Scythe Buyers' Guide
Biomechanics and Hand Mowing
In April 2004 Drs. Helga and Otto Fleiss (of the Steyr Institute of Vertebrae Research) were approached by the organizers of the upcoming Scythe Symposium to document the movements executed during hand mowing and analyze their effects on the body. (As a professor at the University of Graz, Dr. Fleiss' special interest has been the strain, and the resulting chronic damage, to which the spinal column is subjected during work and sports activities).
For the purpose of the study four mowers who use somewhat different techniques were chosen and the husband and wife team made a series of photo and video sequences. Their conclusions to date, superbly presented by Dr. Fleiss during the Symposium, confirmed my long-standing conviction that, at its best, wielding a scythe causes no stress to the spine and can indeed be considered body therapy.
At the end of the Festival week they filmed still more technique variations (including a member of the Austrian national mowing team) and eventually a comprehensive report written by the Drs. themselves will be available in print.
As one of the initial group I had been asked, still in April 2004, to write a short essay which would explain the reasons behind my rather unorthodox mowing style. Now somewhat expanded, it is posted here not as a substitute for a professional analysis of the movement but rather a description by a farmer of what he does and why he does it.
There are numerous references in prose, poetry and songs from many cultures indicating that a good scythe fits in the category of hand tools the use of which can be physically and mentally therapeutic. Indeed, hand mowing was frequently likened to dancing.
To function as physiotherapy it must, however, be performed so as to keep the body in the most comfortable posture ( and, ideally, it should also make the best use of the person's available energy).
Some traditional mowing styles accomplished this; many did not. Certain snath/blade combinations, for instance, dictated more leaning forward than is healthy for the spine and, to various degrees of intensity, the scythe has been powered predominantly by one arm.
The country folk, with their strong constitution, apparently accepted much of that as inevitable; perhaps this was because, relative to other kinds of farm work, using the scythe was easy. (One old Austrian even told me that "a man should be able to rest himself while mowing".)
Though as a farmer I started to use this wonderful tool primarily for practical purposes, its potential as a "medicine" took my attention from the beginning. But, with an accident-damaged right shoulder and right wrist, I could not mow in the conventional manner for long at a time. Obtaining a left-handed scythe may have been the thing to do, though back then I did not know any existed.
I became concerned with three issues to which many serious hand tool users surely have given much thought:
The more I mowed with these objectives in mind, the more it seemed that, from the perspective of ergonomy, the "conventional" technique could be improved. For instance, by applying the strength of the legs, i.e. propelling the blade partially by the shifting of body weight from side to side, the demand on the arms is significantly reduced and they do not tire nearly as fast. The shoulders and neck can also remain more relaxed and the movement feels more "balanced".
The mowing technique described below evolved gradually as I attempted to:
What I refer to as "one complete movement" or just "movement" consists of two phases: the slicing stroke (blade moving forward) and the return stroke (blade moving back to the starting position).
In Photo 5 she just finished the return stroke and her left heel is slightly elevated as she takes a step forward. Her neck, back and lower leg all have nearly the same slope. This is a relatively healthy posture which does not strain the spine (and is very similar to one of the basic stances in Tai-chi practice).
To a small degree, her body is supported at all times by the tool's continuous contact with the ground, because the blade remains touching the surface during both phases of the movement. On the return stroke only its heel is lifted - to ease the friction and/or to help release any tangled vegetation - but drops down before the blade begins to move forward again.
Lifting the whole blade off the surface on the back stroke, and consequently having it slightly elevated just prior to the next slice, is the norm in some traditional mowing styles. The logic, I assume, is that it creates more velocity for the cutting. While this may be true, the energy expended outweighs the benefit if therapeutic movement is the mower's goal. An hour of field mowing entails 1200 to 1500 strokes and the average scythe (blade/snath unit) weighs approximately 3.5 to 4 pounds (1.5 to 1.8 kg.)--which translates into lifting, needlessly, more than two tons. Personally I feel that the "body weight shift" is sufficient as a propelling force and from the perspective of ergonomy a better one.
In addition, each half of the "complete movement" involves a partial body twist, which has an effect similar to compressing a coil spring: a motive force of kinetic energy is built up and stored momentarily in muscles and tendons. The move in the opposite direction then makes efficient use of it in propelling the blade without unhealthy strain on the body. That twisting alone is an excellent way of limbering up the spine and adds to the overall health benefit of mowing.
Occasionally people ask me if the "sideways weight shifting" does not strain the knees, or comment that because they have "bad knees" they could not use them to "push like that".
Actually, I push very little with my knees. Yes, they do need to flex and straighten, but beyond that, they are more or less just "along for the ride". There is no lateral strain because I keep them over the toes; that is, sighting down my thigh and across the centre of my kneecap an imaginary line would meet the toes. Also, the above discussed twisting takes place primarily in the upper body, i.e. from the waist up. In the knees it is minimal.
So what does power the shift? The simple answer is: the lower and upper leg muscles (along with, of course, the extensor tendons).
There is also another kind of explanation.
