I Hear America Mowing

August 20, 1988
Op-ed, The New York Times

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So Mike Dukakis cuts his grass with a hand-powered mower. This is often cited as evidence of the Duke’s frugality and “old-fashionedness.” But I think it also suggests another trait of the Democratic presidential nominee. Sanity.

Since moving to the suburbs, I’ve been amazed at the amount of noise pollution that people will tolerate in order to keep their lawns trim. As Walt Whitman might have said: I hear America mowing.

Gas-powered mowers operate at about 95 decibels—a little more than a diesel truck, slightly less than a jackhammer and about the same as a rock band blasting at full throttle. At my house, conversation can be interrupted by mowers operating up to four houses away on either side of our street and on the street behind ours. That’s 12 houses, each mowing about once a week. Most mowing is done by hired lawn service companies during the workday, but then some neighbors mow their own lawns when they get home from work or on the weekends. This means that one lawn can often start being mowed even as another is finished—sort of a tag team of noise pollution.

And that’s just the noise from the mowers. Factor in the sound of grass-blowers and edge trimmers, and my neighborhood can sound like a tractor-trailer convention in July. (Many lawn service companies that use the loudest equipment now provide their employees with ear protectors such as the kind used on rifle ranges. What about the rest of us?)

I don’t know what kind of hand-powered mower my neighbor uses, but the one I bought some years ago was made in Shelbyville, Ind., by the Great States Corp. It had six rotary blades, started whenever I did, and did a nice job on the lawn—and was as quiet as a pair of old-fashioned hedge clippers. Great States said its mowers were making a comeback because people were beginning to realize hand-powered mowers make good sense. Besides being quiet, they create no gas fumes, are safer—especially with kids around—and offer the homeowner good exercise.

That’s an interesting point. I know plenty of people who think nothing of marching around their yards for 30 minutes behind a gas-polluting engine and then rush off to the health club to get some exercise. According to physical fitness experts, hand lawn-mowing burns about 450 calories per hour (about the same as playing tennis or cycling at 11 m.p.h.). And mowing offers not only excellent cardiovascular conditioning but a good workout, as well.

So, thanks, Duke. Maybe your influence will help bring a little more fitness, and a lot more peace and quiet, to America’s suburbs.