M A N N E R S
M O W I N G
A Modern Primer On The Manual Arts
Of Lawn Maintenance
& Appreciation Thereof
What Heweth Wanna Know
“If this is paradise
I wish I had a lawn mower.”
It is recommended that the new lawn not be mowed until the grass has reached a height of about 3 inches. Set the mower to cut at a height of 2” for the first mowing. It is important that the mower blades be sharp to prevent the tender plants from being pulled from the ground. The mower should be re-adjusted to cut 1 1/2” in height on subsequent mowings.
Remove all cuttings from the lawn to prevent smothering the newly seeded lawn.
Lawns should be mowed regularly to encourage new growth and root development.
Do not mow when grass is wet. New lawns should not be subjected to heavy usage until after several mowings.
There are no recollections from the womb, or anything. I mean, about lawnmowers, or grass, stuff like that.
In fact, there probably wasn’t much grass as any real influence in my beginning - or formative - days. Within my first year of life, I lived in these kinds of houses: trailer, quonset hut, farmhouse, seminary, expandable trailer, altho not necessarily in that order. Nothing, it appears, to really lend itself to subconscious mowing vibes. Or open-aired pleasures to come.
Let’s go back to the beginning. The beginning of our life, the beginning of mowing - heck, agriculture, why not. The beginning of man. A good time, to begin; all beginnings, as we remember, for we are concerned with immediate needs and responses at the beginning, and the immediacy of results that a fire, shelter, or, say, a temper tantrum brings.
These quests and actions had results and rewards for something done, the satisfaction of desire. Whether from our forebears or our own infant beginnings, the primal actions of mowing and hewing, and its own immediate and rewarding response of deeply satisfying accomplishment, and thusly, end of-the-job feelings, coupled with a well-quoffed lawn manicure job, directly relate to and respond with the inherent developmental instinct of basic action and response. Simple physics; action and response. Mow the yard, and it’s immediately trim and neat. And thusly, you’re happy.
But in reality, it’s a war. Centuries-old, and ingrained in our own self-worth and stature, it comes down to man vs. nature. Period. Us, or me, against that world out there. All the way back to the caves, it was the main topic, and voodoo taboo: survival against the world. Civilizations in the jungles built mammoth temples, to only later be crushed back and annihilated by the primal jungle nature itself that they had once bowed down to and worshiped. Or saharan empires swallowed up by the creeping sands, and time. Forever lost to the world.
The initial step in our salvation from the slowly advancing impediment of the natural, junglous world, was our development into agrarian-based societies, quietly merging harmoniously with the mercurial ways of nature. And along with it, naturally, came the first primitive harvesting forms. To reap the benefits of our advancement. To logically, reap what you sow.
Then came the passage to mechanization, thus heralding our accomplished level as stature over anything, come large or small, come world, come nature, come anything at all. Just think of the gardens at the Palace of Versailles. Truly amazing dominance over nature. A fanciful French lawnmowing wetdream, if ever there was, in full R.E.M. color.
And with it came the full-blown knowledge that from the beginning, the Latin Metere, to mow, which begat Mahen, the German akin to the Anglo-Saxon Mawan, which begat the Old English Mowen, also begatting Muwa, originating from Old Norse Mugi, akin to Mahen which begat the Old English Mowen, also begatting Muwa, originating from Old Norse Mugi, akin to Mahen - see above - which also begat the Anglo-Saxon Muga, from which came Muwa. To mow, thus, to conquer.
It also sez that mow is to destroy in great numbers as in battle - mowdown. A sorry offshoot, hey hey, of this so-called mechanical advancement. And it can also be a place or loft for storing hay grain feed especially in a barn. So there.
But the best aside to this whole matter of spiritual manifestation in opposition to physical struggle, is that in the face of the ever-challenging task facing mankind, or really menkind (womenkind? personkind? humankind?), to mow is also to contort one’s face to indicate displeasure, disgust, pain, etc. As in the archaic facial contortion indication. Never a better time to give it a try than now, don’t you think?
But back to simple remembrances of cutting growth down from the meadow with a scythe or other mechanical device, and the final yet true realization of this unending attention to this age-old ritual of utilitarian supremacy. To let things grow up, to cut them down, to admire nature’s advance, to reign-in on and re-create in a trim and satisfying array. This closure of this natural cycle helps reinforce the whole newness and freshness of our world. Like the seasons which continually and inanely come and go, like winter and its snows, white blankets covering reality, ending the cycle once again, yet protecting and rediscovering itself for the spring. It’s winter’s redemption of life.
That’s what mowing is. It’s like taking off and starting over, literally. It’s the satisfaction of wiping clean the slate, of one more chance at total perfection.
At Indian Rocks Beach, Fla., I once saw a house that was lawn-free. The owner had replaced all the grass with no-mow macadam. You get the picture: a chap retires, says “phooey” to life, and gets into nonstriving, noneffort. But there’s still that one nagging chore. Finally, he dials a paving contractor and it’s bye-bye Toro. Nevertheless, he’d painted the macadam . . . green.
Americans are lawnoholics. True, some of us just say no to grass. But then we have to paint the asphalt green or swear devotion to the idea of sward (stretch of turf). Meanwhile, the rest of us mow a 31,250-square-mile lawn belt from Maine to California. Nobody knows how many person-hours go into keeping up the national veldt. We push our rear baggers, heedful of the 103d Psalm: “As for man, his days are as grass…”
I’ve been using my mowing time to hammer out a new discipline - “grassoanalysis,” the study of our compulsive mownomania and sadomulchistic tendencies. As far back as 157 b.c. Chinese emperors were creating lawns. The Maya and Aztecs made lawns. The Romans used sheep to maintain lawns around their villas. But Americans are ace mowernauts. A century ago, Tennessee Senator John J. Ingalls gave voice to our fixation: “Next in importance to the divine profusion of water, light and air - may be reckoned the universal beneficence of grass.”
