Pulling the Switch On Power Gadgets

SOME people track seasons by the calendar. Others measure change by a thermometer or the slant of light through a window. Still others listen for sounds that signal a seasonal shift: the first rake sweeping over dry leaves in October, the first snow shovel scraping against a driveway in January, the first power mower lumbering across a newly green lawn in April. To sun-starved Easterners, the noise of the mower is reassuring - as welcome a promise of summer as the tulips, forsythia, and dogwood that have cheered us through a damp and chilly spring. Yet for many suburbanites, the harsh drone of gas-powered engines recalls an era when the warming air filled with a symphony of gentle whirs, produced by the cylindrical blades of hand-pushed mowers.

That was a time when homeowners strode purposefully, masterfully behind their low-tech mowers, leaning into the handle to maneuver around a tree, stopping now and then to empty a bag of clippings, mop a brow, or sip a cold drink. So simple was the mechanism that only a little oil and an occasional blade-sharpening were required to keep it operating.

Then came the power mower - progress! - and the pastoral scene changed forever. Now the drone of combustion engines echoes through neighborhoods, waking babies from naps and distracting adults from music and books. Sunday advertising supplements feature shiny red and green mowers with such state-of-the-art advances as quantum engines, front cog drives, flip-up discharge chutes, and transmatic transaxles.

The mower in our garage is typical. Two black levers, one labeled ``Throttle,'' the other ``Ground Speed,'' make the red behemoth appear more suited for racing down a speedway at Indianapolis than circling a quarter-acre lot. A distinctly unfriendly warning reads: ``DANGER. Stop engine before leaving operator position. Keep bystanders away from area being mowed.''

I am obedient. I wouldn't dream of going near it, either as an operator or a bystander.

Power mowers, leaf blowers, snow throwers - the list of high-tech tools grows. Like other labor-saving devices, they have their place. They also have their price. As Americans have traded manpower - and womanpower - for horsepower, certain losses have occurred.

Suburbanites who once reigned as masters of the reel-type mower now resemble humble servants as they follow robotically behind the latest self-propelled engine. The distracting presence of a motor not only blocks out bird songs, but dulls other perceptions as well. Who can savor new-mown grass when gasoline fumes fill the nostrils?

Then there is the matter of exercise. In the days of reel mowers, workouts occurred naturally rather than artificially. ``Pumping iron'' involved pushing steel blades across the grass, rather than straining on a thousand-dollar ``muscle machine'' that promises to ``add thickness to your back'' and ``develop your lower and upper pecs, deltoids, triceps,'' as one TV commercial claims.

This new artificiality produces comic contradictions: The property owner who finishes a low-sweat session behind a power mower, then goes inside to renew a fitness-club membership. The executive who rides elevators from one floor to the next at the office, then heads home to work out on a stair-stepper. The husband and wife who faithfully walk several miles each day - good exercise! - then circle the shopping mall parking lot in their car, looking for a space close to the entrance.

In the compulsion to take things literally out of human hands, technology long ago invented one push button too many. Anybody who has wrestled with a manual as thick as a dictionary instructing a new owner on the super-capabilities of a personal computer knows the impulse to ``just say no'' to the power that no longer empowers.

Beyond pet peeves about silly uses of power - electric carving knives, power windows - there is a serious argument to be made against frivolous automation. In the case of the lawn, nobody would vote for going back to the scythe. But if conservation of energy is to become a necessary habit, the switching off of switches has to begin somewhere.

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