Pleasurable Labor: Cutting Grass in Galveston, pt. 2

How do you make the case for using a push reel mower instead of a rotary without sounding like a self-righteous prick?

I don’t know. But I’ve seen enough suppressed eyerolls to know I’ve failed that test many times. Instead, I’ll try to explain what made me fall in love with reels as a kid.

The Scott Silent, 50 years later

When I was a boy, I cut yards for money, and when our Briggs & Stratton died, my dad took me to Peer Hardware in Springfield, Missouri to buy a new mower. I can’t recall why we decided on a reel. I’m sure I liked the idea of not having to shell out for gas, but I can’t remember if that was the clincher.

It was a Scott’s Silent, maybe one of the first with a no-contact reel: The spinning blades didn’t make contact with the cutting bar; thus the “Silent.” The cooler innovation was a nifty knob that adjusted the cutting height.

Here’s what I quickly discovered. Reel mowers require more effort. (Duh.) They’re far worse than rotaries at cutting tall grass. Unless you mow twice a week during growing season, one pass is usually not enough for a decent cut. They require regular sharpening. Mowing with a reel takes more time because, in addition to usually needing two passes, you can only mow going forward. (Rotaries allow you to mow pulling as well as pushing.) Medium-sized sticks get stuck between the reel’s blades and the cutting bar, stopping you cold. Freeing them requires kicking the reel backwards with your heel.

And yet, I loved the thing. Despite having to work harder and longer, I was actually having fun mowing grass. Why?

I have reflected on this question longer than you might guess. This is what I’ve decided.

Reels turned a chore, something I was eager to be done with, into pleasurable labor. The pleasure came from the satisfaction of using my own power to operate a simple, elegant tool, and – I wish I could find a plainer phrase – the sensory gestalt of using a reel. Mowing grass became like whittling, or, to take a more purposive thing, gardening. It became my Zen.

When I was in my 20s, I owned a 1972 VW Beetle. Because the engine was so simple, I decided to learn how to do routine maintenance myself. I bought John Muir’s How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive and learned, among other things, how to gap my Bug’s spark plugs.

I will assume that this is beyond argument for adults of a certain age: There are any number of occasions when it makes sense to hire someone else to do work you could do. But unless you find the work unpleasant or dangerous or too time-consuming or impractical to master, doing the job yourself is inherently more fulfilling than having someone else do it. Similarly, since I and it were capable, using my body as the engine felt more rewarding than the labor- and time-saving gains of using a fuel-powered mower.

Today, the only things I remember from Muir’s manual are his advice to buy good tools and to take care of them. I’d read this advice before as a teenager in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Zen is one of those rare books that I re-read decades later and, rarer still, one that seemed as important to a middle-aged man as it was to my adolescent self.

What is a good tool? What is this so-called sensory gestalt that appealed to the teenager then and the old man now? What does any of this have to do with Galveston? And, most of all, why would anyone make reel mowers the subject of their “This I Believe” essay? Tune in tomorrow.