Wednesday, June 13, 2007
Speaking of Lost Arts
On the subject of knowledge-keepers is our neighbor Steve. On sunny days, instead of the roar of a riding lawn-mower from the field behind our fence is the steady swish, swish, swish of his scythe. It's really impressive how fast he can mow down a pretty large area with this device. But there's more to it than just learning how to swing it. Scythe blades need to be sharp to be effective, and sharpening them correctly is an art unto itself. Most of us these days don't have to know how to keep a really good edge on a blade. Unless we compete in lumberjack competitions or are top-knotch chefs, chances are the art of honing a blade has been lost on us. It's interesting how many words and phrases in our common vernacular still come from this skill. "Sharp", "keen" or "well-honed" as descriptors all come to us courtesy of the ancient need to know how to keep one's blade with a good cutting edge.
Though not as commonly used for cutting vegetation as it was in former years, the scythe remains a part of our cultural mythos in phrases like "You reap what you sow" and of course the Grim Reaper. Most of us are familiar with the image of the Reaper and his soul-harvesting scythe. Apparently, the earliest reference to this ghoulish guy in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from Longfellow in 1839: "There is a Reaper whose name is Death, and, with his sickle keen...". From Longfellow to Billy and Mandy, the "Grim Reaper" has only apparently borne that name for a few decades (though "Grim Death" goes back a few centuries more). Death had also long been associated with the turning of the year to autumn (time of harvest) and then to winter, so it made sense that death came in the form of a "reaper" who harvested souls. It's interesting how much the cycles of the land were intertwined with the human life cycle and its mythology and imagery.
Just in doing a little research on scything, I also came across some pages on scything competitions. Who knew such a thing existed? It seems that there are more than a few people dedicated to passing on the knowledge of how to cut something down without first pouring fossil fuel into an engine behind the blades. Steve assures me that almost everything one might want to know about scything can be found at ScytheConnection.com which seems like a great resource for a resurgence of this not-quite-lost art.