Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Philippe, our soon-to-be-moved in new neighbour, posted a comment on my blog of June 14th on Luddites. Luddites , you might remember, were a social movement of English textile artisans in the early nineteenth century who destroyed wool and cotton mills, in the belief that new labour-saving machinery would diminish employment, particularly for skilled workers. Philippe drew my attention to the Canuts: also textile artisans (silk workers using technically advanced looms) also 19th century, they too revolted (pic above) but against poor working conditions rather than modern technology, either way, a rather argumentative lot, these cloth-making chappies! Now the Jacquard loom, which the French workers were using, was technically advanced–the first machine to use punch cards to control a sequence of operations and therefore a precursor of the computer–exactly the sort of thing the Luddites would have kicked up a fuss about. Which is all a rather long-winded introduction to my tale as an Englishman in France, living in the age of the petrol-driven strimmer, trying to find a French man in our village who could show me how to sharpen a scythe.

I actually don’t think the strimmer a terribly efficient device and one has to wear ear-defenders and goggles which, along with the noise, tends to isolate one from the countryside. In contrast, an article by Simon Fairlie in Permaculture Magazine, and the The Scythe Book by David Tresemer and Peter Vido, romanced me with the idea of a sharper-than-a-very-sharp-thing Austrian-made blade supported by a wafer-light ash snath (handle) whispering through dawn-damp grass accompanied by birdsong, a smile and a bead of honest sweat on the brow (I did say “romanced”). They do sell scythes in garden shops here but, having purchased one, I immediately encountered problems. At a fraction under 6ft, it seems that I’m a giant in the land of the small people, and in a relaxed pose, the blade was a good four inches off the ground, necessitating a handle modification (see photo). And the blade was nowhere near sharp enough to start cutting grass. I began my search with Sylvère, an affûteur (literally a grinder) whose business is to sharpen all manner of saw blades and cutting tools. He had a go but advised me, as I’d read, that I needed to sharpen the blade by drawing the edge out with hammer and anvil, a process called peening; an abrasive stone is then used to whet the blade. Despite knowing what I had to do, he didn’t know how to himself and so I asked Danielle, in the boulangerie (bakery) / bar if she could ask around her older customers for anyone who’d be willing to show me how to do it.

Yves is a retired dairy farmer and it is he in the photo, sat on the floor with my scythe blade resting on his knees, lightly hammering the edge of the blade against a portable anvil nailed into the ground. He spent at least 40 minutes working it and advised me that I should use it and then continue working it with the hammer in similar fashion before the edge would be fully prepared. He reminisced about hearing the “ching, ching, ching” of his father peening his scythe at three in the morning, prior to going to the field to start cutting at dawn, when the grass was at its freshest. He’d then pause and whet the blade with a stone (carried in a water-filled sheath) every half hour or so. I’m not so sure about three o’clock starts: there’s a limit to the authenticity necessary to the tradition in my opinion and it doesn’t involve getting up at three in the morning.

I’ve now sold my strimmer and used the money to buy two ash snaths (one each for me and the shorter Gabrielle) and two Austrian blades from Simon at The Scythe Shop (American and Canadian readers, check out The Scythe Connection). I’ll let you know how we get on.