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Hand mowing connects to history

THE HAND MOWING competition has been a staple of Field Days since the event began. Photo by Adam Mahady

You get the rush, even though it looks kind of pedestrian.
— Tim Williams

NEW HAVEN — Quiet can be hard to find at Field Days, but around the back of the cornfields, the “hand mowing” contest draws those who appreciate a practice of listening and focus.

“We’re just out here cuttin’ grass,” said Tim Williams, a competitor from Lyme, N.H.

This past Thursday morning was only Williams’s second competition, and he feels like he’s improved since his first a couple weeks ago.

Williams usually uses a scythe — the long-handled implement with the curved blade that has been used for mowing by hand since, supposedly, 5000 BC — just once or twice a year.

But the competition is in his system and he wants to get more into it.

“You get the rush, even though it looks kind of pedestrian,” he said of competing at hand mowing.

Competitors, split into classes by age and gender — the gender division will no longer apply to next year’s competition — are judged on the width and speed of their pass along a 15- or 25-foot-long swath of specially grown mixed grasses and weeds, as well as the “evenness of their stubble” — how uniform the grass cut is.

Judd Markowski of Bridport, who co-organizes the event, commentated on every move with a microphone to his lips. He first competed at the Field Days event when he was 16, after learning how to hand mow while working on a dairy farm “up the road.”

He won the junior class that year, but hasn’t touched the gold since, though he’s competed for the past 10 years and organized for the past three. He’s sitting out this time because of an injured shoulder.

Maybe it’s for the best.

For winning the competition, you get “sudden fame — it ruins most people,” Markowski said, straight-faced.

But he loves it, especially seeing new folks come out.

“My favorite thing is how many people show up for this kooky thing, and there’s no iPhones out,” he said.

The simplicity of scythe technology is a major part of its function and charm.

“Everything has an engine on it these days, but you can actually hear the blade — I love it,” Markowski said.

Michaela Stickney, Markowski’s co-organizer from Huntington, feels similarly.

“I love the fluidity, the sound of steel cutting blades of grass — it’s meditative,” she said.

Stickney learned how to mow 13 years ago from Lucien Paquette, the founder of Field Days, among others, and has competed in Nova Scotia, New Hampshire and Vermont. She also teaches “scythe school” at Brush Brook Community Farm in Huntington.

Stickney is still one of the few women in the contest.

Gayle German has been mowing “on and off” for five years and came up from Canaan, N.H., to compete.

But she didn’t have any competition in her age class and gender.

“It’s a little disappointing…I wish more women would do this in their gardens,” she said.

“It’s low-key, you meet a lot of great people, and it’s keeping the old way alive,” German added.

German is one of several competitors who claim they got into hand mowing because of New Hampshire-based Don Elder. Elder started out mowing as a kid, and now does it as a hobby. He’s been competing at the fair since 2009 or 2010, he said.

Now 83, “I think it (mowing) helps me out (with my) dancing,” Elder said.

A lot of the craft is about angles of rotation and keeping the blade close to the ground, Markowski explained to the crowd.

Several times, he shouted at mowers to “keep breathing.”

There’s magic and meaning in the practice.

“You’re that much closer than with a big tractor — it’s quiet, you’re closer to the outdoors, and people kind of look at you funny, which is perfect,” Williams said.

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