Pushing Progress
by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 1998. All rights reserved.

Bought a new lawn mower recently, my first ever, and I'm not sure I did the right thing.  I hated to give  up on my old one, you see, since it's served me faithfully the past ten years since I bought it at a flea market for $5. It's an old (1940s?) Montgomery Ward manual reel mower with a wooden handle that's splitting. The well-worn blades chatter like crickets as I push them gainfully across the lawn.

Industrious Boy Mowing Lawn
Industrious Boy Mowing Lawn
A push mower doesn't trim grasses as readily as one of those self-propelled motorized models, nor does it cover as much ground as quickly as those riding mowers can, but it has its advantages. Starts every time, for instance.

I could say I preferred a push mower because it's better for the environment. The emissions of gas-powered lawn mowers, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, are a significant source of air pollution. Los Angeles has considered banning their use to help clean up its air.

I could point out how little noise the push mower makes compared to a power mower. Behind its whirring blades I can still hear the phone ringing, the baby crying or a meadowlark singing.

Or I could talk money. My neighbor recently spent nearly $500 on a new mower that eats $1.35-a-gallon fuel, burns $1.95-a-quart oil and requires frequent $2.50-a-blade sharpening. A squirt of WD-40 on its blades now and then is all I've spent on my machine.

In truth, I just like the laid-back feel of pushing a reel-blade mower across an open expanse of lawn. It evokes a spirit of halcyon days before freeways and television when life was lived at a slower pace. It calls up Norman Rockwell images of white picket fences, Model T Fords and freckled boys on two-wheelers.

Push-mowing is like wood-carving or gardening, more like a hobby most days than a chore. Performed carefully and with the right spirit there can be a meditative quality to the experience. The sweet smell of fresh-cut grass rises from the blades. The contour of the land expresses itself up the handle and the gentle rhythmic chattering of the reel becomes musical. The pushing  turns to dancing.

I'm no Luddite bent on doing away with new technologies. I wouldn't want to return to horse-drawn tilling or hand-churned butter. I appreciate the quality sound of compact discs and the time-saving features of computers.

Where I live now, there are more cows than people and no toll booths for a thousand miles. Banking only takes a few minutes, unless I meet a neighbor with something on his mind. My new mower weighs less than half what the Wards machine does and it cuts much more evenly. Its blades are crafted from heat-treated alloy steel that holds an edge longer and its 16-inch cut is calibrated to thousandths of an inch. The five-blade ball bearing reel looks much like the old ones, but the chrome-plated flared-top handle is new and the cushioned grips are a nice touch. 

Progress is inevitable, even for those who push.

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