The shift begins in the mind. Then comes the foot; always the one which, at that moment when the propelling force is needed, is placed firmly on the ground. (The other foot at that very point just finished its step forward.) Although low on muscle mass, the feet can act as conductors of an "energy current". If my mind is focused enough (some days it isn't) I can "breathe" this energy in through the soles of my feet and help power the sideways shift. When my mind is "elsewhere", I don't make use of that freely offered life force and need to rely solely on the muscles of my body. The difference is noticeableI tire sooner and miss some of the "bliss".
As for the initial knee-related questionI'm convinced that the mowing style described here functions as physiotherapy rather than stress to my knees. You see, I have had to live with "bad knees" for many years. For more details read Note 1.
As we engage in any strenuous rhythmic activity it is quite natural to time one's breathing in harmony with the movements. Likewise, the girl in the photos 1 to 3 (while pushing) is exhaling, and on the return stroke (Photo 4) she inhales.
This is rather elemental, and every mower doing a long rhythmic stroke, regardless of style, would synchronize the exhalations with the blade's forward movement.
But partly incorporated into the mowing style discussed here is an additional concept, one which Oriental medicine has long emphasized--that the slower and deeper one's breathing, the greater will be the therapeutic effect. The given here is that breath, besides providing us with oxygen, is also the carrier of "chi" (Note 2).
During intermittent periods of my last 35 years I've practiced various health-oriented techniques "imported" from the Far East and have no doubt as to their virtue. Analogies can be drawn between some of these disciplines (especially Tai-chi) and the art of mowing; the above discussed manner of powering the body shift is but one of them.
Yet moving the scythe through a stand of grass as slowly as one does while practicing the classical Tai-chi form would not serve its intended purpose. The main reason is simply because the physics of efficiently severing plant stems dictates some minimum speed below which the scythe blade edge does not perform well.
Nevertheless, I've attempted to coalesce grass cutting with meditation, and to that end, slowing down the breathing rate was one of my initial concerns.
The traditional swaths vary between 1.5m. and 2.2m. and the mowers take 0.9 seconds or less for the slicing stroke. Having, by means of the sideways shift, increased the mowed width to 2.8m.-2.9m., I can breathe somewhat deeper. Depending on cutting conditions, I take 1.1 to 1.3 seconds to exhale (slicing stroke) and 1.3 to 1.5 seconds to inhale (return stroke). This feels personally comfortable, considering that I am out there to cut grass and not merely meditate!
"All that Glitters is not Gold"
One British scythe-promoting writer, who saw my mowing technique during the Scythe Festival in Austria, in a magazine article, referred to it as "extremely efficient". I felt compelled to correct him, suggesting that "energy conserving" or "easy on the body" would be more fitting.
Thus I feel that some qualifications of the previously discussed guidelines may be in order.
Firstly, cutting an extra wide swath is not always advantageous or desirable or, for that matter, extremely efficient. It all depends on one's parameters of efficiency. The movement as discussed here may not be readily appreciated if the goal is strictly to get the grass cut and the mower has energy to spare. For instance, a strong man cutting a 2m. swath and powering the scythe mostly by the upper body can, under certain circumstances (Note 3), cover as much (or more) surface in a given period as I do by my 2.9m wide movement, but he will have worked harder for his grass.
Our friend Tony Beeler (a Swiss farmer and at one time his country's mowing champion) is fond of saying, "A good mower can mow with any scythe and a poor one can't mow with any".
In a way he is right; I've seen him demonstrate that by mowing exceedingly well with snaths ranging from several sizes too long for him to one fitted for a 10-year-old boy. But few people are like Tony...and for best results the snath should have specific measurements determined by the person's size as well as the nature of the terrain to be mowed.
In addition, a serious mower using the scythe for a variety of tasks would be far better off with at least two purpose-specific sizes of this tool. For lack of other generally accepted terms in this regard I refer to them as field scythe and trimming scythe.
The field scythe, with a longer blade and a longer snath, is better for work in areas which present no restrictions to the width of swath (which, of course, could also be a spacious orchard or a lawn). For the style of movement discussed above, with its deeper and more meditative breathing, this is the preferred version.
The trimming scythe is more suitable when obstacles or the nature of the terrain limit mowing width and dictate alternate or continually changing stroke patterns. With respect to the other, it should have a shorter blade and shorter snath. I would choose a snath of yet different measurements for extensive mowing on a very steep slope, for example, but the above are the two "basic models".
The pivotal point of reference in my formula of measuring a tailor-sized snath is the hip joint upon which the torso rotates during mowing. I will call the distance between this point on the body and the ground as "A" (Diagram 1):
All variations with regard to an individual's body proportions notwithstanding, I believe that the right hand grip (i.e. the lower one) of a trimming snath should reach to the person's hip joint when the snath, with the blade mounted, is stood alongside the mower as pictured in Diagram 1 - and at least 5 cm above that point for a field snath. (The measuring is done in the footwear used for mowing; this can make as much as several cm. difference.)
4 Jan. 2005
Modified 1 Jun. 2007