Jason Hawkins was barefoot, sleeves rolled up, swinging his way through the grass. He’d brought his own scythe to the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association’s Farm & Homestead Day in June and was busily “mowing” through some thick grass at MOFGA’s Common Ground Fairground in Unity.

Not because anyone had told him to, but because the grass looked so temptingly tall and the scythe felt so good.

“I’m just getting some exercise,” Hawkins said as he moved smoothly along, no huffing, no puffing, just a relaxed swinging that looked natural and easy. “You kind of get into a meditative dance.”

Jamie Huntsberger of Unity sharpens his scythe at the Common Ground Fairgrounds in Unity.

Jamie Huntsberger of Unity sharpens his scythe at the Common Ground Fairgrounds in Unity. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

That’s the word they all use – meditative, or centering – and it makes you want to join the growing cult of modern-day scythe users, with their strong, supple backs and peace of mind, free from the whine of the weed whacker.

Scythes have been around for centuries – the Romans used blades like these – and in some undeveloped parts of the world they’ve never gone out of style. But Maine has seen a steady resurgence in scythe use over the last decade, and not only farmers, but also by those like Hawkins who want to keep the lawn looking trim.

That’s in part because so many people are drawn to the artisanal and traditional these days, but also because one of America’s main suppliers of scythes, Scythe Supply, is based in Perry, Maine. Staffers from Scythe Supply were at Farm & Homestead Day, fitting prospective customers to scythes, explaining the intricacies and lingo of the scythe world to novices, from “peening” (sharpening) to “snaths” (the tool’s long handle), as well as giving hands-on instruction in a field left purposefully overgrown for the event.

“This guy here is a first-time mower,” said Diane Cashore, one of five employees of Scythe Supply, gesturing to another man working on the opposite end of the field. He’d had just a few minutes of instruction and then taken off, lost in the motion. “And he’s doing a beautiful job.”

John McIntire of Unity walks barefoot while working with a group to scythe-cut a field at the Common Ground Fairgrounds.

John McIntire of Unity walks barefoot while working with a group to scythe-cut a field at the Common Ground Fairgrounds. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

She likens mowing with a scythe to being on a boat; just as you get sea legs after time on the boat, you develop scythe rhythm. And once you start, it can be hard to stop.

The appeal is multifold. There’s the green component, obviously, involved with mowing by hand. There’s the usefulness of the “product,” which Cashore demonstrates by picking up part of the windrow left in the wake of scythe mowing. It’s the perfect density to mulch the garden. Or to give to chickens or turkeys for bedding. For permaculture practitioners, the scythe is a natural choice.

“It is definitely a great tool that is consistent with permaculture design ethics,” said Lisa Fernandes of the Resilience Hub, whose entire family, including her 9-year-old son, is outfitted with scythes. “You are really stacking functions…It’s also a time-tested tool that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels.”

Then there is the exercise aspect. Don’t tell Gwyneth Paltrow, but scything is an excellent way to strengthen the back while whittling the waist.

“It’s the best kind of yoga I have ever done,” Fernandes said. “It just feels so great on my back when I am stiff.”

SCYTHE SALESWOMAN

Scything is far from being merely a Luddite’s delight, Fernandes said. But there is a sense of going back in time, to when things were simpler, or at least, when we like to imagine they were simpler. It’s part of the same anti-mechanical fervor that drives Maine farmers using horses to till their fields.

John McIntire of Unity, right, shows Terry Yarmoluk of Clinton, left, his Canadian-made scythe at the Common Ground Fairgrounds in Unity. Kenneth Copp of Thorndike looks on at center.

John McIntire of Unity, right, shows Terry Yarmoluk of Clinton, left, his Canadian-made scythe at the Common Ground Fairgrounds in Unity. Kenneth Copp of Thorndike looks on at center. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

“Maine has been very much one of the leaders in bringing back the scythe because farming in Maine is in a time warp,” Carol Bryan said with a mischievous smile. She runs Scythe Supply from her farm in Perry. She wasn’t exactly kidding: With its plethora of small, diverse farms, Maine has many practitioners of traditional agricultural methods, even as they embrace hoop houses and other means of extending the short growing – and thus profit, season.

Farmers who use scythes, like Ken Hahn, who has farmed at Buttermilk Hill Farm in Belgrade (he’s relocating to Fairfield soon), say that sometimes the old ways have unexpected benefits. He likes the “lush” aesthetic of a scythe-mowed lawn, and mulches his garden beds with the cut grasses. When he moves sheep from paddock to paddock, he uses the scythe he got for Father’s Day three years ago to clean up ragged clumps of grass left behind by the four-footed mowing machines. “It encourages the lower stuff to grow in,” he said. “And by the time the sheep come back around to it, it is at a height that they like.”

At events like the annual Agricultural Trade Show or the Common Ground Fair, Bryan sets up a booth and never has to implore anyone to stop by. Everyone is curious about the tools with the brightly colored blades (U.S. Sen. Angus King was spotted trying one out in January at the trade show). And not everyone makes Grim Reaper jokes. Also, the scythe has the distinction of being part of the Maine state flag.