Grassophilia has deep roots. The great majority of people prefer grassy savannas over all other landscapes, even if they’ve never seen a savanna. It’s theorized that grasslands were the early humans’ preferred habitat, and that preference seems to be genetically ingrained in Man today.
But, especially in the age of Astroturf, these atavistic impulses can get confused, leading to aberrant lawn behavior. Men are particularly at risk. That is because mowing is one of their last gender-affirming chores, an analog for sabertoothed tiger bonking.
The decline began in 1830, in England, when scythes started giving way to primitive lawn mowers. The inventor of the new machines promised they would provide “an amusing, useful and healthful exercise.” But it was the arrival of the power mower in 1900 that really brought down the curtain on men’s swardkeeping hegemony.
Mowing technique is another subject for grassoanalysis. My own methods will be discussed later. But some mowing styles have us grassoanalysts stumped. For instance, one Sunday a friend I know went for a country drive with his girlfriend and got lost. Stopping at a gentrified farmhouse, he asked directions from a man astride a Sears riding mower.
In gratitude, my friend offered some of the jelly beans he and his girlfriend had been enjoying. But the man on the Sears reached behind the mower’s cowling and produced a glass containing an amber fluid and a maraschino cherry.
“No thanks,” he said. “Do you want some of my Manhattan?”
Everything at my grandpa Earl’s house, except the house itself, was green.
Green shingle roof, green trim on the screens and storm windows, even green gutters and downspouts.
Down in the basement, beneath the yellowish glow under the hanging tin lamp, the workbench was green. The shelves on the wall were green. Most of the tools were also green.
The porch steps, the porch floor, the railing along the porch, the clump of evergreens by the corner, the back bushes, all the yards, the open lot beside the garage (great for croquet!), the garage door, the EZ Glider swing, the oil tank, all were green.
His dinosaur vest, his dinosaur cap, his overcoat shirt and pants, maybe even his shoes, all green.
The gas jobber tank truck, most of the signs at the station, the light poles over the pumps, and even all the oil cans. The doors to the restrooms.
Possibly his Pontiac, with the Indian head that glowed in the dark against the stars, as we drove through the Minnesota openness.
But especially, I remember the lawn mower, all shiny green and sharp metal blades. It looked so good with the grass, so perfect for its purpose.
Headstone display yard.
Shoebox squirrel traps.
Rain-soaked mitt stuck in the tree.
2' beyond the city limits.
Polka dot curtains.
Pee in my pants.
Hiding spot under the parked cars.
Smashed front window.
While riding along in the backseat of the old station wagon, there was nothing really to look out at. Especially when travelling up to Minnesota. The skies weren’t blue, they were silver. From all the humidity, and reflections off of insects' wings, and stuff. The clouds never seemed to have dimension. Just up there and flat.
Along the never-ending telephone wires were red-wing blackbirds, my favorite. Lots of em, the closer we got to Slayton.
And out along the horizon was the green vegetation: fields, tree rows, a creek and its bushes, the fences with the little metal corn ads, the edge of the road and the weeds.
Long flat vistas, over new fields, slowly rolling in the distance; through the corn rows as they momentarily lined-up. Green curvascious rises, smoothly broken by the lone stand of an oak or two.
But that got boring after awhile and, of course, imagination always took over. We’re speeding along and the views streak blurrily across. You’ve seen the films in school about heavy industry and those cutting torches through thick steel slabs.
You purposefully roll the window all the way down, then start to stare out over the countryside. Slowly up comes the cocked right hand, scientific protruding index finger targeting in. A spot, just above the fence line but not too high, is determined as just the right place and the imaginary ray-beam explosively emits from the end of your fingertip. Shearing off everything along its beam. Like a big horizontal leveler, as far as you want it.
There’d go trees, rows on rows of corn, clumps of bushes, a far shed, even big barns right up next to the road, cut off right above the stone foundations.
Sometimes, though, I’d save a telephone pole, or two, if there were a lot of birds sitting on them. Just imagine the laser finger off for a little bit, then blast it back on, and aim. And hew.
Usually at every family gathering, picnic, reunion, or whatever, my Mom would ceremoniously announce, “O.K. kids. Now hear this. In five minutes, Betty Lou, that’s me for all you uninitiated out there, will perform her famous summer grass trick. Gather round, to be both beguiled and entertained.” Or something to that effect, punctuating her proclamation with a unique body language involving only her lower arms and hands.
We’d all await anxiously.
Then at the right time, and only just then, she’d proceed to tell how she could go a cow one better; she could eat a blade of grass and not make it go to her stomach, but make it come out her ear.
A long rigmarole of finding the right blade of grass, examining it to make sure it was the perfect specimen for her exhibition, prolonged chewing and comedic exaggerated swallowing would ensue, with her then smiling gracefully as she reached into her predetermined ear and picked out this tiny green wad. Tah dah! The blade of grass!
Of course, next, in amazement, we’d all say come on, do it again. Not right now, I can’t, was always the reply. She’d look over to whomever she was chatting with and they’d all giggle smilingly.
Funny thing about this grass wad was, it never was really wet. No saliva residue.
Year after same year she’d pull this on the kids, and, frankly, after a while you got so that you could see through the whole ploy. You’d wait until after you’d eaten, and kinda check her out, waiting for the right time and that tell-tale dip to the ground, to get the slyly placed confederate wad into position ear-wise before the festivities could begin.
To this day, she contends she can only do it on the 3rd Tuesday after the full moon in the northern most county of Iowa with at least 12 people present, they don’t have to be relatives, or some other such quick minded story, whatever pops into her head at the time.
