Sunday, June 12, 2011

In Praise of Hand Tools

The sickle is a tool with a flat inward curving blade a little more than a foot long, sharpened on the inside edge and tapering to a point at the end. The blade is held by a wooden handle about twice as long as your hand is wide. It works well for cutting small clumps of grass or weeds. If you hold onto a clump when cutting, for ease of collection if you are cutting feed for the chickens or pigs, it is a good idea to wear a work glove on the hand that is holding the clump. Otherwise you risk grievous injury, especially if you do as you should and regularly sharpen the blade of your sickle. The sickle does roughly the same duty as the gasoline powered weed whacker -- edging, mowing small areas where the lawn mower (or oxen) can't or won't go, and general cleanup of messy and weedy garden areas. It is mostly familiar as a relic, known more for its iconographic use in that equally old and obsolete political and economic system known as socialism than as the commonplace farming and gardening tool it once was.

The scythe is a much more serious and daunting tool, but is ultimately no more than a large two-handed sickle, with its long curving blade ranging from less than two to almost four feet in length mounted at right angles to the end of a long and often elegantly curved wooden handle. Scythes often have two short and stubby offset hand holds attached to the handle, one roughly halfway between the blade and the end, and the other near the end. In using the scythe to cut tall grass or larger patches of weeds the trick is to sweep the blade smoothly above and parallel to the surface of the ground. This requires more a rotation of the hips than an isolated movement of the arms and shoulders. As with many hand tools its use is difficult at first but becomes far easier with sufficient practice. Solid footwear is recommended since the long and somewhat heavy steel blade, kept well sharpened of course, can do very serious damage to an errant bare or thinly shod foot. It too, like its smaller cousin the sickle, was long ago rendered obsolete by the gasoline or diesel powered blades of machinery ranging in size from the gas lawn mowers and riding mowers of suburbia and the countryside to the giant, GPS directed, air conditioned cab equipped combines which follow the wheat and corn harvest northward every year in the vast open farm country of the Midwestern and Central Plains states.

Why should anyone be interested in these museum pieces except as quaint relics of the hard labor farming practices of days gone by? And why on earth is their use being embraced by more and more small scale and even some commercial farmers, even as many Amish farmers upgrade from horse drawn to gas powered mowers and tractors, albeit usually with steel wheels rather than rubber tires? Why do we use them here at D Acres? The answer is, literally simplicity itself. They are simple tools with few parts to maintain, fix or replace and they require nothing but human power to operate. That is, they are efficient in ways that our familiarity and comfort with power tools obscures from view. Unlike weed whackers and lawn mowers, sickles and scythes don't have ignition assemblies to break, spark plugs to foul, fuel filters or carburetors to clean, blade adapters or cutting cords to wear out and break. And they do not require filling with gasoline, or the gas/oil blend burned by two stroke engines. They do not waste energy in the form of hot exhaust systems, noise, vibration or incompletely combusted fuel which lingers in a gray greasy cloud long after the engine has cooled. Once a certain skill in their use has been acquired, they do not cut what the person wielding them does not want cut and they do not inadvertently kill or injure whatever wildlife may be lurking among the weeds and tall grass. It is easy to ignore all of these inefficiencies of the use of power tools in a world in which cheap and abundant fossil fuels can be taken for granted, a world in which economic and political systems are resilient and responsive enough to allow for the smooth functioning of global supply chains for delivery of parts and fuel, a world in which natural systems are robust enough to serve as reservoirs of biodiversity off of the farm.

But it is becoming increasingly clear that our world may no longer be such a world. Something has been happening in the last few years that has been slowly but surely bringing back the sickle and the scythe in places where they were only known as relics rotting in old barns or as dusted off and over-priced decorative items in antique shops. Likewise with the two-person crosscut saw (AKA, the misery stick), the hand felling axe, the draw knife and many other hand tools of the past. What has been happening is something that most of us simply haven't noticed, even as its effects have become part of our reality. This is partly because we have been, understandably, preoccupied with our daily lives, and partly because it has been too big and slow in onset to qualify as a newsworthy event along the lines of earthquakes, tsunamis or blowouts on offshore oil rigs. What has been happening is that growth in our energy supply has slowed and stopped and we are currently heading into a period of declining available energy, dubbed by at least one recent author as "energy descent." Until fairly recently (some observers claim the year 2005 as the watershed, others 2008, and a few insist that it is still to come) energy supply has increased in response to increased demand and prices remained relatively stable. Of course there were temporary fluctuations due to political revolutions, war, natural disasters and so on, but the overall trend in energy production and use has been upward. Or at least it was upward until it wasn't anymore. And for no immediately apparent reason, even as oil prices soared to record levels in the summer of 2008, sending the global economy into a tail spin from which it has not yet recovered, growth in energy supply has not been able to keep up with increasing demand. The reason for the slowing and then stopping of energy supply growth is simple in the sense that all finite resources exhibit a similar pattern of growth, peak and decline in supply, and complex in that the resources in question are distributed across the globe and their supply is affected by many factors. The large scale trend is apparent, however -- we have entered an age of limits. Not only are we limited by the amount of new energy supply available to the economy and to all of use who depend on it, but we are also limited by the lack of space to put our wastes, solid, liquid and gaseous, by available farm land, by fresh water availability in more and more places, by sufficient "left over" habitat for the survival of many species of plants and animals.

In an age of limits the sickle is back to stay. This is not necessarily a bad thing since using a sickle brings us literally and figuratively closer to the ground beneath our feet on which we depend for sustenance. Crouching down among the weeds, bugs and worms of a healthy soil, methodically working along the edge of a raised garden bed, is one of the best ways to get reintroduced to the place where we live and to learn to appreciate once again the slower rhythms of birth, growth, death, decay on which all life depends.

[- George -]

1 comment:

Ruth Steck said...

Hey, George! I liked this a lot--well done. My newest blog post, still in draft form, is on the same subject, sort of. I hope to finish it in the next day or so--check out our website:
By the way, tradtionally scything was done barefoot--it is not an especially dangerous tool to the user.