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The Cutting Edge

“The fragmentation and decay of global industrial civilization could also encourage the revival of [technologies…] discarded along the path of capitalist development but highly applicable on a small scale. These considerations could inform the construction of the alternative material and social spaces that anarchists construct in the present tense — from eco-farms and occupied factories to urban squats and community gardens. [This would be a] “subversive micropolitics of techno-social empowerment” that experiences it “in an open and participatory process that seeks social conflict and technical difficulty as spaces in which to construct ourselves for ourselves.” ~ Uri Gordon

Recently I found myself in the unlikely position of learning how to use a scythe.

Where I live in suburbia, a group of local volunteers have been turning a stretch of disused railway line into a wildlife reserve. At first glance such a narrow strip of land seems an unpromising place for this type of project, but the steep gradients of the railway embankment have protected it from development, while the shape of the space creates an important wildlife corridor. Already it has started to become a remarkable local habitat and I can pretty much guarantee any of my walking companions that I will be able to show them birds such as the beautiful Eurasian bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula); a species otherwise in rapid decline in England as whole.

The railway track also has meaning to me as the path that I take when headed out to visit some of my tutelary Others. To put it one way, it’s a place where ‘the unity of self-benefiting and other-benefiting’ is very tangible for me. So I wanted to do something to say thank you and, a couple of years back, began to get involved with maintaining the reserve.

Bullfinch_male

“Bullfinch male” by © Francis C. Franklin / CC-BY-SA-3.0.

About three-quarters of the railway line is high up on an embankment covered in a wide-variety of trees, shrubs and plants including feral rose and honeysuckle (escaped from nearby gardens) and silver birches which seem to love the bed of old grey ballast stone in which the rails used to rest. Further along, the track declines and runs through a cutting with a narrow area of meadow either side which merges into bramble thickets and steep tree covered slopes. This meadow has to be cut or it becomes rank, loses bio-diversity and reverts to scrub. Using traditional tools such as a scythe to do this work avoids reliance on fossil fuels and can also prevent the indiscriminate damage that powered machinery such as strimmers cause to certain plants and young trees.

 

A body full of life & consciousness of its own

Like any tool, a scythe can be hard work and easy to damage if you don’t have the right technique down. As I worked my way along the meadow I could easily see and feel how I was improving as time went on. One morning of work is not enough to allow me to speak with any confidence on the subject but as far as I could tell the main rule is to trust the blade.

A scythe is to a machete as a violin is to a toy drum. As you find the right angle for the blade, and the perfect arc of the scythe around the body, the effort involved reduces enormously and it becomes about rhythm rather than force. Every ten minutes or so you stop and sharpen the blade with a whetstone – which you actually wet, something I never knew before – with a couple of pulling movements of the flat of the stone on the cutting side, and then brush the ‘burr’ off the near side with the edge of the stone.

Niittomiehet

“Niittomiehet by Pekka Halonen

“The longer Levin mowed, the oftener he felt the moments of unconsciousness in which it seemed not his hands that swung the scythe, but the scythe mowing of itself, a body full of life and consciousness of its own, and as though by magic, without thinking of it, the work turned out regular and well-finished of itself. These were the most blissful moments.”

~ Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Embodied experience that is held in common

I picked up the scythe as an offering and act of gratitude, and for no other reason. When using it, though, I couldn’t help thinking of all the people who have used that venerable tool throughout time; from the Swiss that I still see using scythes to cut their meadows, way back to the Roman period when the tool is thought to have been developed. I say ‘thinking’, but it was more ‘feeling’. When we wield tools we immerse ourselves in an embodied experience that is held in common. The beauty of this was that I wasn’t engaged in ‘re-enactment’. Rather I was communing with an aspect of the physical experience of our human ancestors, and to an end that was not nostalgic or recreational, but practical, educational, and reclaiming.

“Tolstoy was not so foolish as to pretend that a day’s mowing could be the making of fallen mankind. But at least it is real, direct experience…” (Source)

I don’t think any readers of Gods & Radicals need reminding of the myriad causes for despair and alienation that surround us, and yet with a will – especially a communal will – it’s still sometimes possible to find opportunities for re-embodiment, ancestral communion, and creative wholeness in the cracks and interstices of suburbia.

Either way, if systems such as Capitalism try to turn us into tools, while others such as Communism use the symbolism of tools as manipulative propaganda, perhaps reclaiming our bodies and minds must start with intimately knowing the tools which we use and engage with in our daily lives.