My grandmother apprehensively approached the idea of me controlling a “power” mower. It was the early summer of 1962, on an extended visit to her and my Uncle Les’ house, and part of his weekly chores included mowing the church yard. My step-grandfather was the minister there, so anything that us boys could do to help out, was almost expected.
Except I was supposedly too young to take charge behind that ferocious machine. Leave it to Leslie, the big 13-year-old.
Well, he was generous enough, in a Tom Sawyer type of way, to let me give it a try. And there I was, at last, adjusting that throttle devise on the handle, cranking up the starter, hitting the ignition button and hurrying back to the handlebar controls, getting it to sound just right, then pushing forward into that open expanse of green roughage.
No sooner had I done a couple of rows, nice and tight, when Grandma and Grandpa came driving up, just to check on us boys, I suppose. I guess they saw enough just then to know I was OK there, because they never really said anything later on about my newly claimed status. But I sure remember that moment distinctly; I really thought I was gonna get it for getting caught power mowing.
There’s nothing more boring than a hot, sticky Indiana summer day with nothing to do.
Especially for kids.
Parents know it, too, and therefore try to break the monotony by giving chores, with quotas, to fill-in the time.
Ours was weed-pulling, or occasionally mowing. But mainly weed pulling, because they were everywhere. Sprouting in the gravel driveway, on over by the fence, out in back, and especially along the edge of the drive, the worst section of all.
Oh the drudgery of hot white knuckles pulling fervently at some stubborn parched vegetation, little gravel grains pushing at the cuticle skin, the sun too hot for mowing, the dry earth not budging in its tight grip on this dumb useless plant, come on!
We were each expected to fill 2 buckets of weeds each afternoon, I guess for some sort of feeling of accomplishment. It just made it more boring, with a deadline.
I’d just as soon lay back in the growing grass, take my chances, and watch the clouds. Or make me mow, I don’t care.
Now look at this man. Behind the handlebars of the old trusty Yardman, hands firm and offcenter.
Ready to happily attack the dense near-wild foliage underfoot - to the next position. Extricating those exacting bony angles. Clump, hands high, head low, arms straight and puuush. Equal and opposite inertia forces, giving-way to momentum and dominance, streamlined as imagined. To hand hew where no man has gone before. Invincible.
An heroic fantasy of the Roman slave ship - hands lashed to the oar, arms out extended, back bent mercilessly under the hot open sun. Seemingly constant and endless motion and strain, but I could take it, I was a man.
I was Ben Hur, driving the chariot, one handed. Whoops, can’t do that with the mower, especially around what appears to be the badminton support line there. Ah, what a game.
No, this long mantis-like motion, head down staring out the top of the eyes for deviations ahead, appeared more robotish. It became hard to tell where one ended and the other began. Man or machine. Methodically accomplishing the task. Mind over the impossible matter.
Totally white-shoed cool, it’s now back to gladiators, again, and this is Steve Reeves, mowing. Overcoming any clumpish growth. In Herculean manner. Sweat glistening off these rippling muscles. Joyous in my triumph.
Inevitably, there’s a stick that jams the old type push-mower scizzor-action blades; progress comes to a jerking halt.
Sometimes, sheer force will overpower the blockage, and procedure resumes on as usual. Most likely, though, it’s lodged in there pretty good, so some common sense is gonna hafta come into play here.
This is now where the title comes from.
In the simultaneous action of pulling back on the mower, the toe has to loosen the blade and then get outta there quick; a precise and precarious bit of tarsal play that takes the delicacy of a tightrope walker, while maintaining the brute power of a wheelbarrow hauler. An extended stay by the extended foot meets with a sharp and swirling encounter.
Kachunka, and a nip at the treads of that sneaker. A scarily close slice off the corner of those cheap rubber sandals. Maybe a moment where cold, swishing steel actually begins to lacerate tender, odd-shaped toe tips. Maybe even blood.
Or at least one heck of a whomp and a nasty bruise on the tops of the toes. Yep, second thoughts about changing to heavier footwear, but… Oh well, just another close shave.
Summer can be a dangerous time.
Emptying the bag became an easy ritual. Just undo the back hangar-type hook, carefully lift the front end of the catch bag out of the tab slots and fold the whole contraption up, easily, while tip-toeing around the darn handle, which usually got in your way.
Some pretty dramatic changing accidents ensued, but what the heck, who cries over cut grass?
The function became almost second nature, except for its too often frequency, especially when mowing wet, heavy, leaves. Along with the wet grass, of course.
Some times it was just such a pain in the neck, you just wanted to give up on it. Or else wish for a bigger, and then more cumbersome, catch bag. Which really wouldn’t help the problem at all.
I always thought there was something else you could do with that pungent green mulch, beyond composting. Haven’t figured it out yet.
How many times can you repeat the same pattern?
I used to attack the lawn in different ways; sometimes it was the basic one end to another. Just back and forth, from the outside in. Another method was the spiral perimeter, working from the outside in. Probably clockwise, always making right turns, until there was just that last little patch left, an interesting island, the end of the lawn. Rightful heroes left standing in the battle to grow. Tiny Custers, left standing. A neat problematic approach and I enjoyed it alot, except at the end when you kinda got dizzy.
I think the most conceptual approach was really waiting til the lawn was high, then spelling a word or signing your name with the mower. The extreme contrast was meant so that people in planes could read the message. It also afforded a natural stopping point in which to lean back against a tree, wait for the plane to fly by to see if they’re gonna look, or watch some clouds, before resuming work and obliterating what you had previously done.
Wind blows textures across the deep grass.
You lay by the side of the road in the dark of night. Still, motionless. The smell of the grass right in your face; the brittle edges along your cheek. Maybe the caw of a crow coming from the nearby corn field. Cliche’d pale moonlight of mid-October. Chilly. How long, still motionless?
Finally, the distant sound of a car coming to the bend of the country road, the wide arc of headlights progressing your way. Peek to see when they hit you, then eyes shut, blankly.
