For the past four years a group of enthusiasts has been meeting on the hilly meadows above Velké Karlovice in the Valašsko region to cut grass with scythes. In their free time they are helping to preserve the rare flora growing on the local meadows.
Small lilac-coloured buds have come up in much higher numbers this year than in the past, casting the sweet scent of thyme over the meadows. When you raise your eyes from the beautiful lilac pillows you delight in the stunning view of the blooming hillsides over the Tísňava valley stretching from Velké Karlovice all the way to the Slovak border.
A group of friends has been meeting here for the past four years to cut the local meadows with scythes. “We used to cut the meadows in nearby Valašské Klobouky and one year we simply didn’t want to say goodbye. So I asked whether the others wanted to come to our cottage in Karlovice. When I asked my neighbour Michal whether we could cut his grass as well, he suggested that we try to get support from local conservationists. They were thrilled that someone would start looking after meadows that had been neglected for years. When meadows are left uncut there is the risk they will be overtaken by the forest, and disappear for always”, explains Pavlína Kramolišová, the group organiser.
With their scything, Pavlína and her friends are helping to preserve wild orchids and other precious flora. Machine mowing is not suitable for these hillsides, as they are too steep for a tractor and too vast for a hand mower. Besides, machine mowing is harsh to plant roots and disturbs the surface, and it is nearly impossible to save wild orchids or other protected plants when mowing this way. The only disadvantage of scything is the time it requires – where a tractor could finish an area in a couple of days, twenty people with scythes are needed for almost two weeks. They are needed not only for cutting the grass, but also for drying it and piling it into heaps.
Social activity with a tradition
In a quaint timber home the hungry cutters fill their lunch plates from one large communal pot. On the menu is buckwheat, smelling sweetly with aromatic herbs from nearly meadows – sweet oregano, yellow agrimony and wild thyme.
The cutters have hardly finished their food when the men in the group head for the nearby shed and pull out pieces of wood and a babka – a small anvil with a thin top. The rhythmic sounds of struck metal begin to echo through the dwelling. Scythes have to be treated before the work begins so they would stay sharp. “One scythe needs to be hammered for 20 to 40 minutes. The edge has to be very thin, like a razor”, describes Štěpán Hejzlar, whose day job is a technician in Prague’s movement Studio Alta. “If you do it right then in the meadows you only need to re-sharpen with a fine whetstone. But when the scythe gets a bit more dull, it’s better to use a coarser one.” In addition to scything experts like Štěpán, this year’s scything party in Karlovice has a few novices. “Next year I might be able to cut our garden with a scythe – it’s wonderful work”, says Helena Čtyřoká, a production manager from Prague. Morning meadows have their unique poetry, and physical work with friends under the open skies makes scything a wonderful social activity.
The sun is slowly starting to turn towards the west, and the rested volunteers exchange their scythes for rakes. The cut grass lies in long rows and it is now time to turn it. Each row of grass is spread out with a rake or a pitchfork and left to dry in the hot afternoon sun. Once dried, the resulting hay is piled into heaps at the edge of the meadow. “Our neighbour from the next valley comes to get the hay. The hay will feed his many animals through the winter”, explains Pavlína Kramolišová, by profession a restorer of old prints.
The volunteers are standing in rows and rhythmically turning the cut grass when a beautiful tune resounds from the lower slope. The female voice belongs to Anežka Konečná, a teacher and a folklorist who is unmissable in her folk costume skirt and vest. The male voice that joins in is that of František Marčík, dressed in a folk linen shirt, whose day job is an official with the Prague City Administration.
Folk music is an ever present part of life for most of those who are here, especially for Anežka, who regularly organises dulcimer evening events in Prague. For this year’s scything gathering the young folklorist has prepared a songbook of traditional songs from Moravia and Moravian Slovakia and on one evening she led a workshop in which the other volunteers learnt some of the selected repertoire.
Scything is contagious
Scything for two weeks is quite demanding, in part due to lack of sleep. Evenings spent by the fire with song and beer can last well into the night. But everyone rises early because if the weather is hot then the grass dries quickly and resists the edge of the scythe. Scything is best done in early morning hours, shortly after the sun has risen. Besides, if you are willing to jump out of bed at five in the morning you get rewarded with a bewitching morning haze which gives the bucolic landscape its Impressionist charm.
Scything in a large party is always organised in the same way: the first person starts a row and continues down the slope, leaving a row of cut grass stacked to the left. A meter or so to the left starts the next person and continues in a line parallel to the first cutter. When enough people arrange themselves in this pattern, it only takes a few hours for an overgrown hectare to be transformed into neat rows of cut grass.
Scything is, it seems, rather contagious. Once you have taken a scythe into your hands one early morning and transformed an overgrown meadow into fragrant piles of cut grass, you cannot resist the urge to return. A proof of this is the fact that most people in the Karlovice scything group dedicate a week or two of their annual holiday to this activity, many travel as much as three hundred kilometres, and some of them also join scything activities in the Jizera Mountains.
Scything is also returning to urban areas. This year saw the first scything event in Levý Hradec, a heritage site near Prague, and the sound of sharpened scythes has already echoed three times through Prague’s Stromovka park.