Zaleski column: Scythe sang with a swing and a swish

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Post Mills, Vt.

When I insisted the old scythe go in the moving truck to Vermont, my family scoffed.

"Gonna cut hay?" one mockingly asked. I ignored her. The weathered, rusted implement made the trip east with more modern things.

We'd sold our Sheyenne River house with the big yard, and downsized to a Fargo townhome. Yard and garden tools went to my daughter's rural place in New England where they would be put to good use. Packing the scythe was my indulgence. Never thought I'd use it. Liked the look of it. Loved its history.

I acquired the scythe the day we closed a deal with the late Ray Johnson for a few acres of lakeshore land in Grand Harbor Township, about seven miles west of Devils Lake, N.D. The blade was hanging in his barn. "Want it?" he said. "I never want to see it again," he laughed. "Take it!" The scythe had been his father's. Ray recalled the days he'd spent swinging it through high grass in road ditches on the farm. He had no love for the scythe, but said, "It's a good piece of steel."

That was in 1972; 46 years ago. Ray had owned it for at least that long, and his father bought it new years before. A rough calculation makes it to be more than 100 years old.

A few days ago, Ray's words came back to me: "a good piece of steel."

My daughter's new place was overgrown with brush and weeds: six-foot goldenrod, tangles of vetch and vine, pine, hemlock and maple saplings, thickets of blackberry and raspberry canes. Not to be tackled by a string trimmer. The slope was too steep for tractor and sickle bar or brush hog. What to do?

In our shed, the distinctive curve of the scythe's ashwood snaith caught my eye. I began a two-day restoration. No rot in the wood. The handle hardware was locked in rust, but with clamps and wood screws, I anchored the grips to comfort-zone positions. The ash was dry. I brushed it with a soak of preservative and a coat of sealer. I removed the tang and ring at the foot of the snaith to free the chine for sharpening. Cleaned it up, oil-rubbed it, and lightly "peened" the blade before honing with a whetstone. The antique steel took a fine edge; a straight razor for a giant.

Reassembled the next day, the scythe was ready, I hoped, for the arms and back of a neophyte. I took to the slope, worked into a rhythmic swing and swish—and marveled at how natural it felt, how effortlessly the gleaming blade dispatched weeds, canes and vines. Mindful that the blade slicing through the brush could as easily slash my leg, I stopped frequently to rest and hone the edge. Brilliant design, I thought. Simple, elegant, efficacious. Ergonomic, long before the concept became fashionable.

Still useful. It was kind to my mature back. Glad I've held on to it.

Zaleski retired in 2017 after 30 years as The Forum’s editorial page editor. He continues to write a Sunday column. Contact him at jzaleski@forumcomm.com.