Awkward prone pose, jeans, sneakers, red ski jacket with white stripe on the front.
But the car drives by, maybe five feet from you, maybe closer, but not even slowing.
So Billy Domke comes out from hiding among the thrushed corn stalks and says, “O.K. My turn. But maybe this time we wait til the headlights reach us, fake a fight, I drop down right next to the road, and you run off. They gotta stop.”
We pick at the grass, play with the corn stalks, lazily waiting. Zip up a bit more and wonder how late it’s getting. But it’s a Friday, so these jr. highers can stay out real late. Who cares, the later the better.
We hear another car coming, but Billy’s plan doesn’t work this way either. Revise. “Just lay by the edge of the road real close this time, Paul, and I’m sure they’ll stop. If they don’t hit you.”
There you are, gravel practically in your face, not squirming, waiting for that faraway sound. How cool it’ll be when they see this kid’s body sprawled askew, what horror happened to him, we must stop, dear. And as they get out to check the damage, oh poor darling, you get up, laughing wildly, and run crazily into the corn rows, a successful prank pulled.
Just don’t hit me.
The toughest part, it seems, is always finishing off the edges of the job. One can go crazy in the wide-open breadth of the vast middle, be free as a lark, but it’s meticulous attention to the details on the outer extremities that truly separates a mown lawn from a trimmed one.
Ask any painter, whether it’s any ordinary house-coater, to Mondrian, to Sam Francis (but NOT Jackson Pollack or Frank Stella), and they’ll expound on the discriminating determination that accompanies a finely detailed edge. Art; or just another mess of acrylic on cotton. Swim, or sink. Or else it’ll be “the efficacies of the grand old elixir,” to quote Ozzie Nelson.
And so it is with yard hewing. The slow and monotonous process of those squeaky old hand shears, an awkward hunched-over position, cramping and blistering fingers, all correlate to the harsh importance inherent in immaculate detailing along curbs, sidewalks, trees, rocks, walls, posts, or fences.
Youngsters usually end-up with this all so-important task, because they’re closer to the task than out-of-shape and wiser task masters, and, needless to say, commonly bore quickly. This then becomes the fatal flaw in the overall plan of neatness. They adopt their don’t care attitude, pass by a few straggly longish blades, then some more, and then ultimately the entire crisp effect of the whole job is kaput. Gonno. What the heck, let the whole thing go to seed, why don’t cha.
I personally don’t care for these newfangled weed whipper devices. Maybe. Sure, they might speed the process somewhat while saving on back-breaking hours under a beaming sun, but who amongst us today brethren has 200+ feet of extension cord at quick command, let alone the knowledge and predilection to figure out those self-advancing cord features, which always consistently snap when the going is the roughest. And needed the most. (Note: always keep a screwdriver in your pocket to facilitate any breakdowns.)
So just pay attention to your task, do it right the first time, and the reward of a fine feeling of accomplishment will satisfy you and your vision of that perfectly edged expanse. At least for another week or two hopefully.
Then back at it again.
My dad didn’t like baseball, but he was kind enough to take our family to games often enough to keep my interest with the big leagues stimulated. We’d go into Chicago, to Comiskey Park, home of the White Sox, because they were closer than Wrigley Field, their team was better than the Cubs, they had an exploding scoreboard (the first!), and they had lights so we could make night games, in the cool and semi-dangerous south side of town.
From the parking lot to the stadium was always dark and grey and hard urban environment. With lots of blacks wanting you to park in THEIR front lawns, or hanging out in front of small stores, or offering “Good seats, cheap!” Lots of black leather, I remember.
Through the ticket taker, past the program guy and up into the innards of the stadium, long dark ramps, up to our section. An ever elevating view of the parking lots and people hanging. Past the beer stands, into the dark tunnel to the aisle. Pow!, the brilliance of the brightly lit grass was dazzling, almost blinding. Surreal in and of itself. A field of vibrant acid green nature trapped and shimmering in contrast with the dark hard surroundings.
I never could figure out how the groundskeepers got the grass to do optical tricks. Somehow, I guess, they’d mow the infield in concentric circles varying light and dark in appearance. And the outfield was parallel stripes, going from center field to home. Perfect, from infield dirt to warning track. Instead of watching the players warm-up (sometimes even getting to see Mickey Mantle!), I’d sit and stare and try to figure out how they did it.
We took our vacation in ‘66 by driving to relatives in San Antonio, Texas, then motoring through Mexico for 3 weeks. Guadalajara. Mexico City. Tampico. Nogales.
We drove straight through on our return into the States, and pulled into our driveway, dog tired, about 1:30 in the morning.
There, in the eery focus of the headlights, was an uncontrolled monster, a quagmire of horrendous vegetation, threatening to go completely out of control. The beautifully manicured front lawn we had left was now grown and disheveled beyond belief.
No warm and cozy welcome, just a foreboding task waiting to devour time, effort, and patience.
And not the other travellers’, but mine.
We snuck into a drive-in movie up in Minnesota one time, and they were having a lawn mowers’ convention there that night. It was pretty wild. All the guys hanging out in the concession stand were making these puttering noises, and engine farts, revving, that kinda stuff.
We thought we stuck out pretty much, just standing around eating popcorn and watching. But they didn’t even notice. Just kinda made em show off more, probably.
We ended up spending the night in the projection booth, helping change the reels. Can’t remember the picture, might have been “Tattooed Babes on Lawnboys” or something equally numb, but at least it was away from those mowin crazies. They had gotten to forming human mower configurations and then trying to clear a path through the folks standing in line for snacks.
It kinda got not funny real quick.
Another popular manner of tidying up the back 40 is the easy and fun-to-use T-bar method.
