Wednesday, October 8, 2008

DRA Harvests Historic Habits

Given the economy’s downward spiral as financial markets screeched to another halt at the sound of the bell last night, we all might take a lesson from Bill Grogan. Thanks to the Damariscotta River Association and Grogan’s handcrafted scythe, centuries past live in Midcoast Maine. In Alna at the corner of Rte. 218 and Cross Road Tuesday Grogan, who lives in Pemaquid and works at the Carpenters Boat Shop, cut the specially planted canary grass with a steady sweep, an arced blade taking the legs out from under the grass with a ringing ticking sound familiar to our forefathers and utterly foreign to our modern ears. [In the video the ring is all but drowned out by one of the ubiquitous gravel trucks roaring south from the Crooker gravel pit.]

A gray haired man in a beard and ponytail from another era, Grogan moves deliberately through the waist high green. Shorter than last year’s grass for reasons he couldn't explain, it is still long enough for school children to use it to thatch the roofs of the Damariscotta River Association's Native American village exhibit along the Damariscotta River in Damariscotta.

Grogan built the scythe he wields. The snath, the long straight wooden shaft is made of alder, while the smooth worn handles are made from apple. The blade, called an Austrian blade, differs from the typical European blade because it is pounded and forged by a blacksmith, then sharpened with a whetstone. Other blades are stamped by machinery and sharpened with a file. "American" scythe snaths curve around the body.

“[Scything]’s incredible exercise,” says Grogan taking a break to chat with passersby. He describes the organic rhythm of scything, noting that as the swath is cut and the blade dulls, the scyther fatigues and perhaps gets thirsty. “So I stop and get a drink and sharpen the blade,” he says.

Apparently the trick is to only take a little at a time, though it seemed only a matter of moments before Grogan and his blade had cut several square yards of reed.
The scythe subculture in Maine centers in Perry and can be found, anachronistically enough, at Grogan rattled off several people he knows who scythe and said he himself has given workshops in the skill.

Canary grass, actually a reed, is far from the only medium used as thatch. Grogan said Norfolk reed is more usually grown for this purpose in this country.

Keeping alive the skills of our forefathers could represent more than a quaint touch in the current economic meltdown. As people along the Maine coast ready in time-honored ways for this historically uncertain winter, cutting wood and canning garden produce, it’s hard not to want to revive some other tenets of our forefathers upon which the country was founded.

Ben Thompson of Damar-iscotta and Bill Bellows of Newcastle pause for a photo after loading the canary grass thatch into a trailer. They then carted it to a site alongside the Damariscotta, where local school children will roof the Native American Village with it.

1 comment:

Andrea said...

I bought C a European sythe for father's day and am still waiting for him to mow the lawn!