How to Sharpen a Scythe

Is paying attention good in itself?

Daegan Miller
Illustration by Tyler Varsell

From "Distraction and Attention," a folio of responses to Caleb Smith's Thoreau's Axe: Distraction and Discipline in American Culture. To read the entire folio, click here.

To get a scythe to whisper through whatever needs trimming, it is not enough to hone its blade. The edge also needs to be tissue-thin and all but frictionless. To accomplish this, you will need not a sharpening stone but a triangular anvil and a hammer with a flat face. With these tools you will peen the blade, precisely hitting its very edge, repeatedly, with force enough to thin the metal and restraint enough to keep it from tearing.

Peening is a finicky job; it takes discipline and close attention so that you neither smash your fingers nor crumple the blade’s edge while bringing your hammer down, centimeter by centimeter, along the length of the blade as it lies atop the vertex of your anvil. One hundred and fifty overlapping blows should complete one pass of the blade’s length. It will take just a few minutes. If you can avoid distraction and do the job well, the blade will be so thin that it will ripple when you run your thumbnail beneath it.

You can mow your lawn with a scythe blade peened like this.

The first few passes are always a bit stiff, but soon your body familiarizes itself to the rhythm the scythe demands, as the tool adjusts itself to the personality of the ground over which it rides. At some point, with a thinly peened blade, the scythe will begin working so well that you no longer pay much attention to it. You might instead notice the fresh-cut smell in whose wake you stand, the sounds of the bees and the breeze, the ravens overhead, and the bluets and purple thyme at your feet.

If you are of a literary bent, you may imagine yourself in the shoes of Leo Tolstoy’s Konstantin Levin, who flees the confusion and unfulfillment of daily life—in Levin’s case, an argument with his brother over what aristocrats like themselves owe the peasants who work their land—and takes to the scythe as therapy:

The longer Levin mowed, the more often he felt those moments of oblivion during which it was no longer his arms that swung the scythe, but the scythe itself that lent motion to his whole body, full of life and conscious of itself, and, as if by magic, without a thought of it, the work got rightly and neatly done on its own. These were the most blissful moments.

You may find yourself agreeing with Wendell Berry that working with a scythe is a categorical good, carrying “the force of a parable,” or with Paul Kingsnorth that “using a scythe properly is a meditation. . . . Everything is connected to everything else.” You may find yourself nodding along with Robin Wall Kimmerer: “The land is the real teacher. All we need as students is mindfulness. Paying attention is a form of reciprocity with the living world.”

Or perhaps you will stand with Henry David Thoreau: “The scythe that cuts will cut our legs,” he wrote. “We are double-edged blades, and every time we whet our virtue the return stroke straps our vice.”

An intellect can be scythe-like, scary-sharp in its ability to dissect what many might consider to be settled convention, as Caleb Smith does in Thoreau’s Axe: what could be safer ground than to affirm that paying attention is good in itself? Teachers, employers, and yoga instructors implore us to pay attention to our homework, spreadsheets, and breathing. We are supposed to pay attention to the news in order to save democracy, to Twitter in order to save culture, to our diets in order to save our health, and to the natural world in order to save the planet.

How did we get here? “How,” writes Smith, “did we come to care so much about attention, as if we could repair the harm that the world has done to us by changing our ways of taking the world into ourselves?” That sly slicing conjunction—as if—cuts down the frequently voiced notion that the world’s material problems can be reduced to personal distraction, that if only we could focus on the tasks at hand, all would be right.

Every season brings increased variety, which is another way of saying that every season brings increased possibility.

Instead, Smith reveals, in twenty-eight readings of short passages drawn from the works of mostly nineteenth-century writers, poets, clergy, and reformers, a complex history of attention that has as much to do with social control as with care.

And so we learn that attention can be a violent tool of white supremacy, wielded by a person like James Dana, the white minister who preached at the 1790 hanging of Joseph Mountain, a Black man sentenced to death for raping a white child. Public executions have always been a spectacle, and Dana worried that, if left untutored, his white audience would pay a debased kind of attention to Mountain’s punishment, reveling in its violence. In the minister’s mind, the point of the execution was not simply to mete out punishment but, as Smith puts it, to “reconstitute the lawful, Christian community of the living.” The point was to discipline the white spectators alongside the Black victim. Dana’s sermon, Smith writes, sought to command “the crowd’s attention and [turn] it inward, to the examination of each person’s own transgressive tendencies.” But it was also meant to focus the white crowd’s collective attention on the mission of racial superiority, to rally them around the cause of white womanhood.

