The Good Tool: Cutting Grass in Galveston, pt. 3

What is a good tool?

Two caveats: There are any number of instances that would make my own attempt at an answer insufficient or simply wrong. Also, the reason I enjoy cutting grass with a reel mower isn’t merely because it’s a well-designed tool. But it is a well-designed tool, and that’s important, so here’s my best shot:

A good tool allows users to do work they either couldn’t do or couldn’t do as well or as quickly without it, with minimal impact on the world, with reasonable safety, and with a reasonable expenditure of time and energy.

The short-lived penny farthing

The bicycle is the quintessential good tool. It enables users to travel five times as quickly as they can on foot with about the same expenditure of energy, and the only impact on the world is the cost in materials, energy, and labor to make a bicycle. Riding a bike is more dangerous than walking or running, but once the penny farthing gave way to the safety bicycle – the original name of the bicycle we know today – bicycles passed the safety test.

Reel mowers fit my definition of a good tool. They do a decent job of cutting grass, with minimal impact on the world, with more than reasonable safety, and require a reasonable expenditure of time and energy. But the acid test is whether reels are better tools than rotaries. Let’s compare.

For wealthy perfectionists and professional baseball grounds crews, the reel is the tool of choice

The job: For those of us who don’t have the time, money or perfectionism to fuss over an immaculate lawn, an average rotary mower does a better job of cutting grass than a push reel mower. (For simplicity’s sake, I’ll ignore the fact that a well-maintained reel is better for a grass’s health.) Advantage, rotary.   

Impact on the world: Undesirable impacts of rotaries include air and noise pollution, consumption of resources in the manufacture and operation of the mower, and, particularly for small plants and animals, injuries from the blast of grass, rocks, and sticks propelled from the discharge chute. Even with the latest generation of battery-powered rotaries, push reels are plainly superior. They have essentially no undesirable impacts. Advantage, reel.

Safety: According to a 2018 Johns Hopkins study, there were about 6,400 lawnmower-related injuries each year between 2006 and 2013. Most required surgery, and 21% resulted in amputation. The average cost to the user per accident: $37,000. Advantage, bigly: reels.

Time and (human) energy: This requires unpacking. No question, rotaries require less of each. Engineers design, marketers sell, and consumers buy tools whose chief virtue is that they make jobs easier and quicker for us. It seems silly to cavil at this.

But cavil I do. Assuming you have the time and energy, spending a bit more of each on a job is not necessarily a thing to be avoided, provided the work is rewarding. And, particularly in a place like Galveston, with its temperate weather, salty breezes, and small yards, cutting grass with a push reel mower is rewarding.

I’ll save the rewards for the next installment and close this one by exercising my prerogative as an old man to sound like one.

We Americans fetishize speed and ease. If we have to do a job ourselves, we want it over with quickly and with as little effort as possible. There are any number of unpleasant jobs where this makes sense, but cutting a Galveston-sized lawn isn’t one of them.

I don’t know if it’s the numberless contemporary impediments to living simply and in the moment, or the lazy assumption that quicker and easier are always desirable, or simple laziness. But our rush to get things done is degrading our capacity to notice a form of pleasure in labor that only emerges when we slow down. Zen masters know this. So do whittlers. But that’s the subject of part 4.

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