At MOGFA's Farm & Homestead Day in June, scythe users tackle a grassy expanse.

At MOGFA’s Farm & Homestead Day in June, scythe users tackle a grassy expanse. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

Bryan never intended to run a scythe business. But her partner, Elliot Fishbein, became passionate about scythes after an aunt gave him a copy of “The Scythe Book” by David Tresemer. Fishbein was a woodworker and a sign maker and eventually, a snath maker. It was he who found the factory in Austria that makes the blades for Scythe Supply and he started marketing them. It was almost an evangelical calling for him; he wanted to bring that simplicity and joy to people. The company still uses his ode to the scythe on its website, including this line: “It is a tool perfectly suited to its task. This competence makes the scythe a pleasure and a friend.”

But only a year after he’d got the business up and running, Fishbein was killed in a car accident. Bryan decided to keep the business going, with help from friends, including snath maker Richard Scott.

The basic outfit starts at $190 and includes a handmade snath proportionally tailored to the user. Scythe Supply takes three measurements from customers, their height, length from ground to femur and the distance from elbow to the tip of the middle finger, or cubit. “It’s a biblical term,” Cashore explained. A sharpening, or “peening” kit is included. The shaft is made with native white ash and the handles are birch. That doesn’t seem that expensive for hand-made, hand-fitted tool with a blade made by Austrians with 500 years of experience.

“Carol is interested in getting them out there,” Cashore replied when asked about the relatively low cost. “We always tell her she’s not a very good capitalist.”

MAKING HAY

Bryan may not be a great capitalist, but her sales are pretty impressive for a tool that was supposed to have been made obsolete by the advent of the lawn mower – invented in 1830 by Englishman Edwin Budding – and grain combine, also invented in the 1830s. Scythe Supplies’ annual sales have risen steadily over the years, from about 1,000 in 2008 to around 2,000 today. The bulk of sales are in farming states, Bryan said, such as North Carolina, Vermont, Pennsylvania and Washington.

“A minimum of half use it for farming,” she said, adding “but people use them for a whole range of things.” Like clearing around a pond, or getting under the branches of trees in an orchard. A ranger at Point Reyes National Seashore in California has ordered about 30 scythes from Scythe Supplies over the years. “They are very gung-ho,” Bryan said. There’s also a small percentage of people who use them for historical use, like at Williamsburg, Virginia. “We definitely have a living history crowd,” she said.

At MOGFA's Farm & Homestead Day in June, scythe users tackle a grassy expanse.

At MOGFA’s Farm & Homestead Day in June, scythe users tackle a grassy expanse. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

In some places, such as a crane refuge in Louisiana, wildlife protections prevent use of motorized grass cutting, so the scythes fill in, Bryan said. The New York Botanical Garden, in the Bronx, has a five-acre meadow it cuts with scythes from Scythe Supply.

As one might expect, late May and June, when the grass gets high, are Scythe Supplies’ busiest season. The new growth had brought Kayla Libby to Farm & Homestead Day to get fitted for a scythe. She and her grandfather, a former pastor, recently started farming in eastern Maine on land that had been neglected for 65 years, she said. They’d be taking it back bit by bit, and wanted to use scythes to do so. She’s been using her grandfather’s but was eager to get one fitted for her own frame.

“It’s our desire to really just bring people back to nature,” she said. “This is how it used to be.”

No noise but the subtle sound of the blade. Nothing to fix but the blade, which can be sharpened right there in the field (a real scyther keeps a whetstone at his or her waist at all times). No gasoline, no expensive battery to replace and no polluting emissions either. (The Environmental Protection Agency began regulating emissions from lawn mowers in the 1990s. One 2015 EPA study, described gasoline-powered lawn and garden equipment as “a source of high levels of localized emissions that includes hazardous air pollutants, criteria pollutants, and carbon dioxide.”)

“These are what people are replacing their weed whackers with,” Cashore said.

Hawkins has 13 raised beds in his yard in Farmington and uses the scythe to work around their edges, in much the same way people use weed whackers. He too was doing a little casual shopping at Homestead Day.

“I want to get a bush blade,” Hawkins said. “Just to be more versatile when I go places.”

Scythe users may be virtuous and green, but that doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy accessories. Scythes come with a basic grass blade, but there is also a ditch blade, good for taking down brambles and small saplings along with grass, and then that bush blade Hawkins was contemplating, which is sturdy enough to make a trail through many kinds of vegetation.

While nostalgia has something to do with those sales, the practicality and portability of the scythe cannot be denied. Take Monhegan, for example, where Bryan said she has regular customers. For the last two years, a scythe fan named Frederick Faller has led a trip to the island to do unto thy neighbor – namely make hay where the haying machine doesn’t go on shared community garden plots around Monhegan.

Monhegan residents consistently pay vastly more for their energy than other Maine communities (they rank in the unfortunate “top” 20 communities for electric rates in the nation) and so they are highly aware of waste. It can cost up to $15 a bale to get hay over to the island to use for mulch in these shared vegetable plots. So Faller rallies a team in late June to cut the fresh grass and deliver it to the collective of residents with plots. In this case, ancient methods are being used for the new sustainability.