Much of Thoreau’s Axe cuts deeply into American culture, revealing how discipline and punishment, often wielded from above, have defined for us the proper objects of attention: God, country, race, and the capitalist grind. But the blade of Smith’s analysis is subtle, and what I find most remarkable about Thoreau’s Axe is Smith’s comfort with ambiguity, the apparent ease with which he makes space for contradiction, the degree to which his method depends on it.

Disciplined attention may be a tool of social control—“attention means subordination,” writes Smith in a gloss on Marxist alienation—but in the right hands it might also be liberatory, as it is in Smith’s lovely reading of Frederick Douglass’s use of the conditional mood in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Douglass recounts a story of his time with Mr. Covey, the “slave-breaker” whose brutality was infamous but who also publicly fashioned himself as a devout Christian. Covey called his entire household, including the enslaved, to attend to his god and often asked Douglass to lead the group in song. “I would at times do so,” Douglass wrote. “At others, I would not.” Douglass had learned that Covey couldn't carry a tune, and that, when he held his tongue, Covey would stumble and stagger, turning his profession of piety into public farce. In this moment, Douglass flips the roles of master and servant by making “strategic use of distraction”—for the benefit of his fellow enslaved people as well as the audience of his autobiography, those watching Covey fail. For Smith, the power of Douglass’s passage hinges on the conditional verb would: “the conditional is the mood of uncertain, future-oriented possibility,” he writes, and that future-oriented possibility belongs not just to the narrator—to Douglass—but to the attentive, morally disciplined reader as well.

Smith’s keen feel for attention’s ambidextrousness—its dual capacity to subordinate and liberate—mirrors his instinct both for critique and for empathy. For he, too, yearns for a fulfilling life. Consider his handling of Walt Whitman’s instructions on how to live, from Leaves of Grass:

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and the sun and the animals . . . take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men . . . read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul. . . .

It would be easy to point out the seeming hypocrisy between Whitman’s professed antiauthoritarianism (“re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book”) and his opening injunction (“This is what you shall do”), then acidly write the whole thing up as just one more bid for cultural authority. But Smith stays close to the contradiction, feels its pull, and ends up reading Whitman’s passage as an invitation that is only as forceful as any individual reader’s response to it: “saying yes, as Whitman invites you to imagine it, is not an act of compliance, not a surrender. It can be an expansion of yourself.”

This is where Smith ends up: the dialectical tug of war between discipline and punishment, attention and distraction, leads him to devotion. Though “devotional literature” is often used to describe any overtly religious writing, what Smith has in mind is something more particular involving “ascetic practices of attunement and fidelity.” But neither Smith nor his historical characters equate turning in with turning away. Devotion, for them, is a relational kind of attention, an expansive attention that, though it begins with self-discipline, promises “intimacy, not isolation.”

Thoreau’s Axe is Smith’s devotional: “Maybe attention can be a way of engaging with the world instead of trying to transcend it, and discipline can be for self-composure, not for purity,” he writes, and in the great care of his writing is the performance of devotion. This performance is also a subtle invitation to the disciplined reader, echoing the invitation Smith heard in Whitman’s call to love the earth. It is an invitation to intimacy.

No tool is simple, neither discipline nor scythe. I had all sorts of reasons to begin mowing my lawn with an antiquated hand tool—economic and environmental and ideological—but there is nothing inherently good in any of this work. For all the therapeutic feeling Levin received when he mowed with his peasants, he remained, at the end of the day, their lord whose comfort depended on their sweat, and the scythe can certainly be classed among the tools of “imperial conquest and settlement,” as Smith notes of Thoreau’s axe.

Yet, with scythe in hand, I have begun to notice a change. I like how the tool sharpens my focus, as well as how it conditions my experience of living on this particular patch of earth. A patch that is also changing. Over the past four mowing seasons, what was once a standard rural lawn has transformed into a close-cropped meadow filled with moss, daisies, aromatic herbs, wild strawberries, bluets, and comfrey; it fairly vibrates during the day with the wings of pollinators fruitfully searching for a meal. Every season brings increased variety, which is another way of saying that every season brings increased possibility, and when I drift off to sleep at night, worn out by the day’s demands for attention, it is to the meadow singing with cricket song.

Daegan Miller is the author of This Radical Land: A Natural History of American Dissent. He lives in the hilltowns of western Massachusetts with his family.
Originally published:
May 23, 2023


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