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.

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.

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.