Reel Men

My father was not prone to swearing in front of children, and there were only two times I can remember him letting lose with a malediction. The first was a quickly aborted attempt to teach me to drive, a story best left for another column, and the second was when he lost the top of his baby finger to the gas lawnmower. After the emergency room visit mandated by my mother, who would for years afterwards would use “ the lawn mower incident” as the beginning of one-upmanship stories with other women, Dad discussed the proper safety uses of various power tools, the most important is to turn the darn thing off before you fiddle with it.

The lawnmower was an upgrade, of a sort, from our old push mower. The old push mower was already an antique when we got it, but Dad was handy, and with a bit of sharpening, adjusting and grease, the thing fairly purred as it went across the lawn. But it was heavy, more than 40 pounds and when we moved it was decided to leave it for the next tenants, and buy the to Craftsman Lawn Care Deluxe Model when we got to the new house.

Most of neighbors had already mothballed their reel lawn mowers and purchased gas models. Every Saturday morning, all summer long there was the howl of the Briggs and Stratton engines, the smell of gas, and the sight of large men with small white legs in sticking out of all manner of plaid shorts.

And the traditions continues. Every Saturday in my neighborhood the men folk haul out their gas lawnmowers and follow in their fathers’ footsteps. Not much has changed of course, except that the plaid shorts are worn ironically.

Perhaps more ironic, though, in a world where recycling, fair trade coffee, and organic vegetables are the norm, that we can still buy gas powered lawn mowers, and their annoying little brothers, the gas powered leaf blower and weed whacker.

A quick look at the horrible facts. Small gas motors produce pollution. How much? Well the number blew me away. One a national average 10% of all green house gasses are produced by these little terrors, and in an urban airshed like the Vancouver and Fraser Valley, they contribute 30% of the total air pollution during the summer months. Not only that, because they are inefficient and have no catalytic or other pollution abatement equipment, they produce higher amounts of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (probable cancer causing agents), volatile organic compounds (key precursors to smog) and greenhouse gases (GHG).

A quick mental picture? A conventional lawn mower pollutes as much in an hour as the combined total of 40 cars. Or how about this. A conventional lawn mower pollutes as much in an hour as driving to and from work for two months. Add to that the approximately 87,000 liters of gasoline that is spilled every year in B.C. by jittery-handed lawn cutters, and you have a real problem.

There are three alternatives. Three are 1.) cordless powered electric 2.) corded electric mowers, and 3.) reel mowers.

Electric lawn mowers are quieter than gas mowers and pollute less, but the battery operated models have the problem of end-of-life disposal with their lead batteries. And they still pose safety issues for users and bystanders alike.

By far the best option is the old fashioned reel or push mower. Unlike the antique that my Dad rehabilitated, the new ones are light and easy to push. They produce zero pollution. They are whisper quiet. They are safe enough for children to use. They also have the advantage of cutting rather than tearing the grass, the clean cut meaning that the lawn stays greener and requires less water. (Don’t get me started about watering lawns!) And you don’t have to bag the clippings. Returning clippings to the soil's surface increases biological activity and helps earth worms work the soil below the surface, supports drainage and diverts grass clippings from the landfill. Who would have thought that being lazy would be a good thing for the environment.

I’ve been using a reel lawnmower for 12 years. I don’t intend to change. I’ve converted two of my neighbors from their gas and electric mowers, and if you stop to ask me about my “old fashioned” lawn mower, you’ll end up cutting a few swaths just to prove it to yourself that it is a better way.  Drop by any Saturday morning. Just remember to wear your plaid shorts.