June 2, 2009

Throwback Mowing

Propelling an old-fashioned rotary hand mower through the lengths of volunteer little bluestem and rye grass, chicory and milkweed, stinking chamomile and sundry other unidentified weeds that have set up housekeeping in the garden is pretty tough work. It takes a deal more elbow grease and leg power than steering and trotting behind an infernal combustion-powered mower. It necessitates more hand-clipping of the opportunistic weeds that cluster self-protectively close to the trunks of shrubs and trees. And the end result is a longer, looser, less tidy mop than the symmetrically close-sheared result one gets from the much faster rotating, gasoline-muscled blades of a power mower.

With such a shaggy outcome, and the extra sweat equity invested, is it really worth it, or acceptable to the gardener's neatness fetish, to switch permanently from a carbon-fueled powerhouse scything machine to a pre-industrial hand tool? Granted, it was lovely and satisfying at the hardware store to march righteously past all the big, shiny, lawn-mowing machines with their price tags starting in the hundreds of dollars, and ferret out one of the two push reel mowers, from the American Lawn Mower Company of Shelbyville, Indiana, way at the back of the store, out of the marketer's premier sight-line positioning. You couldn't beat with a stick the reasonable and affordable bargain price of $85. The assembled push mower, deftly put together by a teenage clerk who had the good manners not to sneer even a little bit at the archaic purchase, fit as easily as a pea in a pod on the passenger-side footwell in the front of a Honda Civic, whereas a pickup truck or transport van would have been needed to ferry homeward any of the motorized machines.

Likewise, the push mower slots unobtrusively into a very small corner of the garage, taking up no more storage space than would a large person. When the time comes to put it to use, it is simply rolled out of the garage, onto the grassy patches, and you're in business. No fiddling with spark plugs, checking and replenishing messy, smelly oil and gas, no priming, no yanking over and over again on the starter cord, and struggling to untangle the wretched thing when it twists itself into knots. No tearing of the hair over the inexplicable recalcitrance and frequent outright refusal of power mowers to actually fire into life and work. The deafening roar of the motor is blessedly gone, replaced by a gentle swish, swish, swish of the reel that compliments, rather than obliterates, the pleasant summer sounds of birdsong and wind in the treetops.

Rather than inhaling the choking, dehydrating, carcinogenic fumes of gasoline for a couple of hours, the gardener wielding the push mower smells fresh cut grass and the soothing, ambrosial scents of flower blossoms and herbs brushed in passing. Running a gas mower for one hour puts out the same smog-forming particulates as running 40 new cars for one hour. A person on a riding power mower cutting grass for four hours puts the same toxic cloud of carbon dioxide into the air as produced by an automobile driving across the North American continent from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. Using just one push mower versus a gas mower reduces the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 80 pounds per annum. Turning the job of mowing over to a manual endeavor is demonstrably a good afternoon's work for the air that we, the plants and the animals are trying to breathe.

Unquestionably the grassy segments of the yard do not have that clean, lean, high-and-tight Marine brushcut when the job is finished. The grass and weeds, not as closely shorn as with the mighty gas mower, pop back up to thumb their rude noses at the gardener a little more quickly, which probably means they will need to be cut more often this summer than the once-a-month they got when clearcut by a power mower. That means a few additional afternoons for the gardener of a real physical workout, putting leg and arm propulsion into the little push mower, up and down the yard, hearing and smelling the good, warm essence of a summer's day, building muscle strength and filling the lungs with regenerating fresh air. Being wafted in memory back to childhood days of dawdling and daydreaming beneath a cornflower blue sky and breathing in the earthy green fragrance as my father, in khaki workpants and Detroit Tiger ballcap, trimmed the lawn to the blithe susurration of the simple, brilliantly designed push reel lawnmower.

Maybe a smidgin or two of untidiness isn't a bad thing, in the big picture. Maybe it is good to relax, lighten up on the control and precision and everything-in-its-place style. Follow in Nature's footsteps as she drops her greenery-yallery garments here, there and everywhere in a slapdash, overflowing, peaceable and ebullient profusion of sweet summertime.

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