Over the past decade, my family has been gradually, gleefully destroying our yard.
Huge yards – or “lawns,” I guess, if you’re the kind of person who likes crumpets and cricket –make little sense for the high desert ecosystem in which we live. And as the American Southwest endures its worst drought in a millennium and long-lost human skeletons riddle up on the shores of Lake Mead as its water level recedes past the point of no return, it feels indefensibly wasteful to be gleefully dumping precious water on a huge expanse of Kentucky bluegrass whose sole purpose is…. being green and kind of tickly against your bare feet. (I am not, of course, the first guy to point out just how egregious of an example of status quo bias the American lawn is.)
Since we moved in back in 2013, we’ve gradually re-landscaped the area surrounding our little 1913 bungalow in the Denver suburbs into waterwise, xeriscaped gardens full of hardy native perennials, along with a dozen large, raised vegetable beds.
I didn’t kill all of the yard. We also have an elementary schooler who likes kicking a soccer ball and rolling around in her outdoor-child-filth outside (a habit we encourage). We also want space for a dog to run around instead of ingesting the whole sofa, so we’ve left probably about 200 square feet of the green stuff untouched.
I begrudgingly aerate, water, compost, trim, reseed, and unsuccessfully defend it against dandelion incursions for nine months out of the year. I also have to cut it.
This part, honestly, I like. And not just because “cutting the grass” is a phrase that is tied to all kinds of other, pleasant words in my brain, like “summertime,” “weekend,” and, especially, “lawnmower beer.” I like it because cutting the grass provides a convenient excuse to get into the wood shop.
Bear with me. One unofficial marker of the start of the summer when I was a kid occurred around Memorial Day, when my dad would load up his large, gas-powered, red Toro lawnmower and drive to a local shop to “get sharpened” in preparation for a long summer of VERY loud, gasoline fume-inhaling, jean-short-wearing, all-American lawn-manicuring. Naturally, one of the first things I bought when I got our house was… a gas mower, perfect for shattering the peace of a weekend morning on our suburban block.
As our yard has gotten smaller and smaller, though, that gas mower I assembled (with my dad, obviously) and used for a couple summers increasingly felt like overkill. After visiting Maine and taking part in the Mortise & Tenon Preindustrial Woodworking Immersion in 2019, Mike and Joshua introduced me me about the weird, delightful, robust subculture of New England scything, or ideal rural grass-management. Wielding and honing a scythe is an artform in its own right, rooted in ancient agricultural practice in Europe and beyond, and it especially makes sense as an approach: it rains a lot more in Maine than it does in Colorado, plus there’s a local craft and agrarian microeconomy that celebrates the human-centered tool and its deeply ecologically sustainable use.
When I got home, I briefly entertained the notion of buying a scythe. This, uh, also felt like overkill. I live in suburban Denver, not on a farm. There’s a 7-Eleven like two blocks from my house. My city neighbors would 100% call the cops if I were out sharpening my scythe in the front yard on a Saturday morning (particularly if I put on some black robes). They already put up with enough from us, between the lawn-destruction, hatchet/saw/chisel background noise, solar ovens, grain milling, and other Roy Underhill/preparing-for-systemic-collapse weirdness that they probably imagine our family is into, based on our lifestyle and hobbies. Thankfully, we don’t have an HOA.
Scything, again, felt like a little much. But a reel mower? Now that, if you’ll forgive me, felt like the real deal.
Lots of Americans used reel mowers prior to the popularization of gas mowers after World War II, a technological shift that went along with the expansion of the middle class and the boom of suburban tract houses (and their big yards) in America. The reel mower’s design is miraculously simple and infinitely reparable: a chain-driven whirl of blades that uses simple mechanical advantage and human power to scissor-cut your grass without any carbon emissions or deafening noise. (You can finally be the guy in your neighborhood who creepily cuts your grass at 2 AM on a Thursday, if you want!) You can pick a new one up for half of what a gas or electric mower costs, and thrift and antique stores typically have tons of them lying around.
Maintaining another edge—or series of edges, in this case—is also a great way to expand your sharpening skillset and ask yourself, “what else can I sharpen by hand around here?” My kitchen knives? That old garden hoe? My geriatric housecat’s claws? Sharpening a reel mower is a relatively simple procedure, involving popping off a wheel, attaching a hand crank, and slathering the blades with some honing compound and then going to town on that crank. You only have to do it every couple years.
While using it does require paying closer attention to the ecosystem outside our house than when using a gas mower—I can’t just mulch my way, angrily grunting through fallen branches or My Little Pony figurines my kid left outside—that’s not a bad thing. As with many hand tools, the apparent limitations of the reel mower can, in fact, be a conduit for other kinds of freedom and sharpened attention to technique.
As the great alpinist and rock climber Doug Robinson put it back in the 1970s, “Technology is imposed on the land, but technique means conforming to the landscape. One forces a passage, while the other discovers it. The goal of developing technique is to conform to the most improbable landscape by means of the greatest degree of skill or boldness supported by the least equipment.” He was probably talking about freeclimbing stuff without pitons in Yosemite, but there’s no reason why we can’t apply the same message about skill, attention, and technique to everything from preparing stock in the wood shop to maintaining a home garden to planning a network of city streets to, yes, keeping your scythe sharp. Or your reel mower.