Column: A scythe, a porch and a grassroots revolution

  • Bill Nichols. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 9/20/2021 10:10:06 PM
Modified: 9/20/2021 10:10:06 PM

A few weeks ago, Valley News Opinion contributor Suzanne Lupien made a convincing case for the Austrian brush scythe (“Elegance and efficiency,” Aug. 1). Her beautiful essay set me to imagining a better future. Full disclosure: I am not totally innocent of faults Lupien sees in the arrival of the “devilish modern” weed wacker, which brings, she says, “stench and noise and discomfort.” Mine is electric, relying for fuel on the solar panels atop our house, but it is noisy, and it shreds plants. Its destruction is limited to areas not reached by a large, loud, gas-powered mower run by a professional in our employ.

Having used my advanced age as reason enough for contracting out most of the noisy plant carnage around our house, I was struck by Lupien’s memory of the years before weed wackers, when, she remembers, “many of the expert scythers of my childhood were old men.” This set me to thinking about the possibility that someone my age might learn how to hone and swing a scythe well enough to mow a lawn skillfully and, better, almost silently.

I’ve begun to imagine a neighborhood with many skillful scythers, a community quiet on springtime Saturday mornings. No roar of mowers and trimmers. Instead of lawns with identical crewcuts, I see yards abounding in biodiversity. Lupien tells of sparing the succulent young milkweed favored by monarch butterflies, uncovering wild strawberries in early summer with her scythe, and moving monarch caterpillars onto neighboring milkweed, out of the way of cultivation. Her essay reminds me of a passage in one of Amish dairy farmer David Kline’s books in which he tells of changing the course of his horse-drawn plow to protect a nest with eggs about to hatch. Could lawn care take on some of the artistry and tact of farmers who adapt their work to preserve native plants and birds?

The yard I imagine caring for with a scythe and other non-power tools makes much sense given our growing awareness of climate change. Those noisy machines we use for cutting our lawns add carbon to the atmosphere, and often the cuttings are treated as waste instead of compost. It could make a difference if many of us began to address global warming literally at the grass roots. We could grow plants far more varied and native than the grass seed mixtures many of us rely on now.

Thanks to my wife, our family has made a beginning. Nancy finds beautiful plants on the margins of our property and includes them in her flower beds. Of course, if crewcut lawns are to be replaced by this kind of improvisation, some towns and communities will need to jettison rules that make long grass a violation.

Readers would be justified in finding utopian hints in these thoughts. They might even be slightly “evangelical,” a word that has come to figure importantly in our country’s political divide. If I buy a good scythe — they are available online — and find a willing teacher, I will hope soon to recruit other scythers from among retirees I know. “My shortened, smoothed-out backswing with the scythe has improved my golf game around the greens enormously,” is one way I might begin a sales pitch.

On the same page with Lupien’s essay, Randall Balmer’s column, “America has lost more than its front porches,” provides serendipity. Balmer, a Dartmouth College professor and Episcopal priest who often writes about religion and politics for the Sunday Valley News, among many other publications, reflects on the impact of our paying less and less attention to front porches, which used to be good locations for spontaneous neighborhood conversations.

In 1998, a friend of ours took her mother, then 92, back to Hamlin, W.Va., where her mother had taught school for three years after she graduated from college. As they walked down a street, a woman called from her front porch, “Are you looking for memories?”

They were indeed, and during the conversation that followed on that porch, the woman sent her granddaughter to bring one of the students from so long ago, a man who had become the local undertaker. Their warm and memorable reunion suggests a front porch where people meet and explore what they have in common, despite their differences.

In addition to Nancy’s ecological improvisations in our flower gardens, we have made marginal progress with our front porch. Realizing the concrete block leading to our door was not welcoming, we asked an old friend from Ohio to build something warmer and more accessible to outsiders than our backyard deck. The porch is small, but we’ve already had some good talks about politics there with people campaigning for candidates. I can imagine myself seated on the porch steps with my guitar, working out a song I hope to write soon about scything as one way to battle climate change.

But senior citizens like me don’t need a guitar, a scythe or even a porch to start working for this grassroots revolution. There is a potentially noisy movement, Third Act, recommended by Bill McKibben and taking shape as I write. It’s folks over 60, “experienced people working for a fair and stable planet.” I just signed up online at

Bill Nichols lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at

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