Wednesday, July 21, 2010

On Tools and Human Power

For the first time in my life, I bought a lawn mower.

Back in Rhode Island, my job as a teenager was to mow most of my family's quarter-acre using a gas-powered rotary mower. During college, one of my survival jobs off and on was landscaping and usually my job was to mow grass as quickly as possible. For these tasks I always used the power mowers, and thus I got used to them. The work was about clearing the territory as quickly as possible -- to move on to the next lawn, or just to finish the household chore.

Now I am using a manual-powered reel mower. It requires no gas, oil, or any fuel except my own energy. Its emissions are limited to grass clippings, which it deposits neatly on top of the lawn unless its grass-catching bag is attached. There is no roar of an engine, just the metallic whistle of its twirling blades, skimming the cutting bar as it shears the grass.

The engine is a man: feet on the ground, back lengthened, arms bent, breathing, sweating. And yet, I don't feel as though I am working any harder than I did with the power mowers. It isn't heavy. It does not jam any more often than the power mowers. The steps required to mix fuel additives, pour gasoline, and get the engine going are eliminated: just aim and go. Dealing with a jam is easy enough: push the handle and let the mower flop over like a dog going belly-up, and clear out the wheels and blades, working carefully with fingers.

For maintenance, I wipe the axles and blades down with some WD-40. There is a sharpening kit waiting for use if the blades get dull, but that shouldn't be for another year or two.

The results are different, as well. Although the height of the blades is adjustable, tall grass will always be more difficult. This summer was the first time this lawn had been mowed in a long time, so the first cut required a great deal of work. Also, the mower appears to be stymied by dandelions. Dandelions have a way of slipping through the blades unscathed, like little judo masters.

What I noticed while taming this old lawn, using what is essentially a big hand tool, is that my relationship to the work was different than when I did it with a power mower. Different kinds of machines put us in a different relationship to the work. With a power mower, one pays attention to covering ground and watching out for foreign objects in the path. With self-propelled mowers, it becomes even more a matter of steering and avoiding trouble. One does not need to notice the nap of the grass and adjust to it so as to get a better cut. The combustion engine just powers through it, the horizontal blades do their job, and one proceeds in perfectly straight slightly overlapping rows. You cut the grass in a mechanical grid.

Cutting the grass with a reel mower or a scythe brings one, perforce, closer to the lawn itself. It is a living, breathing organism under our feet, not just territory to be covered, a chore to be crossed off the list. Mowing the lawn is as close as most non-farmers and non-gardeners get to husbandry, yet few carry on with any sense of caring for a piece of living earth. The job is done as if one was vacuuming a rug.

In this heat, the work is hard going. After this first campaign, maintenance should go much easier, but for now it is hot, thirsty labor, accomplished with much sweat and with one eye on our son, who is playing somewhere nearby. (That's another thing: without a motor combusting near my face, I can hear what's going on around me.) When it's time to break for the day, a cold beer seems to fit well, sitting on this old bench we inherited with the house, admiring Sarah's work in the vegetable garden and breathing in the labor and fruits of this small patch of earth.

[Photo: our new mower at rest]


Adam said...

When we escape the cycle of apartment-dwelling-samsara, and have a lawn, I'm definitely considering going this route.

Kelly said...

It's been a good thirty years since I've seen one of those. Not practical for us considering how many acres we have to mow, but more power to you!! (spoken quite literally, to aid you in your effort)

Never seen anyone actually use a scythe, but I've watched my husband wield a machete pretty handily!