Quiet: Cutting Grass in Galveston, pt. 4

I opened the first entry in this exercise with a confession. Many years ago, a student who’d just discovered Edward R. Murrow’s 1950s radio show “This I Believe” asked me what bedrock belief I’d spend three minutes defending. I was stumped, but a day later it came to me: I’d go with push reel mowers.

The first three posts were my attempts to not sound crazy make a reasonable case, particularly for Galvestonians, for choosing a push reel over a conventional rotary. But like so many things I care about, the most important factors have nothing to do with reason. This – the last unprompted thing I’ll say about reels, promise – is about those other reasons.

From the beginning, now a half-century ago, I’ve been drawn to the sound of the spinning reel. It’s not just the quiet, though that’s a big part of it, and the value of less noise in my life has grown as I’ve gotten older.

Push reels – at least, heavy steel reels1 – make a crisp, rhythmic whisking sound, a single note struck so rapidly that it almost sounds continuous. It’s a little like Edward Scissorhands clipping a topiary, except that Edward clipped frenetically. The reel whisks away at a regular tempo, like a dozen mechanically driven scissors snipping in unison.

I think I would have liked this sound even before steam- and gas-powered engines began to be grafted onto reels and drowned out the whisk. Today, the particular sound a mower makes is less important than its volume. Noise is one of the under-acknowledged costs of living in the developed world. Silence really is golden, and your neighbor could tell you that quiet is the next-best thing. Reels operate just above the volume of a whisper. Neighborly thoughtfulness is a good reason to prefer the quieter tool, but my enjoyment of the reel’s pre-industrial, agrarian sound is purely selfish.

A 1903 ad for a steam-powered reel, patented in 1902

Believe it or not, others have written about the sound of the push reel, but I’ve not encountered any testimonies to its intermingled olfactory, tactile, and visual pleasures. The smell of freshly cut grass isn’t limited to reels of course, but with gas engines, a mowed lawn’s green leaf volatiles are overwhelmed by fuel fumes. Battery-powered mowers don’t have that problem, but they can’t match the reel’s gift to the nose because they either shoot grass out to the side or into a bag. Apart from a mystifyingly popular Fiskars model,2 which shoots grass forward, reel mowers send grass backward, in a gentle spray, wafting the smell toward you. Grass falls like rain around your ankles. With a rotary, you’re smart to protect your legs. With a push reel, you’re better off leaving them bare.

Maybe for good reason, none of these qualities gets mentioned by sales folk, who too often over-promise and misrepresent reels by talking about cut quality and ease of use. For most of us, rotaries require less time and effort and are more forgiving of regular-joe slovenliness, like letting grass grow tall between mowings.

I’m certainly no less lazy than the average bear. But when it comes to cutting grass – and especially for cutting the stamp-sized lawns in subtropical, salt-breezy Galveston – speed and ease are massively overrated.

We live in a place where island time – a leisurely approach to life that gives pleasure its due – is celebrated. It’s the city’s motto! We complain about it when we’re shopping for contractors, but most of the time, we like it.

Those who embrace the Galveston ethos should embrace the push reel mower. It’s the best tool devised to cut grass with human power. It requires more time than a rotary. You’ll have to go over some patches twice. You’ll sweat. But you’ll be doing a job deliberately, mindfully, and, if you’re like me, pleasurably, with a tool that doesn’t burden our over-burdened island or annoy your neighbors. It’s a small thing. To paraphrase John Lennon, give reels a chance.

[1] A few decades ago, manufacturers began making reels lighter by incorporating aluminum and making the reel’s blades of thinner steel, which changed the reel’s sound from a bright, crisp whisk to a duller, janky whunk. I was crestfallen the first time I heard a modern Scott’s. There are more important reasons to be leery of a light push reel – they struggle with southern grasses, for one – but the fact that they sound like shit rankles me.

[2] Don’t get me started.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s