Friday, March 27, 2009

The Scythe and The Machete



When I lived in my Ellis Hollow beaver lodge, and before I started using a machete for just about everything, I came to town once in a while for some tool or other, or to get some replacement socks from my trunk at Edgewood place. If Mama Dot was around, she would invite me to stay for lunch and a bath. But as far as I'm concerned, bathtubs are for sleeping in, so I tried to come by when she'd gone to the grocery store to get something she needed for a recipe, which was most every afternoon.

Davey was down in Puerto Rico teaching English then, and during that time, the Edgewood Place refrigerator was my mail box. Mama Dot usually left a bag of leftovers with my name on it there, and sometimes attached a a " Dear All" letter from Davey to it.
One day it was a bag of fried chicken thighs and an unopened letter from Davey addressed to me personally .
In the envelope was a plane ticket to Puerto Rico, and a letter explaining that Davey's wife had left , deeply pissed because the university closed down a modern dance class she was trying to teach. It was too "modern."
I hadn't been anywhere out of New York State since traveling to Alaska.
And I didn't much care to go anywhere either. After all, it was getting to be summer, and it would be hot as hell down in Puerto Rico. And besides....what was his idea? That I should take over the dance class?
I guess if he'd sent cash, I 'd have thought twice about going, but I could take the ticket or loose it, and departure was only two weeks off..... so I ate a couple of chicken thighs and went right back down cellar to start getting my shit together.

Two weeks later I was sitting, trying to play my harmonica, on the balcony porch of Davey's second floor walk-up apartment in the Finca - the U.P.R, faculty housing complex which used to be a ranch , and still was as far as the cattle grazing there were concerned. It was half a dozen three story apartment buildings in a remanent of range and jungle, all inside a chain-link fence, surrounded by many square miles of San Juan sprawl.
Beside me on the porch was a half bushel of mangoes I had picked up off the ground just across the drive the day before, plus a water glass full or pretty good Ron Rico rum, . All around me the roar of a million coquis - the singing national frog of Puerto Rico - so loud I could hardly hear my own harmonica or, when I gave up and put the harp to soak in the rum, it, the sound of the lawn guy's mower.
Davey had gone off to teach a seven am class, and come back at ten for siesta carying a big Jungle toad which he said had been crossing the drive when he left, but was still there when he returned, having died and already half dried in the attempt to cross. He planned to mail it to some friends in Ithaca.
At three O'clock a pair of Puerto Rican parrots flew over: a species endemic to Puerto Rico. Hally Wood downstaris told me that they were the last two of the kind. I don't really remember the parrots on that specific day, but they flew over every day at three o'clock, just like every day at four o'clock, it rained cats and coquis for about fifteen minutes. So the wise grounds man was careful to be finishing up the mowing before the expectable rain.
When the actual mowing was done, he sat on the curb to file the edge of a machete, then he went over it again with a whet stone.
I watched him go all around the borders of his mowing job, trimming up with the machete. Neat as a barber. I don't think he even ticked the curb. It was a beautiful thing to watch.
I suppose that now days that job is done with power weed whackers, even there on the Finca, but seeing it done with the big knife it was a permanent conversion experience for me.
The machete was hardly the only thing I got out of my time in Puerto Rico, but I've been a machete man ever since.
The one I picked up down there cost me a dollar ninety nine and was about good enough for cutting banana shoots and the made in China one I got from Agway the next year wasn't much better - was probably stamped out of old Ford fenders in China, but the one I use now is a Vietnam era government issue machete at Gee's Army Surplus in Ithaca. It's heavy bladed , high carbon steel, and I can do about anything with it that you can do with a Hudson Bay crusier ax, plus filet a trout.
Of course, if I could, I 'd have one made of steel as good as the that in Davey's scythes, which are cold forged Damascus style in Austria from many layers of alternating hard and soft steel - high and low carbon - so that it takes an edge easiy, and keeps it well.
It's a shame to see the damage Davey does to his scythes in the orchard. He has one for brush and one for grass but they both come back looking like bread knives that've been used to cut nails.

Around the time I came here to manage the chickens, Davey destroyed the old power mower by repeatedly hitting rocks, sumac stumps, and half-burried farm implements with the whirlly blades. . So until he he developed his scythe enthusiasm, it was up to me and my machete to keep a way clear through the jungle growing up here. The roosters keep the bamboo, the blueberries and the garden vegetables in check, but everything else has to be mowed, hacked, chopped, or dug.
The machette can do most of that well, all of it if necessary. One of the first things I did when I moved onto the farm, other than my chicken duties, was to hack a loop out through the property and back. Through goldenrod, honey suckle, buck thorn and sparing the volunteer pear trees.
Scythes are fine when you are mowing grass - and if you are normally proportioned - but even Davey's bush scythe won't willingly take out a Buckthorn bigger around than your finger (though he tries) - and until I want to wear my sheet rock stilts around here so I can handle a scythe, I'll stay with the machete.
It's only March here now and nothing much other than garlic has started to grow, but Davey has already been slicking up his scythes, so I 've been out on the lanes with the loppers and the machete, cutting back the sharp, foot spearing stubs left by his earlier work, which other wise will not only lame me and the dogs but also catch and bung up his scythe when the grass comes up to hide them and he comes hacking through.
The harmonica is my favorite tool, and the hammer has been my money maker, but I can always whistle and sing, and I never need more than one sock half full of quarters. Without my machete,
I'd be be dead in the road by now.