Scythes revisited

This entry is part 31 of 31 in the series Odes to Tools



These scythes are just a few of the old farm tools we found in the barn and shed when we moved to Plummer’s Hollow in 1971. Other gems included a butter churn, a foot-operated grindstone and a chest-high, hand-cranked winnowing machine.

If the photo looks familiar, that’s because Phoenicia Publishing used it for the cover of Odes to Tools. In “Ode to Scythes,” I had written:

The scythes are emissaries
from a country
that no longer exists.

Martin Hardy in Plummer's Hollow, 2012 (1)

In fact, as I learned this past Saturday, that “country” is not completely vanished yet. The gentleman above, Martin Hardy, actually wielded those sythes (and also operated the butter churn, the grindstone and winnowing machine) as a boy back in the 1930s. His family lived in the old tenant house, the same house I live in now, for roughly the first four decades of the 20th century, living here year-round and looking after the farm while the absentee owners were in Chicago. To make ends meet, they grew oats, wheat, and other crops, kept a few dairy cows and sold the milk and cheese once a week in Tyrone. They stored the milk in the springhouse to keep it cool the rest of the week.

Though we’ve met many Plummer family descendents over the years, their attachment to the mountain is mainly a sentimental one. What memories they have are based on the few weeks they spent up here each summer. It was wonderful to meet a former year-round resident who actually grew up on the mountain the same as I did. Mr. Hardy was born in 1922, but he seems as if he could easily be 15 years younger. He recalled taking walks south along the mountain toward Altoona for fun, just as my brothers and I did, and like us, they kept chickens in the shed (the building behind him in the photo, which also houses the old tools). And while I have vivid memories of the Flood of ’72 (Hurricane Agnes), when we stood at a safe distance and watched floating trees slam into the decking of our access bridge over the Little Juniata, he remembered walking home from school during the Flood of ’36 and discovering that the bridge was completely gone. It was his grandfather, a skilled mason, who built the stone pediment that supports the present bridge, he said. It’s held up very well indeed.

I don’t think I ever shared this video for “Ode to Scythes,” the work of the British blogger and Buddhist priest Kaspalita. It was an unexpected gift, and very well executed, I thought — especially considering it was his first videopoem!

Mr. Hardy said they used a team of horses (one blind, the other sighted) to pull a mowing machine, and got out the scythes to mow the edges and the corners. I’ll bet our Amish neighbors in Sinking Valley still do much the same. I kind of question the poem’s premise now, in fact. A few decades from now, scythes may very well be common tools once again, and if any of us manage to live to 90, the tools people inquire about may not be hand tools, but things like iPads and the internet.

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6 Replies to “Scythes revisited”

  1. It’s not just “scything?” Wow. Leave it to RR! Great post, Dave — I was happy to meet Mr. Hardy and take this look back at Plummer’s Hollow through his eyes.

  2. Wow, what a good meeting, Dave! For all our romantic pretences here in the UK to being in touch with our living heritage, the rural connections are certainly tighter and more vital in the States. And I covet those scythes! I’ve just bought a brand new one in the traditional shape, but I wish I had a vintage model to go with my ancient sickle.

  3. That’s terrific. Our neighbour passed on his scythe to us when he moved away, it was worked and sharpened to a wisp, but cut beautifully, Tom got pretty good at it but we never dared let Mol out while he was doing it, the point was potentially deadly. Sadly it didn’t last long but broke soon after; we bought a new one but never succeeded in getting it to the same degree of light sharpness and it’s never really worked properly – a petrol driven mower does the job now.

    How wonderful to meet this man. These genuine links to that past are disappearing fast; I’ve been reading about a childhood spent in western Brittany, the writer was born in 1914, the same year as our eldest neighbour, she’s still about and cogent but fading fast, soon the only accessible memories of that time will be second hand and inevitably sentimentalised. My mum was born in the UK in the same year, but is long gone now, and her memories were of a more recognisably modern world even so.

    Skrying = pre-digital skyping!

  4. Yes, sorry, I’ve sewn (or reaped) confusion. Scything is scything. Skrying is scrying (since I spelled it differently to Wikipedia in the earlier comment) and is, as Lucy points out, pre-digital skyping.

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