. Whatever the shape, the aficionado on the Scythe Connection site writes: “An ergonomic snath should fit 'like a glove.' It is an extension of the hands... Once you try a truly ergonomic tool of any kind, you simply would not be satisfied with the oft-accepted standard.”
Contemplating the ergonomics of simple tools, I think about the balance of a really good kitchen knife, the difference between pounding on a log with an axe or maul and letting the weight of the head do the work. And I think about the recent news from Boulder.
There, two landscapers digging a hole for a back-yard fish pond have unearthed 83 stone tools made by people who lived in what is now Colorado 13,000 years ago. The landscapers found one of the few Clovis tool caches on record. The owners had evidently stored the tools for later use. The basic story sounds improbable, but it’s remarkably similar to the 1987 discovery of a Clovis tool cache in East Wenatchee by two guys digging a trench for irrigation pipe through an apple orchard.
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