As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, August 21, 2016.
White smoke belched from my gas-powered lawn mower, accompanied by random, and quite ominous, popping sounds.
“C’mon, Murray,” I said, calling the old mower by its brand name. “Just let me finish.”
I was in the middle of my front yard on a sunny Saturday morning. Since the previous summer, Murray had been revving erratically every time I mowed, but I’d hoped its dirt-caked engine would hang on long enough to get me through one more season.
The loudest pop yet punctuated the balmy air as Murray emitted a white valedictory puff and abruptly went silent. I pulled on the starter cord again and again, but it was no use: the mower was beyond resuscitation. Crows squawked a requiem from a telephone wire above.
I looked at my lawn: half was cleanly clipped and half was still shaggy, a hippie holdout for the moment. The time for a new mower had come.
Lawn mowers are a fairly recent invention. From ancient Rome to the 19th century, the scythe — a large, curved blade fastened to a long handle — was the principal tool for taming yard growth. It wasn’t until the early 1800s that a clever Englishman named Edwin Budding revolutionized how we cut grass.
Budding’s mower, made from wrought iron, featured a bladed reel or cutting cylinder mounted on a wheeled cart that was pushed from behind. It proved to be a welcome and efficient alternative to the scythe for manicuring yards and fields. In 1830, Budding was granted a British patent for his invention and not much has changed since then: modern reel mowers are remarkably similar to his original design.
My grandmother on the Walsh side had a reel mower that she kept in the basement of her Providence bungalow because there was no shed or garage. Getting the mower in and out of the cellar window — often my brother Rob’s job, with Nana’s help — took as much time and energy as cutting her grass did.
Things were easier down the street at my maternal grandfather’s double-decker. Papa did have a garage, where he stored his reel mower, and his lawn was smaller than Nana’s. But thanks to the perpetual shade thrown by River Avenue’s towering oak trees, grass was sparse in the front yard. Mowing produced more dust than clippings, and the stirred-up clouds invariably drifted across the driveway, giving Papa’s shiny black Buick Skylark a dull brown veil.
“I just had that car washed,” he said, shaking his head after I had mowed one day.
Later that summer, my grandfather replaced his front yard’s anemic grass patches with a new “lawn” — two raised beds of freshly poured cement which, in a nod to realism, Papa had tinted lime green. I loved to “water” the new hardscape, ridding it of acorns and dead leaves. Meanwhile, the pristine Skylark, no longer subjected to mower-driven dust storms, gleamed.
Now, with my Murray expired, I headed to Lowe’s to find a successor. I was browsing power mowers by Troy-Bilt and Bolens when it suddenly occurred to me: what about a reel mower? My front lawn wasn’t much bigger than Nana’s or Papa’s had been, and my back yard was mostly pea stones and flowerbeds.
I saw a Scotts 16-inch reel mower at the end of the aisle. It was love at first sight.
Back home, Scotts made good on its promise of “easy assembly without tools.” In less than 15 minutes, I was ready to finish trimming the shaggy portion of the lawn. I pushed the mower and was instantly soothed by its gentle snip-snip-snip sound. It was like hearing a favorite song from summers long ago.
My son Evan walked onto the front porch and looked at me, dumbfounded.
“What’s that?” he said.
“A lawn mower,” I said. It could have been a dinosaur bone.
Resuming my mowing, I heard Evan say, “That’s so cool!”
Hats off to Edwin Budding. After 186 years, his ingenious invention is still cutting it.