What tools do you use and how do they shape your experience of embodiment, or your engagement with the Other-s?

———

Accipiter Nisus is a Mahāyāna-influenced animist, based in the U.K. East Midlands. His practice is eclectic but particularly emphasises divination, drift-walking, and mandala offering.

15 Comments »

  1. This isn’t really relevant to your article, but might be of interest – one of the medieval German fencing manuals includes instructions for using the scythe as a weapon. I’m assuming this would have come much more naturally to a peasant farmer than it would to the average modern person!

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    • As far as I know to use the scythe as a weapon the blade was repositioned. You can see this in the following image: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scythe#/media/File%3AChełmoński_Modlitwa_przed_bitwa.jpg

      In its standard format a scythe would be near useless as a weapon. However when adapted as above it would have the benefit of putting some distance between the unskilled wielder and any antagonist.

      Again I’m not an expert but I would imagine most who went into battle with scythes went extremely unwillingly and under some degree of compulsion.

      Most likely the metal working skills that gave rise to scythes originated from warfare or war-preparation, an uncomfortable symbiosis which we can still see in contemporary technologies which were developed by the military, adapted by civilians, but still often turned back on us.

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      • I’m willing to be convinced, as I have little knowledge of martial matters or the period, but having handled one I am doubtful it would have been used as a weapon in the unadapted format except in exceptional circumstances. The illustrations in the manual feel like the videos you can find on YouTube of people demonstrating how to use all kinds of random objects as weapons. Sure it’s possible but how often did it happen? But, willing to be persuaded and grateful for an intriguing digression 🙂

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      • I got curious and did a little research. The general consensus seems to be that Mair (the author) was probably showing improvised defense with random objects. Apparently peasants in that era were pretty well armed and the rebels of 1525 probably had swords and other weapons, armor etc. A lot of them would have had the “grosse messer,” which is a huge sword-sized knife. However, I did find one woodcut image of the peasant rebels of 1525 on the march, and one of the peasants does carry an unmodified scythe. Could just be an artistic symbol of “look, these are peasants.” The others have swords and other weapons.

        Liked by 1 person

      • On the tangent of scythes turned into weaponry, there was also a German weapon called the scythe-sword: a scythe blade put onto a sword hilt.

        The only remaining example has a “runic calendar” inscribed on it, and belonged to Thomas Müntzer (whom Engels’ The Peasant War in Germany was written about).

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This really makes me want to actualize a project I had in mind back when I first bought a breathing hand washer: a series of blog posts featuring manual technologies that have been all but forgotten. There propaganda of capitalism and Progress has it that all labor (or more broadly, life in general) prior to mechanization was grueling, dirty, and miserable, and this is just patently untrue in many cases.

    Thank you for writing this! I’ll be featuring it on my non-religious blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The evolution of these tools would be a fascinating study. I believe that it many cases it was an evolution – that over centuries the design manifested the ideal integration with human physiology. I wonder how a competent craftsman would tailor them to the build of the user.

    Contrast this with the power tools that create such terrible repetitive stress injuries in factory workers.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “This meadow has to be cut or it becomes rank, loses bio-diversity and reverts to scrub. ” This comment bothered me a little. If reversion to scrub is the natural progression, why do you feel you have to prevent that progression from happening?

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    • Hi Woods Wizard, Good question.

      Surely there is no default ‘natural progression’ anywhere in the world, there are fluctuating (to varying degrees) environments composed of interacting beings and elements. In the UK the landscape has been shaped by human interaction for centuries and not only in negative ways. The famous English deciduous woodland, for example, is a managed landscape.

      On the railway line we try to increase biodiversity by having ‘compartments’ of different habitats. Meadow is just one of these and it’s crucial for certain species of butterfly. My use of ‘revert’ was probably misleading as I just meant revert to how it was after the railway went out of use.

      In the end there are never simple answers to these questions. For example, as I mentioned, there are quite a lot of non-native species such as rose along the track and as volunteers we often debate whether to leave them so that the birds can eat the fruit, or remove the, so that they don’t put compete native species. Personally I try to find a middle way but it’s not always easy.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I think this really emphasizes WHAT we need to embody in order to change the current flow. Just as you would steward the land to keep a particular climate, so must we steward ourselves. We must be aware of the tools we have at our discretion, before we can even know when it is appropriate to use them. Become one with your means, like two souls with the same direction and you will succeed. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom.

    Liked by 1 person

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