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Nancy Gift: Mowing Meditation

Book Cover for A Weed by Any Other NameToday's post is from Nancy Gift, an assistant professor of environmental studies and acting director of the Rachel Carson Institute at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she lives with her husband, two daughters, and a lawn full of weeds. She is the author of A Weed by Any Other Name: The Virtues of a Messy Lawn, or Learning to Love the Plants We Don't Plant.

The reel mower, photo by Nancy GiftAfter over three full summers of using my reel mower, I have come to love the click-click-click and the flying clippings, the instant sound of kids' playing and birdsong when I stop for breath at the top of our backyard slope. I love the exercise of arms, core, and legs simultaneously, and have had visions of beginning a suburban biathalon, with the star event being mowing a mile-long course with a reel mower, following my nine-mile bike home from work.

But, despite my purchase of one of the premier brands – Brill – and despite my affections for it, it seems to be dead, with wheels turning but little corresponding mower action to match. I suspect the gears are stripped, but I am no mechanic, and I can't even seem to figure out how to break into the wheel machinery to check. I doubt many of these machines are used on as large a lot as ours – half an acre, minus gardens and house footprint – but I had always thought of them as indestructable, the kinds of machines which you find in an abandoned garage, oil a bit, and voila! Mow your way home to use them. Apparently my Brill is not that kind of reel mower.

So yesterday, just a couple of days before we head on vacation, I had to use our gas mower. This is my husband's mower, the one he uses to help me keep up, in spring, with the rapidly growing grass. It is small and light, on the scale of them, but I know that any two-stroke motor pollutes far more per gallon than even my car, a Buick inherited from my husband's grandparents. The fumes are among the worst greenhouse gases, and I have sometimes cried in frustration when I realize that the grass has gotten too tall, and I can't do the mowing that day with my beloved reel mower. As a result, I thought I would hate mowing yesterday, but it needed doing, so I went to the shed and rolled it out, and pulled the string. It started.

And, surprisingly, I had fun. I'd forgotten how much I used to love mowing my parents' yard, when I was 12 and it was still fun to act grownup by taking on a necessary chore. I'd forgotten that mowing is just plain satisfying, leaving neat swaths of fresh green behind, focussing on following the line of my path from the previous lap. I *feel* productive, even when I know that what I'm doing is environmentally corrupt, even knowing that I don't approve of the fumes, even knowing that I'd rather have a lawn of flowers, or vegetables, or meadow, or moss. I got done, all the environmental sin of it fresh in my guilty mind, afraid that I'd never get around to fixing my Brill, but mostly just glad to check another task off the pre-vacation list.

Each year, our lawn gets a tiny bit smaller. We make a new bed, mark off new space with concrete blocks or stones, fill it with compost, and seed vegetables before fencing it off from our resident rabbits. We are making progress. I have plans for a section of meadow, and for expanding the goldenrod sward which bounds the back of our yard. I have hopes that as I age – I'm still on the front side of 40, but barely - reel mowing will help keep me fit in summer, but also that I can reduce the lawn area enough so that less of it is necessary, and my yard can slowly become something really productive.

In the meanwhile, I've gotten out the manual, and found that the warranty was two years, not five as I had hoped. I'm going to call a dealer, see what can be done and for how much, and either get this reel mower fixed or find another, one which is more clearly made for larger spaces and frequent mowing. I don't approve of mowing, really, but in our lives, in this neighborhood, it is necessary for now. If I have to do it, I want to do it right, clicking gently across the yard, tossing the clover flowers in the air like popcorn as I go, and hearing the birdsong each time I take a break. I'll be back behind my mower soon, powering it with my own muscles, compromising with the suburbs the best way I know how.