Along one of the short ends of the rectangular acreage to be dis-entopped, a safety zone of 2 or 3 mower widths is exhumed from the greenish turf, comparable to the heavy end of a t-bar, or t-square. The long panhandle traversions are then favorably accomplished, with minimum loss of time in the operation and neatness of the turn-arounds, due to the pre-severed detailing accomplished in this zonal portion.
In marked contrast to the straight rigidity mandated by the long transits across the soon-to-be lopped majority of vegetation, the freedom of randomness within this hewn arena points out that the function of this comforting “home zone” is directly related to the “base”, and it’s haphazard looseness, found in the child’s game hopscotch. Which reminds me of the old joke about the kids who played hopscotch with real scotch, and boy, were they hopping.
The travel patterns, upon closer inspection, in both these amusements remains markedly similar, a loose, fresh-acting area vs. rigidly dictated up and return movements; and while in one instance stones are being thrown, in the other occurance, wishfully, lush foliage is being powerfully hewn to an exacting and exquisite appearance.
All the better, then, to recreationally proceed, combining a rich, centuries-old heritage of movement patterns, with the relaxing void to combat the representational conformity facing 20th century and it’s repetitiveness, in the long strokes, and still somehow keep the imagination intact.
In the media blitz days of summer ‘67, the tube favored on Ray Stevens’ show a funny guy who read the phone book while making himself into a banana split (Steve Martin), and Carson’s latest hip knee-slap tie-tug funny guy, the “skinny nigger” (Richard Pryor).
That’s what my Dad got to calling me because I was getting so brown spending all my time outside, sometimes on my butt weeding flower gardens, listening to my portable radio blitz away. Digging on the fire song of Morrison, funky Motown, the Airplane and other mind expansions of San Francisco, even Scott McKenzie. Tanning, tuning-in, but not on (yet).
I grooved like this working at Graceland Cemetary, usually with more hours spent behind a mower than not. Lot of grass in a cemetary. Our little crew of 3 mainly wide-edged around and between the old headstones, for the big mower to ride bumpily through and finish the middle. Or we’d go around trees, along the chained “memorials” - big statues of Jesus and sheep, etc. - or right up along the roads and highway.
It took about a week to complete the whole place, then we’d start all over. So to break the monotony, we’d look for interesting dead people (not too many in our small town), or check to see if any of them were born or died on your birthday. There was one that died on mine.
So did Elvis, but he was still alive, then.
Some days, though, we got to trim graves. When the back hoe was done digging, we’d jump in and trim it all up nice and neat, before the fake grass carpets were placed over all the piled up dirt. And after the ceremony, sometimes we got to lower the casket, which was an eery sensation the first few times. Or we just hauled chairs and stuff away. Once we peeked in to see the body before lowering it, an old lady who really looked like death.
But mainly it was mowing. Long, hot afternoons, sometimes spent just hanging out in the old wooded section, lolling by your mower with its engine running. If we knew where the boss was, we’d just sit on cool grave stones and practice our spitting, or throw sticks at trees. Real exciting and intelligent stuff.
There was no truth, however, to the great mowing legend about getting a gopher just as he was coming up from his hole, and spraying his red pulp remains out the side discharge port. It did make for some long debates as to if it ever did really happen, though.
Some of the hottest stories revolved around the couple that surreptitiously met for Friday lunchtime flings in the man’s car. I think we decided he was a banker and she worked at the diner, or was a widow, or something. But I remember for sure one time we all saw the car just parked there, bouncing rhythmically up and down. We knew of course, then, it was definitely hot lust.
And when it rained and we couldn’t mow, we fabricated concrete vaults back at the equipment shed.
My first class was with a professor named V. Foote. Vince to everybody. He had a painter’s cap on, goatee, shirt and tie. Bluejeans. Laughing manic-ly, quietly, sometimes yelling “George. George, can this be right?… It’s happening!”
I felt the same way. Why, finally! First day of college and proper instruction. Daily studio courses, studying the function, layout, and cubic yards per acre systems of those beautiful machines. Mowing tactics. Inter-terrain maneuvers. Maintenance. Embellishments.
Vince led us on bravely, ecstatically. He too could sense our excitement. Usually questioning our difficulties more than offering reasons. I think he was bluffing it most of the time, molding and twisting our psyches with unusual ease. With eyes wide open, to the wide open expanses ahead.
The outside morning mowing course was worst. Wet, camp, cold. Low foggy areas. Tall pines to block the sun. Always wrecking your shoes. What could anybody see, let alone grade us on?
Vince also subscribed to the 5 o’clock cocktail hour. Not a minute before, nor a minute too late. A wild martini kind of guy. We’d loosen up, and he’d talk. About great past expeditions. A tinkle of the glass, a quick cold sip. The revving of motors.
“Once, in my early twenties, we were on the river off Cincinnati, y’know, with the beers, as usual. I think George was there, and boy was it hot. Well, after a few, only that many now, we thought well let’s go mowing! It was a wild idea, truly fitting. We just couldn’t get the action out of our blood. I somehow inadvertently got my life jacket on upside down; somehow, I don’t know. But I also found it could also hold a couple beers that way, I remember.
“I needed em, too, cause you know, I can’t swim. Never could, probably won’t. And this was river mowing we’re talking here. Had to get going real fast, then step out and yell, ‘Trim that wild lawn!’, and expect to actually mow! With the motor goin, the catch bag there, and all! Gimme a beer! Well, come on, I wiped out as you’d call it, quickern a whistle, and ended up floating upside down. Darndest thing. I struggled for a bit, but y’know I was laughing alot too and then I just remember, aw, forget it. Let’s find one of those beers. This is kind of nice…
“Now, where was I? When suddenly George, yeah it was George. He was there, I was right, plucked me out of the water and the boat came back into focus! I couldn’t believe where I was. I thought I’d died, or something. And they were all just laughin pretty hard and I came to and asked for a beer. Fucking darndest thing. Riskiest mowin I ever heard of. Quite a wild time. I guess I was about your age.
