When I was 10 years old, my mother's boyfriend had a push mower. Every weekend during the summer, he'd drag the rusty thing off the porch and shove it around our weedy lawn. It scraped, jammed on every twig and left dandelions still waving tall and insolent while he sweated and struggled to make muscles do what gas could do better. I laughed at him as he wrestled with that old dead thing, because everyone knew that gas mowers were better, faster and could save you a whole lot of time and energy.
Twenty years later, I find myself chastised.
The push mower is infinitely better. I use one every week on my
lawn. Instead of a rusty relic, I use a sleek, shiny model from a
company called Real Goods that cuts the grass quite effectively.
It's so quiet that I can mow and carry on conversation with someone
sitting on the porch.
It also doesn't pollute. The only
waste product I put out is sweat, and even that's minimal in
comparison to the amount my mother's boyfriend expended. It turns
out the push mower wasn't the problem. It was the rust. I keep my
mower in a shed and don't mow in the rain. This seems to solve the
excessive sweat output.
Meanwhile, the average gas mower
belches out pollutants. An hour of lawnmower operation produces as
many emissions as a 1997 mid-sized car driven 125 miles. If the
mower is badly tuned, it's more like 300 miles' worth. Statistics
from the Environmental Protection Agency estimate that lawnmowers
account for 5 percent of all U.S. air pollution, while some
municipalities estimate that as much as 10 percent of their
ozone-causing pollutants derive from lawn machinery. That's a lot
of pollution for such little engines. For many cities, it's the
difference between air that meets federal standards, and air that
Lest you think that I'm some sort of crazy
gas-hating greeny, I should mention that my teenage years in
western Colorado were funded by mowing lawns. I cruised around lawn
after lawn behind my very own gas mower, ripping across green sward
as fast as possible so I'd have money to burn during the school
year. My first summer mowing gave me enough money to buy a stereo
that I still have 17 years later, so it's not like I don't harbor
affection for the high-speed power of the gas mower. But I have
come to conclude that the power of the gas mower is perhaps its
As I roared over people's lawns, I never
knew what I was going to hit. I mowed over sticks, hidden rocks, a
dead squirrel, and once, in a jarring shriek, a cast iron pipe. The
mower chewed through all of them and spit them out in chunks, bits
and fragments, and sometimes, because of bad luck and the angle of
the mower, a piece hit me. I never wore shorts when I mowed, even
though it was summer, because I never knew what sharp debris might
fly out of that powerful, highly effective mower.
father was an emergency medical technician at that time, and one
call he responded to came from a mother who had run over her son's
foot with a riding mower. My father ended up frantically combing
through a newly mown lawn, hunting for the boy's toes. You have to
wonder about a technology that creates that much hazard just so we
can make a bunch of plants look tidy.
With my pushmower,
I can jam my hand into the thing and come out with my fingers still
attached. I like that in a mower. It knows its place.
Doubters may say that power mowers are best because they save so
much effort. And you'd be right; they do. Just as I sat on my porch
as a kid and watched a man labor over his push mower, anyone can
now catch me mowing and see the sweat on my brow and observe how I
lean into my mower far more than anyone does with a gas-powered
Using calories instead of gasoline to cut a lawn
will always take more effort. You always sweat a little more, and
work a little harder when you use a push mower. But if we're honest
with ourselves and look around at our sprawling bellies and
flab-swaddled limbs, calories are the one kind of energy that
America doesn't seem to lack.