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Schubart: Lawn Mowers

The recent run of cool weather reminds me that lawn mowing season is almost over.

Mowing the lawn, in fact just having a lawn, is a fairly recent historical custom. It’s not clear whether Aristotle had a lawn but it’s assumed that he had a small field grazed by sheep or goats. These were the earliest known lawns and, agricultural ruminants were the earliest known lawnmowers. The problem with these early mowers was that they left dung piles on the lawn. However, early landowners didn’t mind, because dried dung became one of the earliest cooking fuels after goats denuded the shores of the once fertile crescent of its flora. Unfortunately, dung imparted a slightly off-taste to the comestibles grilling over its embers, but I digress.

Early American lawns were smaller than they are today, perhaps because, like the Greeks, early landowners had no lawnmowers. The first lawnmower was invented in England in 1827 but only came into general use here after the depression.

Our family’s first mower was a push reel-type that no one could push for more than twelve feet without resting. Our next mower was a gas-powered, reel mower that was self-propelled, unlike its then 10-year-old operator. This gave way to a second-hand Gravely, the size of a motorcycle side-car. When I could pull the starter cord and it started, I’d walk behind it struggling to steer it in a straight line. To stop it, one pushed a sprung metal strip against the spark plug to short out the magneto. Then, as the shortest route between the magneto’s 30,000 volts and ground, the unwary operator was also thrown to the ground. I soon learned to use a long stick – though I could still feel a tingle.

Man’s desire to conquer nature rather than co-exist with it made for ever larger lawns. A modest raised-ranch surrounded by several acres of perfectly mowed lawn became a statement to neighbors.

Early lawn ornaments such as gnomes, bathtub shrines, wading pools, and tractor-tire petunia beds were easily circumvented by the new rotary mowers. But as lawns grew in size so did the equipment needed to mow them and, after the toy-tractor ride-on mowers, the zero-turn mower appeared on the home front. These machines cost more than my first seven VW’s. They look like a wheelchair welded to a brushhog, and turn on a dime. They pulverize lawn ornaments like gnomes and statuary, and turn dog bones into rich sources of iron and minerals for lawns. In competitions, they routinely appear to be capable of mowing a small state like Delaware in less than two weeks. So the doublewide with 3-acres of perfectly manicured lawn has become a regular feature of rural landscapes.

I’m not one of those men who believe that the size of their lawn mower matters. My early experience with lawn mowers has turned me off lawns in general so my wife and I are creating an edible landscape and, for the sake of the environment, intend to retire our mower forever.

Bill Schubart lives and writes in Hinesburg. His latest book is Lila & Theron.
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