For clearing brush, pretty much nothing beats a goat. Not only do they diligently dispose of all manner of unwanted (and occasionally wanted) plants, they also produce milk, and are themselves quite delicious when young and roasted on a spit. Alas the City of Edmonds would not permit us to keep a goat, and I doubt my lovely wife would be up for milking said goat every day. Of course considering we only have a half acre of "back 40" we could theoretically get a goat, let him eat the brush until it was gone, and then eat the goat ourselves, but the complications outweigh the advantages.
Last year, while my mother was in Serbia I asked her to bring me home a scythe blade. I figured (rightly it turns out) that since scythes are still a commonly used item in Serbia, one from there would be a more workmanlike piece than any I could find here. Our old scythe had reached the end of it's useful life. The blade was starting to break where it attached to the handle, and it had been sharpened so many times that the blade itself was becoming thin. I had forgotten my scythe request when my mom and grandma returned from Serbia this last fall (wedding preparations were on my mind in any case), so I was shocked and delighted on Western Christmas (my father, raconteur that he was, delighted in calling it "Catholic Christmas", much to the annoyance of my mother's Protestant family), to open an oddly shaped package containing a beautifully curved scythe blade. It is called a "Silver Special" and boasts the image of a rooster on a green background on the label.
After allowing the backyard to become horribly over grown the last couple of years, I decided it was about time to reclaim the space. I have two gas weedeaters, neither of which works very well. I decided that before I went through the agony of getting the weedeaters running, I'd be a proper agrarian and give the new scythe a workout. I dismounted the old blade from the handle, planed the end down a bit to accept the new blade and set to work.
I few swings were all it took to make me rue my stupidity. The scythe was so much superior to the weedeater in every way, that I felt like I had been cheated in using them all these years. Not only does the scythe, once one figures out the best method of swinging it, cut a much wider swathe than the weedeater (and does so without clogging up the head, which the weedeater inevitably does with tall grass), it does so without the noise, the deadening vibration, and stink of the weedeater. Furthermore, aside from sharpening and oiling the blade, and basic care of the handle, the scythe consumes no fuel, requires no spark plugs, and cost a tenth as much as the straight-shaft 32cc weedeater I bought.
I spent a couple hours of good, honest work clearing a large patch of the hillside. The rhythmic sound of the scythe cutting the grass was a pefect accompaniment to the sounds of the birds and the breeze blowing through the locust tree. Furthermore, the exercise did me good, though once I got a rhythm down, the scythe practically swung itself.
My schooling has given me an appreciation for the delight to be found in wel-made hand tools. In the realm of woodworking tools at least, the majority of the tools today are markedly inferior to the ones available 100 years ago. Even discounting the overall workmanship, the quality of steel has even declined. My classmates and I have talked of traveling to some remote village in Armenia or somesuch place, where we will find a man who can still make fine steel, who will hand forge us plane irons and chisels from steel alloyed in a secret method known only to him and his ancestors. In all seriousness, it is a shame that with all our knowledge and engineering these days it is difficult to find good tools. So many of the tools sold these day seem to be an aggregation of geegaws, to the point where the basic function of the tool is almost lost. Valerie and I went to Lowe's today to buy a ditch scythe, which is shaped like a large stirrup, and the model they offered, aside from having a handle so short that I'd need a chiropractor after a few minutes of use, had a blade that was poorly designed, and would have been pointless to sharpen. After rejecting it in disgust, I decided I'd have to make my own from an old handsaw blade I picked up at a garage sale.