Column: In praise of the swing of the scythe, and the diligent monarch

  • A mower with his scythe. (AP Photo/Jens Meyer) ap — Jens Meyer

  • A monarch butterfly on milkweed. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) ap — Carolyn Kaster

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

For the Valley News
Published: 8/1/2021 10:20:10 PM
Modified: 8/1/2021 10:20:12 PM

Heading out the door for a ramble on such a summer morning as this one, many people take their dogs along. I take my scythe. After the horses and chickens are tended and I’ve had a leisurely pre-dawn cup of coffee, I’m apt to hone my Austrian brush scythe and head for the upper field to do a little trimming, and a little thinking and planning for the day. I saw the first monarch recently, which told me I must hurry and finish up my mowing before the butterflies begin to arrive in numbers. I just hope and pray that they will.

All the daylight hours, I can usually be found somewhere on my open land, moving fence for the horses’ grazing, working in the garden, picking vegetables, often just observing and enjoying.

Over time I have come to realize how the monarch favors succulent milkweed plants upon which to deposit her egg, plants that have sprouted after a previous mowing. Rarely, if ever, will she lay her eggs on a mature, leathery milkweed plant. The little plants are tender, and the newly hatched caterpillars can begin to eat the plant right away.

I love to see the monarch flit from one plant to the next, pausing for just a second to leave her egg, perhaps laying dozens of eggs on dozens of plants in the scope of a couple of minutes. She is as elegant as she is efficient. She goes and goes until her supply of eggs is spent, and she too is spent, the vibrant color of her wings fade and she dies.

Oh, to work as she does, so diligently, so beautifully and with the lightest touch. I want to emulate her.

I figure I’ve got the rest of the week to finish up, by the time her sisters arrive in earnest to lay their eggs, at which point I’ll put my scythe away for the season so as not to risk cutting milkweed with precious eggs aboard.

And thus begins my annual vigil of watchfulness to find the hatchlings — easy to spot thanks to their unique striping — and to keep track of their whereabouts and their progress as they develop into stunning adult caterpillars, each to quickly metamorphose to a chrysalis, sewn together with a gold thread, then reemerge as a bright, new monarch as stunning as the rose windows of Chartres Cathedral.

Many times I have moved developing caterpillars out of harm’s way onto another milkweed plant, out of the path of the horses pulling the cultivator through the garden. I walk the path we will take beforehand and check all the plants I can find during this special nursery period from the end of July through September, the yearly festival of the monarch on my farm. Indeed, I count the estimated crop of monarchs to be a highly valued product of the farm.

A good, sharp scythe will cut effortlessly and accurately with a bit of practice. Soon you will do a lovely job mowing swath after swath, evenly, just above the ground, the grass lying straight and orderly. Should you wish to mow around a single plant, a milkweed or a wild rose, you can do it. You grow to sense where the tip of your blade will be.

As a young girl I learned to swing the scythe under the expert eye of my father. I was in love with his beautiful antique scythe, as well as his scything. I know he loved to scythe, and watching him you would easily see athleticism in his swing, a natural carryover somehow from the ballfield to the hayfield.

Witnessing such a person skilled in the art was an inspiring sight, once common, now rare. Scything is quite a different thing from the stench and noise and discomfort of the devilish modern weed whacker shredding plants. Before the arrival of the weed whacker, the scythe was king, and many of the expert scythers of my childhood were old men, the skill derived from their lifetime of practice, relieving the need for youthful muscle.

Any tool not requiring a motor is conducive to thought, and the motive power of the individual can find rhythm and expression even in the most repetitive and humble tasks. The shovel, the pitchfork, the fountain pen. You recognize yourself continuously in the doing; your character, your style never gets lost or overtaken by a noisome, noisy machine.

Scything in early summer has another benefit, too. Wild strawberries. They are, as I’m sure you know, absolutely delicious, and the height of a typical wild strawberry plant is just below the path of a scythe blade. So scything exposes the berries very nicely, and when you care to take a rest, you can enjoy the wonderful berries. So much goodness, right there at your feet.

Suzanne Lupien lives, writes and farms in Vershire.

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