Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Why is the Grass Greener?

Michael Pollan once described Nature as a war between grass and trees. Agriculture was man’s enlisting in that war on the side of grass. It’s a brilliant concept, but in this war, my family has always been collaborators.

I don’t mean we love trees, though without a doubt we do. My parents once put a house on a lot at a strange angle just to avoid cutting down a few small trees. My wife and I have a fairly running battle about cutting a few limbs off trees in our yard. No, by collaboration, I mean my family has a constant love/hate affair with our lawn.

My father loved a great big lawn, partly because he loved croquet, and partly because he never had to mow the damn grass. The only part of this chore my father enjoyed was the lawnmower. He loved to find them, buy them, and then kill them. Dad only bought used mowers, a collection as large as his made new mowers impossible. He would read the want ads carefully, looking for a great bargain, then drag the new machine home in his pickup.

Dad would not stop shopping just because we already had several mowers; we needed a fairly constant supply of new mowers. There was always a wide assortment and not a single damn one of them could be counted on to run. For the life of me, I cannot understand how the same man who maintained four engine bombers during the war could not keep a two cycle lawnmower running long enough to last a summer. If the Army Air Corps had maintained their planes in this same manner, this blog would be written in Japanese.

New, or mostly new, lawnmowers arrived on a regular basis; healthy, vigorous, and sturdy. Within a few weeks, they would begin to cough, smoke, and shake. Obviously, they had caught the disease. Unfortunately, the disease was uniformly fatal, none recovered. All too soon, they would join the elephant’s graveyard collection behind the garage.

Still, there was always at least one working mower. I was never lucky enough to escape the mind numbingly boring and useless task of giving our yard a haircut. How many hours have been wasted by men going around and around in a circle just to make grass a little shorter? My father had a very large, and mostly square, field with trees around the edges. That large empty area took me hours to mow while I baked in the sun.

One day, I had a sudden inspiration. At the time, the working mower was self propelled. I laid the mower on its side, and then carefully measured the width of the blade. Then I drove four stakes into the ground as close to the middle of the field as I could. This part has to be done carefully; the circumference of the four stakes needs to be about 2 inches less than the width of the blade. I tied one end of a long rope to one of the stakes, the other end I tied to an eyebolt I put through the front right corner of the lawnmower chasis. Then I started the mower and let go of it.

The beauty and simplicity of the idea! It went round and round the stakes all by itself! Each rotation brought it closer and closer to the middle of the field as the ropes wound around the stakes. It was doing my work, without me! I was the first twelve year old boy ready to receive the Nobel Prize in lawn mowing.

At least until my father came home for lunch. I was sitting under a tree reading a book, occasionally glancing up at the mower working all by itself, rarely since then have I felt more contented and happy. My father was of a different mind. Simply put, he was furious.

I was committing a cardinal sin, I was not working. No part of work included sitting in the shade idly reading a book, I was violating a deeply buried legacy of the Puritan Work Ethic; working effectively meant you had to suffer. And didn’t I know how dangerous this was? That mower could have cut its own rope, escaped and gone rampaging through the neighborhood. The mower moved about as fast as a crippled hearse horse and I would have had to fill the tank a few times to reach the nearest neighbor, but still… My father obviously rescued Austin from being mowed to death.

I dismantled my invention and went back to mowing in the sun. Somewhere during the countless hours of standing behind that mower I undoubtedly came to the conclusion that someday I would earn my living reading books and not working in the sun.

I was only half right. Today, I don’t have to sit under a tree to read. My office is air conditioned. And I make my two sons, What’s-His-Name and The-Other-One mow the yard.


  1. I haven't mowed your lawn in 8 years! And when "The other one" and I did mow your lawn it was with a "Push Mower" that jamded every 6 feet. Now, you mow the lawn and as soon as we moved out you buy a brand new key start, self propelled, ajustable speed, cup holder, mp3 dock mower.