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If Tom Sawyer had a scythe

An annual torture here at Friendship Back River is the handscything of the periphery, to cut back the goldenrod, hardhack, puckerbrush, and other unwanted scenery before winter closes in and it's too late. I do not keep a tidy and neatly groomed property, because I'm too far from town to need to, so while I play around moderately with a lawn mower I can still stand on my front porch and pick wild blackberries.

But to keep the wilderness from intruding totally, I bring down the ancient scythe from its peg in mid-August, and depending on mood and weather, I get things trimmed before September morns are too mornish, and well before the first black frost. Which means I mow methodically, taking my time and measuring each swath - because mowing with a handscythe is both a talent and a chore, and I mean not to waste my talent or to overchore.

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Years ago when I first mentioned my handscythe here, a number of readers pleasantly jumped on me for something they called redundancy. It was their opinion that a scythe implies the hands.

I meditated on this for a time, for as the world's premier artist with the handscythe I disliked to be corrected about my own specialty. I almost troubled to point out that the knives in the cutterbar of a mowing machine or binder are also called a scythe, which would make them machinescythes and leave the handscythe descriptive and not redundant.

But then I felt a better answer was to stress the great importance of the hands in scything, so that when a good scyther hears ''handscythe'' it sounds exactly right and causes his muscles to twitch clear'n back to his ears. Indeed, the two handles on a snath are appropriately named the tug and the lug, and one who uses them is inclined to downgrade tautology.

So, I have had my handscythe down and have been lopping off the unwanted growth. Not much of it is grass. Weeds and small bushes. I used to keep going right down to salt water, so our view of the ducks and geese held good, but in late years I have had a neighbor come with his rotary blueberry grinder and do the hard part, for which I make a gratuity. I thus save wear and tear on my handscythe and on me.

I do not like to mow and I never did, but I had to do it in my boyhood summers - about which my memory is now happily distant. My father taught me what I didn't learn from Grandfather, and if a mower keeps the point down, the heel down, the feet so, and the swing just right, mowing with a handscythe is not all that hard, but it is tedious enough to make up. My mowing now is wholly cosmetic , for I have no use for hay, but as I mow I pride myself a bit that it isn't everybody today who knows how, so I try for grace.

Well, the other day I was handscything most gracefully, and was just about halfway through my morning stint when an automobile stopped and some people got out to watch me. Two of them began taking pictures, betraying thus that they were ''from away.'' Tourists. A man called, ''I never saw anybody doing that before!''

''It makes a much funnier picture from behind,'' I said, by way of the customary drollery we Mainers keep incubating to edify the summercaters, and I laughed heartily at my own keen wit. The man came closer to me, but not too close, and he said, ''Go ahead - do some more. I want to see how you do it.''

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So swinging a handscythe is now a museum art and I am a tourist attraction. I made a few swings and then handed the scythe to the visitor. ''Try it,'' I said. He was eager, and I withdrew discreetly. He took a swing and just about tipped himself over. For one thing, he was shorter than I, and the blade wasn't ''hung'' right for him. The tip of the blade, when the snath is loosely held, should just touch the extended right boot-toe. I told him that, and explained about keeping the blade level - tip down and heel down - and making the swing even and steady.

After a few swipes he was doing fairly well, and they took his picture. Then the others tried it, and there were more pictures, and that morning I got about three mornings' handscything done.

Next year I may con, Tom Sawyer-like, tourists into doing all my mowing. Either that, or I may set up a tent and sell tickets.

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