A scythe is an ancient agricultural hand tool used for mowing grass or reaping crops, largely replaced by power tools in modern times. And, Ken Keffer, H.W. Stodghill, Jr. and Adele H. Stodghill Professor of French and German, believing that what is old is often new, is looking to this unique past to inspire a novel green initiative at Centre College. In early May, Keffer hosted a scything event near campus in an effort to help people learn to appreciate the unique quiet and fulfillment that scything brings. What he refers to as the “scythe attitude” calls for patience and respect for all manner of weeds, grass and flowers and a desire for the pleasures of manual labor.
“Our relationship to the earth’s surface is deeply flawed—motorized and vehicular,” Keffer says. “We seem to wish to cut the grass as quickly as possible, to reduce it to some kind of decoration or table cloth spread over the earth. We wish to rush through the grass in the cacophony of a whirling blade hidden from view.”
But Keffer’s idea of mowing takes a more philosophical approach.
“Scything reveals the blade as exposed and under our control, as ‘edgy’ and in need of our care,” he explains. “It reveals the grass as grass—not something beneath our dignity. It teaches us that the earth (and therefore the world) shows up first and foremost as grass. The grass is what grows. For the scythe, the earth shows up in the mixture of grasses, wildflowers, weeds and stalks that sometimes need mowing in the morning.”
Keffers fondness for the ancient tool began many years ago.
“For me, it was love at first scythe,” he says. “When I first saw an old American scythe at an auction in 1979, I knew I had looked into the future. The American version of the scythe, though beautiful and the subject of many wonderful paintings, is not practical. Those who remember using it or those who find it hanging in a flea market or in their basement or garage, recall it as a tool of drudgery and toil. The European version allows you to mow easily while standing, relying upon the art of walking.”
There is a bit of skill needed to scythe correctly without wearing out body and blade, so Keffer has taken two scything courses in Northern Germany and plans to do a week-long certification course in Austria in order to be certified to teach others.
For some, this form of mowing may seem like a great deal of manual labor. For Keffer, it is a labor of love.
“The question is not, ‘How long does it take you to mow that field with a scythe?’ But rather, ‘When can I mow next with the scythe?'” he says.
“My hope is to change the world—or, at the very least, change the way lawns are mowed in my little town.”
by Cindy Long
May 11, 2015