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The simple pleasures of a simple machine: The push lawnmower

In 2011, these members of the Scottish Reels — fans of human-powered push mowers — showed off their moves at Takoma Park's Fourth of July parade. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
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I have a new favorite summer sound. It’s the gentle whir of the blades on my manual lawn mower. It’s a mechanical sound but an oddly soothing one: a shwick shwick shwick of spinning metal, like a whirligig in the breeze.

Technically, it’s called a reel mower, though I’m not sure why. I don’t see a reel. A set of horizontal blades — curved like strands of DNA — spin as I push, slicing the grass. I don’t have a bag attachment so the severed clippings just get dumped on the lawn. I’m fine with that.

This is a mechanism from an earlier time, a time before almost every device had a motor grafted to it, from the lawn mower to the steak knife to the scalp massager.

I provide the motive power, a.k.a. the push. This is really only possible because I don’t have much grass to mow. We relandscaped last year, and that left me with just two lozenges of lawn (lawnzenges?): one in the front, one in the back. It takes about 10 minutes to mow each of them.

My mower is an old-fashioned contraption, but then again, so am I. I’m old enough to remember watching my father use a push mower. His was a lot simpler, just two wheels. Mine is a modern version and has two extra wheels, smaller disks at the back that serve — I guess — as stabilizers and height-adjusters.

Still, every time I use the mower I imagine a man in Bermuda shorts, Ban-Lon shirt, a pipe in his teeth, a crushed straw hat on his head — his “weekend” hat. This isn’t my father, per se, but an amalgam of 1960s Suburban Dads.

After he mows — shwick shwick shwick — this man is going to fertilize. He returns the reel mower to the shed, fills the hopper of a lawn spreader, then carefully guides it across the freshly cut grass. The spreader casts an arc of white, nitrogen-rich pellets. For the hard-to-reach places — the flower beds and under the azaleas — he has a little handheld doohickey, like a garden center jack-in-box. He cranks the handle like an organ grinder and more nuggets of phosphate issue forth.

Tomorrow, he may barbecue.

He’s proud of his lawn, or would like to be. Frankly, his grass is not great. He’s tried seeding with fescue. He’s tried ryegrass. He’s tried zoysia. But none of those varieties has produced anything close to the putting green that’s printed in the seed catalogues or on the fertilizer bags.

He knows he should get sod — a neighbor did — but, dadgummit, that’s cheating! Where’s the skill in basically laying down living carpet squares? And the expense!

Of course, now we know that Suburban Dad probably shouldn’t have been so obsessed with his lawn. That grass was thirsty. The hoses and sprinklers he moved around to keep it lush were slowly draining reservoirs. And that fertilizer — so eye-watering to work with — was messing up the rivers and bays.

But if the man didn’t have a lawn, where would he put the kids’ Wham-O Slip 'N Slide? Where would his children fling lawn darts at one another? How would he telegraph to the world at large both his gardening prowess and his reassuring conformity?

These are some of the things that go through my head as I push my mower. Shwick shwick shwick. I like the push mower as much for the sound it doesn’t make as for the sound it does. It isn’t loud. It isn’t angry. It isn’t powered by a series of explosions.

It’s as simple as a rake and nearly as quiet. The only thing that could be simpler would be me out there swinging a scythe back and forth — or releasing a herd of sheep to crop at the blades of grass.

I wouldn’t have to worry about fertilizer then, either.

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