Alexander Langlands’ CRAEFT: How Traditional Crafts Are About More Than Just Making, is out now, published by Faber & Faber. Read an extract from the book’s introduction below.
I remember the first time I used a scythe. I was in my mid-twenties and, sick of city life, I had taken up the tenancy of a cottage in the middle of nowhere. Neglected for years, the garden was a waste ground of invasive weeds, molehills and tumbled-down fences. At first I relished the challenge of taming this wilderness, but after just one year the burden of mowing the grass, strimming the various rough patches and trimming the hedges began to grind me down.
Perhaps the most irritating part of the process was the maintenance of the various petrol-powered cutting machines I had to use. The strimmer, a length of steel tube with an engine at one end and a head of rotating nylon cord at the other, was a particularly truculent contraption. I always dreaded trying to get the blasted thing started after its long winter hibernation. Ensuring the mix of oil and petrol was just right for the highly strung engine, clearing the air filter, decarbonising the spark plug, replenishing the nylon cord, oiling the head and flushing the carburettor were all jobs that had to be undertaken before endlessly yanking away at the starter cord, desperately hoping it would fire into life. And when it finally roused itself from its winter slumber and revved up to fever pitch, on went the protective gear: steel toecaps, goggles, gloves and ear-defenders. I would submerge myself into a day of monotonous buzzing and rattling, flaying the emerging spring vegetation.
However, one morning in late April, no matter what I did I just could not get the damned thing to start. In the days of my youth I would have taken it to my father – a man of the post-war generation when everyone was a hobbyist mechanic – and with a bit of tinkering he would soon have had it going. But I was on my own here. In the middle of nowhere. And no amount of swearing and cursing was going to improve the situation. Dismayed, as I cast my eye over the unruly undergrowth encroaching on the last vestiges of lawn around the cottage, my mind recalled an implement I had hanging up in the back shed. It was a scythe I’d purchased a few years before at a car boot sale, for the princely sum of ten pounds. Carrying it back to the car that day, I had conjured up a romantic vision of myself emulating the farmhands of Old England, slashing through acres of luscious meadow grass between manly swigs from a cider flagon. Blunt and rickety scythe in hand, I set about cutting and quickly developed a pendulum-like hacking motion. Progress was slow, but it was working – and I was living the dream.
It was lucky for me that one of the older gamekeepers caught sight of me. As he pulled up in his clapped-out Land Rover he leaned out of the window and laughed. ‘I can see you’ve never used a scythe before, boy.’ Within seconds he was smearing a drop of spit down the blade with a whetstone, working up a fine abrasive paste and softly grinding a shining edge on the black patina of the antiquated iron. Razor sharpness was everything. And the technique he demonstrated was different too. Holding the blade parallel to the ground and as far away from the body as was comfortable, he drew it towards himself in an arcing motion, slicing – not hacking – through the undergrowth. The hollow ringing sound of the blade scything through the grass and weeds was clean and appealing. But what’s more, the speed and effectiveness was astonishing. On the back swing a brushing technique could be adopted with the rear of the blade, teeing up any fallen plants to be sliced through on the returning swipe. I was impressed. And while the job had probably taken me a fraction longer than with a strimmer, I’d enjoyed listening to the sound of the birds while I worked.
That summer the scythe became the tool of choice. Relieved of the rigmarole of fuelling, servicing and maintaining the strimmer, scything could be conducted on a whim, the scythe plucked from the toolshed and employed for an hour or two here and there. My technique improved. I became stronger and began to feel less exhausted at the end of a stint, and almost matched the time taken to do the same job with a strimmer. And the shape of the garden changed too; straight lines gave way to sweeping curves and corners became rounded. Scythed twice that year, the variable stubble of my small meadow created an attractive environment for a variety of grasses and wild flowers, which in turn supported a host of different insects. As autumn reached for her golden crown, I realised that I’d taken a traditional way of doing something and had found that, on my terms, it was just as effective as the mechanically charged, petrol-powered methods of today.
And so, my relationship with cræft had begun.
Craeft: How Traditional Crafts Are About More Than Just Making is out now and available here in the Caught by the River shop, priced £20.00.