Just push it

by Paolo Bacigalupi

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 doesn’t.

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 greatest fault.

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.

My 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 machine.

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.

Paolo Bacigalupi is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org) in Paonia, Colorado, where he lives and works as a webmaster for the paper.

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