If you’d of told me a couple of years ago that I’d use a scythe to cut grass, chisel a channel for a water pipe in the hardest rock imaginable, and haul 10kg rocks up a hill, I would of said ‘don’t be bloody mental’, especially about the scythe. Anyone that knows me has probably noticed that I’m not the most co-ordinated person. I often bump into things and usually have a bruise somewhere on my body. I justify this by the fact that I have hyper-mobility syndrome, which apparently means I’m less aware of my limbs in space than most people. I’ve never been tested for this symptom of hyper-mobility though, so it could just be a convenient excuse for my ‘un-co’ self.
When I got to my first volunteer place, the wonderful Cotna Eco-farm and Retreat, I could see that the owner, Dave, noticed this in me. As he gave me the tour of the farm, I’d occasionally slip or bump into a branch that I hadn’t noticed. It’s so frustrating for me, but I imagine really funny to witness. There were no laughs from Dave though (at least none that I heard), and gradually throughout my stay he gave me tasks that involved more tools, starting with areas in which I was more confident, like gardening. Dave and Sarah (his partner) were such perceptive people. They were both trained as homeopaths, so perhaps it comes with the territory. By the end of my stay I felt a lot more assured in my practical skills, and had used an axe and a scythe. The experience of using the scythe in particular made me think about our contemporary relationship with designed objects, and how a permaculture approach can encourage a different experience of our bodies, the contexts in which we live, and the tools we use.
Dave is an advocate of the scythe because it doesn’t use any energy other than our own, it doesn’t impact on the soundscape of the countryside, and in small doses it can be great for stretching and exercising your back. Plus if you do it well, it does an awesome job of cutting meadows and it doesn’t throw shit up in your face like a strimmer. These advantages are all testament to its design, presumably perfected by small incremental changes over the centuries. The two handles are a comfortable length apart for most adults and the weight is balanced to cut cleanly through the grass without exerting too much effort. Of course this didn’t stop me from ramming the point of the blade into the ground to start with. Dave encouraged me to persevere though and within no time I got into a rhythm (see below for a wonderful video of Ernie explaining how to use the scythe). Dave also advised us to use the scythe in pairs for 10 minutes each and then have a few minutes break to sharpen the blade and have a drink. This approach kept the scythe in good condition and made the activity a lot less tiresome.
This is definitely not the quickest way of cutting a meadow, but as you’ll know if you’ve read my other posts, I’m pretty critical of efficiency being the aim of everything. In fact one of my biggest criticisms of the field of industrial design is that it tends to assume that faster and more efficient technologies are always better. Not only is this attitude a manifestation of the ideologies of capitalism and industrialisation, but ironically it often results in objects with more functions than we need, that take more time to work out how to use, and have more components that can go wrong. This is exemplified by the digital multi-function toaster, which, if I had one, would probably end up with me throwing my bread at the thing.
My other critique of the field of design is the idea that the new and futuristic is always an improvement. Of course we need new ideas, but not innovation for innovation’s sake – the word has become an empty gesture used by wanky businessmen to describe unfathomable things, such as ‘innovative strategic management systems’. In fact, on Wikipedia, innovation is defined as ‘something original and more effective and, as a consequence, new, that “breaks into” the market or society’. Breaking into new markets… so that definition is not specific to capitalism then…
Instead of always trying to innovate, I think design needs to place more value on old objects like the scythe. By valuing the old, I don’t mean to take a Luddite view, or a nostalgic one (although I think there are positive aspects to both these attitudes that contemporary discourse frames as backwards or rose-tinted). I want to suggest that old technologies, whether successes or failures, can provide inspiration or even be reinstated as ways of dealing with the pending environmental crisis. While designers often use historical precedents to come up with ideas, we need to look further back and outside the confines of industrial capitalism to the ingenuities and knowledge of our ancestors. For example, in Nelson, New Zealand, chickens were used to switch on the first electric streetlights – when they went into the coop at dusk their body weight would activate the spring-loaded perch and connect the switch, and when the hens left at dawn the circuit would be disconnected and the lights would go out again. While we may not need this specific technology, this old solution points to the many potential sources of energy that surround us.
This respect for the past is found in permaculture design, an approach that I am becoming increasingly convinced by. The notion of permaculture emerged in Australia in the late 1970s and is originally associated with the work of David Holmgren and Bill Mollison. Holmgren defines permaculture design principles as: ‘[t]hinking tools, that when used together allow us to creatively re-design our environment and our behaviour in a world of less energy and resources.’
Holmgren defines twelve principles, which include observing and interacting with nature; producing no waste; valuing integration over segregation; using small and slow solutions; and embracing diversity. If Holmgren’s lists or diagrams are too much for you, you can also learn permaculture principles from the Formidable Vegetable Sound System.
The twelve principles of permaculture design are rooted by the three core ethics of earth care, people care and fair share. They can be used to think about aspects of life as diverse as agriculture, technology, community organisation and economics. This approach to the process of design is radically contextual and, if done right, it explores past practices, rituals and traditions. Adopting these ethics and principles is by no means an easy task, but the design of something as useful as the scythe didn’t come about in a day either. And yes, perhaps we have lost the practical knowledge to use some of our old tools, but it doesn’t take long to learn and people like Ernie can teach us. If I can do it, anyone can. Maybe instead of going to the gym we could scythe our local park one afternoon a week. It might be a bit of a challenge to get it past council health and safety though!