“And I still can’t get the vision outta my mind of that mower’s handlebars swirling down into the darkness of the river. Now where were we?
Underneath the whole cult outlook as far as lawnmowing goes, of small groups of, say, yardbandits, not giving a shit, the opposing view of true suburban envy, becomes obvious.
We must stay even with that Jones family, muttered late at night.
And keep it up.
Man takes pride in his own and wants it the best.
We, however, laughed from the sidelines. As the Pellers and Dolezals played an ever-increasing game of this-year’s-ridable-ohboy Yardboy III model lawn wars, it became obvious that the real draw of mowing wasn’t just size or horsepower. That the knightly rivalry of jausting yardtractors only meant a desensitation to the true relationship between man and nature and what was really taking place here. Massive expanse is beautiful, but who did what that led to this competitive realism?
Boxes next to another. A growing patch of identity.
The grass is …
The unique capability of an oddly shaped lawn is that by procedurally changing mowing patterns, you realistically predispose an ending with different small islands situated in entirely different areas of the same lawn.
Even a clockwise to counter-clockwise rotational change inevitably will trans-locate the residual island to a somewhat nearby location, yet the appearance, or said profile, will vary surprisingly little.
Of the known trimming procedures involving the cogent manipulation towards a central finalized epicenter, naturally discounting the t-bar, parallel, and like methods, each maneuver produces a random variation of finishing islets, which when, if possible, compiled into one mowing schematic of remainder mappage, leaves the resultant patterns forming a comprehensive and familiar geographical signature for each, individual yard.
This archipelago effect is, not surprisingly, in stark contrast with the sometimes final thin strip, or mohawk, resulting from an approach best typified by the tedium and carelessness inherent in a somewhat long and rectangular shaped expanse, and the boring choices with which to approach obliterating it all down.
We’re not quite sure, to date, how this effects a square lawn.
During those college times, it was quite a trip on Sunday nights. Our apartment was on the 2nd and 3rd floor, and next door was the student Quaker House. They’d meet each week in the big gathering room on their 2nd floor, all sit in a big circle around the edge of the room, join hands, and have a long, community prayer.
This may go on for a couple hours or so, and we’d be checking them out every once and a while, just in case we might be missing something or to make sure some cute girl hasn’t entered and exited the room without our spying glances.
So big deal, right?
After the meetings, which could be 11, 11:30, they’d all stand around on their front porch chatting, then finally disperse. Then the old caretaker would come and prepare to mow the lawn. How unusual, at night.
It could be an hour or so after they left that he would finally start, pushing maybe 1 a.m. Then, in the still darkness, you’d hear the starting putt of the enginge, a revving vroom, and off he’d go, taking care of business. Next we’d go check him out, camouflaged by the dark.
Big deal, we didn’t care an iota.
He was blind and had the yard memorized. We’d stand on our porch and watch in constant amazement as he never missed an inch. Not an errant swipe. Just a continual precise motion.
I guess it didn’t matter what time he got around to it, he surely didn’t need light to work, and the neighbors never seemed to complain about the noise. It was rather bizarre, though, the first time, hearing that out-of-context sound of the mower in the silence of the night.
Never did find out his name.
Rides above ankles with strings of droplets
tried and true mixture 1/2 gas 1/2 oil
then bow, handle to the grass
and inch ahead
clumps and globs spinning out
muffled roaring as the friction mounts
hot jagged swirls
New mown wet grass, centrifuged to the hard outer walls of the swirling blade chamber.
Hhhrrrummm, mmmummm, mummm, etc.
Mow, meow, mowe, muwa mawa mahe mugi muga mown.
The sounds of tranquilized explosions, shear ripping at bludgeoning speeds, the wet clods bhlumping up the system. Like the sudden slumping feeling during a dip in the road.
An agonizing call of struggling determinability.
Yet so vocal. Primitive technological chatter roaming over the open fields of suburbia.
Extra strength green shoe spray, coating the inside soles and heels especially well. Little pieces, so heady in the new-mown aroma of vitality, persistently stick on. All almost extra-worldly.
Look out for your socks, they’ll easily go.
The dulling moan of the straining engine, hot burnt clods reeking with that mechanical gas and heated oil smell. Rippling heat waves. A time out.
Baked thick chunks of grass mulch, totally burnt, rock hard, hammered and clawed away in cleaning.
A clogged side discharge port, still warm.
To measure the earth. Quite literally, but the question is, at what scale? Within sections of a millimeter, or from the window of a spacecraft?
So, say, take a hillside in the middle of, say, New Hampshire and with what implements should we portend to measure with? How bout a, uh, wheelbarrow? Naw. Another might be the old favorite, the carpenter’s square. Fits in real well in these rustic environs. Naw again.
As we have recently come to see, the old trusty lawnmower is really a practical and convenient way of measuring the earth. Visions of Geo. Washington and Thos. Jefferson, great land surveyors both, somehow scaling the Eastern coastal wilds, wielding intricate, delicate bronze measuring apparatti, fjording the hollers with line and chain, portaging the bug-riddled creeks to draw an accurate line for the cartographers back in Philly. But with lawnmowers? I’d hardly think so.
Where the heck would they go for gas? Or possible replace a fouled sparkplug? That’d be quite a sight, those two old bewigged Fathers o’ the Country, by the side of the wooden pike, waiting for something to come along for possible help. Like who, Danl. Boone or somebody? Probably a better chance with Tecumseh, Tippicanoe or heck even Johnny Appleseed. He was a know traveller. Just to save those two guys’ butts, for exploring while towing along some unwieldy and goodfornothing mower.
