Saturday, July 29, 2023

"How to Sharpen a Scythe"

Alternative title: "Why I am not a writer."

This is so smooth that you don't even notice when he drops it into gear and sets off.

From The Yale Review:

Is paying attention good in itself?

From "Distraction and Attention," a folio of responses to Caleb Smith's Thoreau's Axe: Distraction and Discipline in American Culture. To read the entire folio, click here.

To get a scythe to whisper through whatever needs trimming, it is not enough to hone its blade. The edge also needs to be tissue-thin and all but frictionless. To accomplish this, you will need not a sharpening stone but a triangular anvil and a hammer with a flat face. With these tools you will peen the blade, precisely hitting its very edge, repeatedly, with force enough to thin the metal and restraint enough to keep it from tearing.

Peening is a finicky job; it takes discipline and close attention so that you neither smash your fingers nor crumple the blade’s edge while bringing your hammer down, centimeter by centimeter, along the length of the blade as it lies atop the vertex of your anvil. One hundred and fifty overlapping blows should complete one pass of the blade’s length. It will take just a few minutes. If you can avoid distraction and do the job well, the blade will be so thin that it will ripple when you run your thumbnail beneath it.

You can mow your lawn with a scythe blade peened like this.

The first few passes are always a bit stiff, but soon your body familiarizes itself to the rhythm the scythe demands, as the tool adjusts itself to the personality of the ground over which it rides. At some point, with a thinly peened blade, the scythe will begin working so well that you no longer pay much attention to it. You might instead notice the fresh-cut smell in whose wake you stand, the sounds of the bees and the breeze, the ravens overhead, and the bluets and purple thyme at your feet.

If you are of a literary bent, you may imagine yourself in the shoes of Leo Tolstoy’s Konstantin Levin, who flees the confusion and unfulfillment of daily life—in Levin’s case, an argument with his brother over what aristocrats like themselves owe the peasants who work their land—and takes to the scythe as therapy:

The longer Levin mowed, the more often he felt those moments of oblivion during which it was no longer his arms that swung the scythe, but the scythe itself that lent motion to his whole body, full of life and conscious of itself, and, as if by magic, without a thought of it, the work got rightly and neatly done on its own. These were the most blissful moments.

You may find yourself agreeing with Wendell Berry that working with a scythe is a categorical good, carrying “the force of a parable,” or with Paul Kingsnorth that “using a scythe properly is a meditation. . . . Everything is connected to everything else.” You may find yourself nodding along with Robin Wall Kimmerer: “The land is the real teacher. All we need as students is mindfulness. Paying attention is a form of reciprocity with the living world.”

Or perhaps you will stand with Henry David Thoreau: “The scythe that cuts will cut our legs,” he wrote. “We are double-edged blades, and every time we whet our virtue the return stroke straps our vice.”

An intellect can be scythe-like, scary-sharp in its ability to dissect what many might consider to be settled convention, as Caleb Smith does in Thoreau’s Axe: what could be safer ground than to affirm that paying attention is good in itself? Teachers, employers, and yoga instructors implore us to pay attention to our homework, spreadsheets, and breathing. We are supposed to pay attention to the news in order to save democracy, to Twitter in order to save culture, to our diets in order to save our health, and to the natural world in order to save the planet.....