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Changing How We Mow the Lawn Changed Who We Are


Sometimes a lawn mower can change everything.

I always associated nice weather with the deafening “rrrrrrrrrrrr” of lawn mowers.  It’s not a bad sound for most of us; it’s generally something that brings to mind summer days, backyards, and the smell of cut grass.  To start a lawn mower generally requires some level of finesse: the perfect amount of fuel to prime the motor, followed by meaningful yanks to the pull cord.  Having too much machine for the job is, supposedly and in some places, a uniquely American point of pride. A lawn mower is a classic symbol of suburbia, a perfectly-manicured carpet of grass the reward for its conscientious use.  Stroll through any big box hardware store and you can see them, lined up and shining, some of them even ride-on style, costing as much as a cheap used car.

We added our own din to that noisy chorus of weekend lawn mowing in our own neighborhood until, at a yard sale about year ago, we came across a barely-used, old-fashioned push reel mower. We might not have bought it if our gas-powered one had been working, but it had mysteriously stopped functioning two weeks before, and we were watching our weedy front lawn grow long and feeling reluctant to part with the cash to buy a replacement. But here was an alternative staring us right in the face: fifteen dollars for a simple, people-powered option.

We toted our reel mower home and started to use it. I was really excited for a few days, maybe for the same reasons I like vacuuming and find the chore soothing. It was so easy to pull it out and scoot around the yard with it, and I could even do it with my young children nearby. I could hear them if they needed me, I could stop what I was doing and tend to their needs, then easily come back and pick up where I left off.

Why don’t more people use push reel mowers? After using and loving ours, I was baffled by their relative rarity, so I did a little research: it turns out, getting sticks caught in the blades is an irritation for some. Also, if you have a really bumpy, hilly yard, you probably won’t get the precision cut you might prefer. And you can’t let your grass grow really long before you mow, because the blades will tend to just fold the grass over rather than cut it. Compare those negatives to the estimate that operating a gas mower for an hour is the pollution equivalent to driving a car three hundred miles.

What was more unexpected was the cascade of events that happened as a result of switching lawn mowers. The first thing was, neighbors started to ask to borrow it. I had never lent or borrowed lawn equipment; I don’t know exactly why.  Something about seeing us with our quirky, unusual and primitive mower in the front yard captured people’s interest. What grew from that is: it’s the official lawn mower of our block, now.  And we borrow the electric weed eater from another neighbor, because I can’t figure out an unpowered way to do the edging.  We’re all sharing tools, sending each other quick texts or Facebook messages, saying, “Can I use the mower tomorrow? Is it in its usual spot?”

I also didn’t expect some of the other subtle changes the new mower brought about. The simplicity of its operation gave me a confidence in outdoor chores I hadn’t previously had. I grew more excited about trying my hand at growing vegetables, and instigated a raised-bed garden building project one weekend. Now, three growing seasons later, I know how to amend soil properly, start my veggies from seed, and have a successful compost pile.

I don’t want to overstate how this small change in our family’s lawn care choice affected us, but I will say this: it’s remarkably powerful to stop what you’re doing, disrupt the status quo, and say, “Why?” And, “is there a better way?” Can holding a tool in my hand and operating it using the strength of my body lead me to a certain kind of empowerment in other parts of my life? I can mow our little patch of grass and look over at the new vegetable garden that’s growing the food that’s powering the muscles that are mowing this lawn. And our machines shouldn’t take that sort of simple pleasure away from us.

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10 thoughts on “Changing How We Mow the Lawn Changed Who We Are”

  1. So glad to see a post from you. I love your writing, and have been wondering how you are doing. I wish I had the guts to blog.

    This is an important topic. We get so stuck in our ruts of doing things like they have always been done, and it is only when we see someone else break out of that can we imagine a different world.

    Please tell us if you are publishing anywhere else. I think all these posts could become a book soon. The world needs you.

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    1. What an incredibly kind and supportive thing to say, and just what I needed to hear right now. You see, for a year-and-a-half I *had* a top New York literary agent, but we parted ways after coming *thisclose* to a publishing deal for my nearly-complete memoir. Since then, I haven’t been able to scare up another agent to save my life. It’s not looking likely that my book will come out in any form other than a self-published eBook. I’m trying to gather what I need to initiate a Kickstarter fund for the last phase of editing the manuscript. Look here for details, or friend me on Facebook (Corbyn Hanson Hightower) or follow me on Twitter (@CorbynHightower.)

      Share me on your social media, if you feel so inclined . . . or even better, share the link “Starving Writer’s Fund.” xoxo and thank you again for your support.

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      1. Gosh. I am a social media hold-out, but times like this tempt me to join up. I will support a kickstarter though.

        I hope you don’t mind me suggesting that you might benefit from hormone testing and herbal treatment. It was affordable for me and pulled me out of a long depression. It was really hard to write during that time, even though writing helped me. I think I was malnourished. I called it my coffee, cigarette and booze diet (green smoothies saved me). My kids were about the same age as yours, and that is an intense time of life. Things do get easier in a few more years.

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  2. When I had a lawn I used a push reel mower too. It actually does a better job than a gas mower. Golf courses use gang mowers which is a bunch of reel mowers powered by a tractor. I hope you put that lovely chicken poo in your compost!

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  3. When I was a kid growing up I had a mower just like that . Very few people had the gas mower at that time . I loved it when the blades were sharp at the start of summer . You could cut some grass in a hurry . I hope you and your family have a great Easter .

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  4. Reblogged this on vegvet and commented:
    As our houses get largervand yards get smaller this makes sense. I gave away my perfectly functional gas powered lawnmower when I got mine and reverted to the inconvenience but cleaner electric edger.

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  5. Really enjoy your writing! I’m living in “colorful” poverty myself and actually finding a lot of richness in it. Got a fifteen dollar push mower too! I make a few bucks recycling electronics that people throw out- it helps pay for a thing or two. Be well.

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  6. I almost accidentally visited to this site, but stayed here for a very long time. Stayed simply because every thing was very interesting. Certainly will share with all my friends!…

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