Saturday, 23 June 2007

A Sickle Sweetly Swinging

Blue sky. Hot bright sunlight. Tall weeds, including some record-breaking thistles all covered in fist-like purple blossoms.
Conditions were perfect, so I got out the shiny bright curve of steel and peeled away the red plastic blade-cover.
It's sickle time, kiddies. Don't stand too close.

Sickles are primitive. They date back to the Sumerians 4,000 years ago at least. They're bright silver Letter C's mounted on a wooden handle, set at an angle. The people who study these things say sickles were superseded by scythes, the stand-up slicer made famous by The Grim Reaper ... you don't have to hunker down to use a scythe, but it's a lot easier to chop yourself in the ankles with one of those great grim blades.

A sickle is slower and harder on the lower back, and if I forget my gloves it will raise a blister just below my index finger. But it is graceful, quiet, and effective. It uses no fossil fuels or electricity. It's cheap and lightweight and easy to maintain. It doesn't take long to get the knack of swinging one, and once you catch on it's almost like dancing -- bent knees, back flat, and swinging from the shoulders with a wide curve of arm... WHOOSH. Knee-high weeds are sliced off, the thistles are leveled, swept forward and away with nary a sting. A twist of the wrist and my arm is a pendulum on the backswing, carrying ahead of it another swath of summer green. I can switch hands when one shoulder tires, and adjust my swing and angles to deal with tough stalks or nearby stones or embankments.

I get into it. It's a feminine motion, but powerful, too. My body swings with the sickle, and the results are immediate and remarkable -- I cleared the waist-high overgrowth from the pathway outside our Bodega door in ten minutes' time. I cleared the low growth from around the walls, and more wilderness up top, where the chimney opens out. (We need to do some repairs before some hiker goes stomping round up there and breaks through and plummets to his doom the wine-dark cavern below!)

Sickles make me think of Ruth, a poor woman from a Bible story who followed behind the harvesters and picked up the wheat stalks the sickle-wielders missed. Her tale is all about gleaning and threshing and fertility and pastoral romance. She was a strong, brave woman, and it's implicit Ruth swung a mean sickle. And remember those great sickle-swinging Babushkas on the Soviet propaganda posters? Nobody messed with Ludmilla -- her great steel C was so powerful a symbol the Russkies put it on the national flag.

Sickles, like chickens and wheelbarrows and concrete mixers, are required appliances for living the life down here on the ground level, out on the perimeter. Buy one, keep it sharp, oil it now and then, and slip that red strip back on to keep the rust away and the kiddies safe. It will last a lifetime of summers.

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