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Original Issue


In Anna Karenina there is a fine scene in which the novel's protagonist, Levin, a landowner, spends a long, hot summer day cutting grass with his serfs. It is one of the happiest days of his life. The hard, honest labor, the handling of the scythe, the camaraderie, the communion with nature, the sense of a job well done—these are joyful therapy.

Though I've never owned an estate or learned to use a scythe, I do have pleasant memories of the many hours I spent as a boy cutting grass in western Pennsylvania. A friend and I would start off on a Saturday morning, lawn mowers in tow, knock on doors and offer our services for 50¬¨¬®¬¨¢ or a dollar, depending on the difficulty of the lawn. On a good day we'd end up exhausted and satisfied, with perhaps three dollars apiece.

Because of my boyhood memories and my admiration for Levin, I've never bought a power mower. A dozen years ago, when my family and I moved into our present house, we found one in a dark corner of the garage, and I was foolish enough to use it a couple of times. But the noise was unbearable, and the fumes obliterated the lovely odor of freshly cut grass. No exercise was involved, so there wasn't any feeling of accomplishment, either. How low could a reader of Tolstoy get?

At a garage sale I found a push mower for $2.50, and I've been using it ever since. With the approach of spring, I decided to give the machine its yearly overhaul the other day. It was a shock to discover that the handle was cracked, that one wheel was broken and the other was out of alignment, and that one of the blades was badly chipped and the others hopelessly dull. What they say in regard to humans applies to lawn mowers, too. Old age sneaks up. It takes one by surprise.

Because the lawn mower was beyond repair, I started phoning hardware stores.

"What's a push lawn mower?" the first clerk I talked to asked.

"One you push around," I explained.

"You mean without a motor?"

"Right, that's it."

"We don't carry those. Haven't for years."

"Why not?"

"Nobody wants them."

"Could you order one?"

"Sorry. No."

After three more hardware stores, I switched my efforts to department stores. None carried push mowers, either. Montgomery Ward offered three models in its catalogue, ranging in price from $43 to $117, but the clerk whom I talked to couldn't predict how long delivery might take, because he couldn't remember anyone having ordered one before.

I decided not to order, certain that at a garage sale I could find what I wanted for less than $43. But that isn't really the point. I'm troubled by what I've discovered through this.

If Americans care about physical fitness—as we're so often told these days—I don't see how so many of them can, in good conscience, pass up a weekly chance for moderate exercise that will surely benefit the arms, legs, lungs and heart, not to mention the psyche. And if we really want to conserve oil, how can we follow those obnoxious little motors around our yards all summer?

Here in America, if we create a demand, a supply is sure to follow. The makers of power mowers could easily switch to push mowers, and we'd all be better off. If you won't listen to me, listen to Tolstoy.