Back to reality and the slopes of Grey Ledges, in the White Mtns. Summer ‘73 and the squeaky clean professional somehow uses 5 years of higher scholastic gyrotechniques to end up out in the wilds, with - guess it - his latest form of measuring stick, arriving as a natural, a tractor. Yahoo - Farmer Boy!
Imagine a rectangular field on a gently sloping hillside kinda overgrown, with a whole bunch of rocks. The Task: to measure, to change. Hook up that plow over there boy and disk up that thar plot so’s we can sow it & grow it & reap it & live off that land away from all those yahoos in the cities, craziest fools just wasting away in those godforsaken cages they call civilization. But ya got to first get to know that tractor, that babe, because in her measuring experiences, you get to encounter all kinds of ridiculous situations that puts you in total reliance upon this old thing made up of a bunch of old, oddly shaped hunks of familiar metal shapes, hoses, few bolts. Get to know her idiosyncrasies, what you can expect from ‘er and how to get around some of the problems that WILL arise each and every time you think you’re sitting in the catbird’s seat, as Red would say, rest his soul.
But, really, all’s that’s involved here was just merely tilling the brush away in preparation for the next step, whatever that was. So, go forth.
Now imagine a rectangle from corner A cattycorner to corner C and that’s your path for the first incision into the soil at that supreme effort at once again trying to calm old Mom Earth. Take a hard left hairpin U-turn at C and cruise back tight as a bug rug snug fug alongside the first trail to roughly point A again but when you get there its a matter of taking that lefty just a little bit earlier this time and draggin it across the first stroke, then lefting again right upside and tangential to your initial path. Carry that on down to corner C again and repeat the premy crossover as before. These little traverses on the A-C axis slowly evolve through this method into a flopping of orientation, turning into a more dramatically noticeable B-D alignment. The initial long sweeps metamorphosize in the cross parries. And by this crossing of your previous striping, in actuality you’re double stroking even as you are still initially tractoring to upheave and ready all the acreage. 2 for 1 kinda deal.
I know it’s all very obscure and quite tentative, and even at the time it didn’t seem to make cognitive sense, but actually standing there gazing over the parcel, you knew you just had to believe that you were creating a little piece of measuring magic, once traversing and twice tilling. And there it was - the golden geo metric euphoria known throughout time immemorial. Master of the land. Scriber of the measurements. Worker of the soil. Able to take it all in; under your control.
Then up the hill to skinny dip in the pond under clear sunsets before communal dining in the meeting hall. All vegetarian, of course, with concomitant green shits.
I guess the most idyllic set-up was the lawn in the Venice canals. Your basic rectangle with bisecting walk, picket fence, fronting on the house, not too big, high use flat and congenial area.
It was tough and tedious (what’s new?) edging, so we went for the natural look. Rough edges, fence shadows.
Something of a clean crisp background, warm extended shadow play, and buffered, textured edging. An open invitation to relax in the slender wicker chairs and enjoy the rippled view, old wooden bridge, palm trees, the mountains. Blue sky and clouds.
The garbage barge men. The wierd lady across the canal on the corner, with her all night synthesizer symphonies.
Great for bar-b-q’s, too.
1979 found my occupational status wavering, so I went to Virginia and among other things, mowed lawns for an archaeology museum.
It was beautiful; rolling green hills overlooking the lazy Shenandoah. Hot humid days when I’d take on the big backyard, a dropping hill from the picnic area to the side woods. Long straight rows of about a minute each way, nice and easy, so I could gaze out over the shiny river.
The nature trail led down thru the woods to the dig site in a field. I’d fly through this section, tipping rocks, whomping occasional dirt clods, zooming over puddles. A brisk pace in the forest.
The joy area, my joy area, was the back field by the camp sites. Curving sloping rolling lawn, an expanse with one tree, like a zen garden. Noone ever there. Just me and the act. Happiness.
This was the year the cicada swarms came, once every 7 years, with an all-encompassing sound and disposition. They’d land all over you; pushing along on the handlebars and constantly brushing them off. They’d fly right into the mower, brutal kamikazes. I remember big clumps of bodies then shooting out the grass exit hole of the mower.
But the sound, was, total. Everywhere. Louder to my ears than the gas engine of the mower and my singing Blockhead by Devo. Screaming Blockhead, 90 degree angle. I couldn’t hear myself sing. Or the mower. Just bugs.
After a while, it got almost ethereal. Winding ribbons of mower path, constant blue skies, hundreds of dead little alien shells on the trees, dormant larvae for another 7 years. An afternoon of sun. Work well done.
Due to a quick departure, however, the museum people said I broke a blade, and therefore didn’t pay me for my last week’s work. The problem was, they claimed, I always kept dulling the blades too fast by topping too many rocks on the hillsides. Yep. I plead guilty. Coupla times the blade slammed into such a huge one that it just stopped the motor dead. Instantly.
Those poor guys. Riding along in their mowerobotic technoblades, doing the industrial strength mowing jobs, you know, interstate medians, large public parks, sod farms, rural acreage, countless highway shoulders, cloverleaf interchanges, boulevards, airport taxiways, and sometimes even stadiums.
Out there all day in the hot sun, maybe just a wobbly umbrella as baking relief, sometimes not. Just hot stifling streams of heat, from above, from the grass, from the mower itself below. You’re riding on heat… whew!
What? you say. Where’s my tractorlux enclosed airmatized climacto room, with quad 8 CD factor and a side-wallop slimtrim honcho mini-wet sidebar and snack compartment? Like they’ve got out in Nebraska, and Wyoming I guess.
And bugs. Big hot sweat seekers, the kind that just dance merrily on the flames of hellfire waiting for it to get hotter, and you stickier and sweatier before they launch their joyous onslaught. As if constantly bouncing along on this scalding apparatus blindly staring at those greenish silver blades, sweat bobbing profusely, trying to keep a good line and possibly even catch a tune or two from the dangly handme-down solar CD and triple cassette B boy box, y’know transport ya, maybe. Static and all. Nope, there’s those big sweatmonger bugs to deal with, fight off, swat, swing at, fend, destroy. One little bzzz always wrecks a good song.
