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Jack Zaleski, Published May 26 2012

Zaleski: Sometimes leg power is more satisfying

Chelsea, Vt.

I mow nearly an acre of lawn from May to October at my home on the Sheyenne River near Horace, N.D. The weekly chore is easy because of a marvelous John Deere lawn and garden tractor that runs as well as it did the day it came off the showroom floor 15 years ago.

But here at my daughter’s home in the spring-green Vermont hills, mowing grass is not a priority. Her house sits in the midst of hundreds of acres of forest, meadows, pasturelands, wetlands and mountain streams. Not much lawn on the place – only a patch about 50 feet square on a steep, uneven slope.

“Grass needs cutting,” I said to her.

“There’s an old push mower in the barn,” she said. “Go for it. Mow away.”

I assumed the “push mower” was a gasoline engine-powered rotary, like the reliable Craftsman I use to do the trimming at my house.

“Gas out there, too?” I asked.

She smiled and said, “Not the kind of fuel you’ll need, ol’ man.”

It was an old push-type reel mower (a Craftsman!) that required leg power, not gasoline power. Push to turn the wheels, which spin the 18-inch blade reel against a cutting bar. Last time I used one, I was a kid in the 1950s and ’60s. The Vermont machine hadn’t been used much. I gave the old mower a treatment with WD-40, spun the wheels and blade reel, and went to work.

Turns out, when legs and arms do the work, you tend to size up the job with minimizing effort at the top of the agenda. I analyzed the slope and figured what paths and pattern to take so as to push the classic machine uphill as few times as possible. (Mowing across the slope rather than up and down worked out fine for my aging legs. Brilliant, or what?)

The comforting clatter of the old mower, the song of the reel blades against the cutting bar, the aroma of newly cut grass laced with mint that had spread into the lawn – and the aches and subsequent fatigue that came with the task – was somehow more satisfying than the engine noise and exhaust fumes from the John Deere. Of course, the small patch of lawn that I would have done in five minutes with the tractor took a good hour with the hand mower.

I’m not ready to park the efficient John Deere and cut the near-acre in North Dakota with a hand-push reel mower. The romance of physical exercise goes only so far. But cutting the sloped patch of new grass, dandelions and mint here in the wooded hills conjured up a couple of lessons.

First, pushing an old reel mower nourishes body and mind. The exercise is good; the quiet time to think is better.

Second, maybe an acre of suburban lawn that is manicured like a golf course is an expensive extravagance I have outgrown and I can do without – that anyone can do without.

Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at (701) 241-5521.