Zen and the art of garden maintenance
And with this summer’s heavy rains causing the grass to grow thicker than the Amazon rainforest, my memories are of the 1960s and my father’s non-motorized mower. It gave a great trim to our small garden in Trenton, NJ, and when I first became a homeowner in my 50s, I used a reel, too.
Our postage stamp usually takes a maximum of 30 minutes. On hot, humid mornings, harnessing muscle strength can break a sweat, especially when cutting stubborn spots that require quick operations like the resistant hairs of a razor. To push myself, I invoked Levin, the poet of rural labor in Anna Karenina. “The longer he cut the hair,” says Tolstoy, “the more he experienced those moments of forgetfulness, when it was not his arms that were brandishing the scythe, but the scythe seemed to be shearing himself, a body full of life and self-consciousness. King.”
Mowing the lawn is extreme even for those of us who like to roll. As with the jacket and tie, clothing is the attire of choice in this 1872 reel advertisement. The “Gilded Age” illustration captures the attractive, antique look of rotating blades propelled without gas or electrical effort. However, the environmental imperatives of the 21st century have enhanced, not diminished, the virtues of this humble landscaping device.
Start with Utah, which offers lawn companies up to $3,000 to trade in their two-stroke robotic equipment for electric alternatives. Alarmed by air pollution, the Beehive State, along with California and more than 100 local governments in the United States, have banned or restricted gas-powered lawn mowers and leaf blowers. Larger lawns will require powered (clean) mowers, even on a warming planet. But for those with large, manageable areas, reel mowers are less energy efficient than electric mowers.
Let the record show that when a red-hot jurisdiction cracks down on fossil fuels, something happens — in this case, mercury. Even before July became the hottest month on record, Utah regulators noted that lawn equipment was emitting eight tons a day of harmful pollutants — more than the six tons released by the industry, which is second only to vehicle traffic, which is 13. A single leaf blower runs on polluting gas as much as a 727-mile long car trip.
Dallas, “despite its location in the oil-rich state of Texas,” considered imposing a similar ban. To the surprise of no one, Texas Governor Greg Abbott, whose temperament simmers hotter than the climate, has cut off pollution trimming at the pass. He banned such local bans, in the name of preserving Texans’ freedom of choice. Dallas residents’ choice of clean air clearly doesn’t bother their sleepy governor.
Neither gas nor electric gardeners will undoubtedly strike “GIMBYs” (Gas in My Backyard) as a throwback to the Flintstones, prompting complaints that electric equipment doesn’t perform as well as its gasoline-powered cousins. But green spaces just need to look manicured, not repeat the pretentious story of Forrest Gump. Environmental storytelling is important for parents, too, as our children will have to fix the burning, flooded planet we’ve bequeathed to them.
(T)The environmental imperatives of the 21st race have enhanced, not diminished, the virtues of this humble landscaping device.
Reel mowers provide other benefits. They provide a simple workout at your own pace, and generally at a lower cost than power mowers. Plus, you’ll win brownie points by saving the neighborhood (and your ears) with a RRRRRRRRR drive at 7 a.m. on Sunday morning.
I preach what I practice: On my recommendation, an environmentally conscious neighbor tested the mower in her home and agreed. Admittedly, this lawn care strategy requires attention. Skip a weekend or two of cutting, especially with the rain this summer, and your lawn may thicken into thickets to frustrate even the sharpest reel blades. I learned this years ago, when I had to borrow the lawnmower that belonged to my ex-father-in-law after it had been left on the lawn for a long time.
My dad replaced his reel with a mower after we moved to the suburbs. Their sprawling lawns will take a week’s work to mow otherwise, unless you organize a group outing to mow the reels. Which, I guess, sounds like a fun way to combat our loneliness epidemic. (Whether you’ll get approval from the neighbors is another matter.)
That President Grant-era advertiser considered his product “a necessity, and almost an indispensable article.” More than 100 years later, amid Biden’s climate woes, this is already the truth in the declaration.
Follow Cognoscenti on Facebook and Instagram.