By Glen Wunderlich
Before the invention of the internal combustion engine, and even before horse-drawn farming equipment, crops still had to be cut to be harvested. And, the tool of choice was the human-powered sythe. My introduction to the strange instrument came some 36 years ago in a remote area of West Virginia, where doing things the old fashioned way was still the only way. Paw Paw, my wife’s grandfather became my personal trainer.
Behind the house, Edwin gave his first lesson to me. And, he was an exceptional teacher, having been the principal of schools in Midkiff in Guyan Valley. I had never seen a sythe before, other than in pictures of the Grim Reaper or Death, and didn’t have a clue as to gripping one, let alone operating one. Edwin changed all that.
First, a description of the tool is in order. The sythe is built around a wooden shaft called a snath and has a peculiar “S” curved handle, which has a long, steel blade attached to the business end. Basically, it is a sickle that is designed to be used while standing upright. In the hands of a fit and skilled operator, it can steadily mow not only tall grass and weeds, but even small woody plants with its sharp edge and drawing motion.
Ed steered me behind the old farm house where multiflora rose had taken over the hillside. In short order, Paw Paw had me cutting a road through the dense brush toward the top, but I must remark that I had little use for the ancient implement after the initiation.
Paw Paw’s sythe now hung from the rafters of my garage, more as an ornament and symbol of days gone by. But, for whatever reason, I decided to reacquaint myself with the motor-less mower, which I had acquired years ago after Paw Paw’s death.
My own tangle of brush was taking over some white pines and spruce trees, which I had grown from seedlings and transplanted to field borders. Wild grape vines and other nutrient-robbing weeds were choking the new, spring growth of my treasured trees and operating a gas-powered string trimmer under the branches would be cumbersome at best.
Beginning with the sythe’s sharp blade held in front of the tree trunk, I began the chore of mowing with a quick, pulling movement. Vegetation toppled in the wake of the tool. No gasoline. No noise. Just clean slicing!
As I moved around the first tree, I began to realize that the old sythe was up to the task, as long as I was. All things considered, it was just as fast mowing and safer for the trees’ trunks, which are often inadvertently damaged by line trimmers. Then, on to another tree. And, another.
How effective the process was! And, with a careful application of non-selective herbicide (glyphosate), the job should remain complete for the season.
A high-school algebra teacher once remarked to the class that lazy people are the inventors of our society. Although there was room for debate on his comment, there was truth in it, as well. In any event, we often find these same “lazy” people spending their money on fitness training in gyms all across the country. They run in place and go nowhere and pay for the privilege, no less.
I think I’ll just pay my dues afield, thank you. And, I guess I’m not lazy after all.