Reel Power Redux

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There’s a memorable scene in the Masterpiece Theater production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in which Mr.  Webb, Emily’s father and the editor of the Grover’s Corners Sentinel, mows his lawn with a push mower.  The scene is staged without a mower.  Rather, actor Jeffrey DeMunn mimes the act of mowing in synchronized time with the sound of a push mower.  It’s a marvelous piece of mime, choreographed to the mower’s gentle whirr, frequent stops and starts, and the extra push sometimes needed for a stubborn clump of grass.

The effect of the staging is, of course, to add to the idyllic quality of life in Grover’s Corners.  First produced in 1938, as war loomed, the play is a bouquet of melancholy remembrances of lost time, both imagined and real, reaching back to the then already-distant early twentieth century.  Such sounds, and such quiet, are no small elements in our collective sense of what has been lost in our mechanized and now digitized age.  Noise surrounds us.  Not white noise either—but harsh, aggressive noise: traffic, trains, construction, airplanes, ubiquitous TVs, endless cell-phone chatter—and power tools.  Mr. Webb’s business with his lawn seems so simple, so easy, so gentle.  The play’s pastoral mood resides in such scenes.

I thought about that scene recently as I pushed my push mower around the yard.  My wife says she enjoys the sound of it.  Typically—and this moment, I must concede, goes back years—my then-teenage daughter thought the mower made a racket.  (Of course it was about noon, she was in bed, and I was mowing right under her window—and not by coincidence.)

It’s ten years since I began cutting my suburban Johnson County grass with a push mower.  My neighbors, who were possibly concerned that my mower wouldn’t get very good results and thus I’d single-handedly drag home values into decline (and quietly also thought I was a little weird—and may be right about that), have since recognized that I and my mower had nothing to do with the real estate bubble bursting.  One neighbor stopped by recently with his grandchildren who were curious; they’d never seen such a thing.  Others stop as they’re out walking to ask about the mower—how it works, how much it costs, does it cut the grass.  The answers: very well, about $120, and yes, it cuts the grass.

When I first wrote about my push mower for Planet Kansas five years ago (“Saving the Planet One Lawn at a Time,” April/May 2007), I focused on the carbon footprint power tools make, both collectively and individually.  On looking into the subject again, I learned that the data hadn’t changed much.

Here are a few factoids:

  • a typical gas-powered mower emits about 87 pounds of CO2 every year;
  • in one hour a gas mower produces the same carbon emissions and air pollution as 11 cars driven for the same amount of time;
  • 54 million Americans collectively use 800 million gallons of gas mowing their lawns each year—and produce in turn the corresponding amounts of air pollutants;
  • according to the EPA, lawn and garden equipment is the single largest source of non-road volatile organic compound emissions in most metropolitan areas during the summer;
  • gas mowers stink and make a lot of noise (though for pure brain-numbing, straight-from-hell affliction nothing compares to the racket a leaf-blower makes).

Well, that last one isn’t strictly a factoid, but I realized recently—maybe as I thought about the mowing scene in Our Town—that it wasn’t really the virtue of lowering my carbon footprint that led me back to a push mower but how much I preferred the quiet.  When I stop mowing for a moment, the mower stops too.  Its sound reflects my movements, short push, long row, sudden stop for the twig caught in the blades (oh yes, that happens too).  And less noise in general.  Also I’m not walking behind all those fumes.  And it runs on water and Gatorade!

This is my second push mower.  Technically my third, but the first was my father’s, which I pushed through a thick lawn in upstate New York many years ago.  At nine or ten years old I found nothing romantic or sentimental about mowing the lawn.  I recently discovered that old mower in my mother’s tool shed.  It still works, though it’s heavy, with sturdy ash handles and steel blades, which are only about 14 inches wide.

My current mower is a Scott’s Classic 20-Inch Reel Mower, the second of these I’ve owned.  It’s light, maneuverable, and cuts well.  I do some cross-cutting, and I’ve also put berms in to limit the amount of grass in my yard.  (That’s another story—why we have lawns at all, or certainly the huge swaths that suburban life has turned into a standard requirement, literally for most homeowners associations.)

On Saturday mornings—and for that matter just about any other time during daylight on the weekend—my neighborhood sounds like an airport.  My wife and I have been driven indoors by fumes and noise on many occasions; settled down to dinner on the deck only to have a lawn mower erupt.  Don’t get me wrong: I like my neighbors.  They are good people, and generous.  But we are all part of a culture that has spiraled into dependency—perceived or real—on the aesthetics of green lawns and the equipment needed to maintain them according images we’ve come to accept as a standard for living.  I keep hoping the image of me pushing a push mower will rub off on some passer-by.  Maybe it has.  “Hope is the thing with wings,” Emily Dickinson wrote.  Sometimes it flutters by when I’m mowing.

Bob Sommer is the Kanza Group Chair and serves on the Chapter ExCom as Political Chair.  He is the author of Where the Wind Blew.  His new novel, A Great Fullness, is forthcoming from Aqueous Books.


Again, here are the captions:


  • For Image #1356: The old mower I used as a kid. It still works!
  • For “Push mower”: My new reel mower on a swath of freshly-trimmed grass.

By Bob Sommer


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