Sometimes though they’ve got to go out real early in the morning when it’s dark and cold, man, and they’re out there next to roaring traffic or throttling jets bouncing and jerking rudely along, brittlely, not too warm either. Really freezing. Or in foggy situations too.
Usually they’re out there, in the open, exposed. To winds, gusts, downpours, blowing trash, their own cuttings oh gosh just think of the pollen! It’s a wonder they all aren’t required to wear some sort of gas mask thing or air filterall system. Allergenic proof, of course. And just think of the mower fumes with no protection and if it’s next to a highway or worse yet at an airport all those exhaust fumes would just kill you. I’d at least use a red bandana.
Y’know, in this whole process, the laceration of the foliage seems to become almost secondary. An afterthought.
They’re noble public servants in the end, caretaking over what is rightly all ours, our custodians to the up and up. Our tenders of the civic pride. A trim thoroughfare is a brisk roadway. A slick vista is a patriotic reassurement, that democracy DOES work, and that even the lowly mower jockeys can play their part in the feeling of a country in action, a country a-buzzin’, a country keeping trim, well-manicured for tomorrow.
What is it about the monotony of repetition that dulls our internal energy waves into some kind of soporific numbing bliss, that turns down the contrast, that slo-mo’s reality into a non-natural state? Like mowing. Or assembly-line building cars. Or dishwashing. Postal sorting.
As if no attention to detail was necessary to perform even the remotest menial task, no consciousness of anything outside the far-off walkman headset blank humming. No care, no response.
Or does this slowing of the internal dynamo actually create a splendid habitat for the creative process, a place to wash away the aberrant stains of reality and let the stilling calmness of the blank void enthrall us all in a rapturous euphoria, a pump-up bounce room for mental gymnastics?
What great scientific modern technological advances and discoveries were conceived and droned-out while in some mundane grey shirted blah expanse of nothingness, leaving all those excitable boy neurons to bing bang bongle off the slimy folds of that thinking organ, interacting, charging, putting two distant and obscure references together into some Malcolm McClaren-esque mutant wave/life form that everybody instantly realizes they could just never possibly imagine living one further day of their very busy and cluttered lives already thank you without having it, embracing it, owning and relishing it, immediately? If not sooner.
From what obscure mental lapse anyway did today’s conveniences, contrivances, and all-out nonnecessities arise from, some primordial ooze to capture our together consciousness and make us want to walk in a straight line? To obey unnatural ways and customs, like hard shoes. To eat away at our centers while polishing our bronzed surfaces. To mow incessantly beyond the call of nature in extremis until all the rough edges are gone, no more ‘natural’ in nature left, in some kind of vain search for a lost inertia, a feeling of that once-known bliss, now a fleeting urgency, a rolling salt-water plunge into the sea of emotions frantically grasping away for that ring of saving comfort, a grey woolen blanket shroud to stave off the chill of life.
A smooth polished hi-tech fluorescent green shining right-angled lawn. Low maintenance - no factory destination charges.
The New York Times reported in May of 1993 that Thomas H. Noonan of Havertown, Pa., and two partners recently were granted a patent for a robotic lawn mower, the Mobot, which operates with a microprocessor that stores the programmed cutting route and then responds to sensors planted in the lawn.
Police in Kewanee, Ill., charged Michael Runyon with drunken driving after he accidentally drove a lawn mower into the path of a freight train. Runyon, who escaped injury when the train flipped the 5-horsepower riding mower ten feet in the air, had used the vehicle for transportation after his license to drive a car was suspended for drunken driving five years earlier.
Jeff Goldstein of Madison, Wis., who was summoned to court for disobeying a city ordinance forbidding grass from being more than eight inches high, claimed that cutting it would violate his religious beliefs. “I pray to it,” he said of his lawn, adding that mowing it would be a “holocaust against the green creatures.”
And now I’m a family man.
With our own house, and lawn. 8 sections to be exact. And maintain. 3 constituting the Front Lawn inside the sidewalk, trisected by little walks; another that actually belongs to the city outside that to the street. Known as the parkway. This is usually covered with eucalyptus leaves year round. I try to do as minimal a job on this section as possible, but keep it looking good, just out of principle.
The Corral is triangular, next to the garage. The slat fence is what gives it its name. This is kind of a public no-man’s land, where sometimes bums sleep or drink, and it gets maintained per season; raked maybe once a year. It definitely looks much better in summer with the garden and corn, etc., or with possibly some kind of modern statue some day.
The Strip goes along the back street, Cabrillo, next to the sidewalk, another parkway, and measures 134.58' x 6'. This is fun keeping up, long straight runs, if only for the neighbors’ sake. The west end used to have some of the best grass on the entire property.
The Back Yard, the beauty, is sloped, curved, flat, goes around the corner of the house like a meandering dogleg, butts up against the deck, contains a strategically aligned computerized sprinkler system that still leaves some areas desert bone dry, and is 1/2 baked by the sun year round. The marathon grass is rather lovely for all family affairs, yet keeps up its own vigilant battle against some mutant strain of lethal crabgrass for dominance of the northwest flank. We’ve lately set up a good croquet challenge on the whole meandering affair, providing quite a demanding course, especially under enough alcohol and friendship stimulus.
Finally, the Jungle is this small area most used as a dog toilet. The soil is sandy, we really can’t see it from the house, and it looks as if a war had taken place there a while back. All kinds of rusty things keep surfacing over time. Lately, the top enameled plate to a gear shift knob. Except for the part right next to the driveway, I don’t care about it much.
Thinking of a ‘56 Ford Sunliner roaring down the white-hot piedmont bituminous in the piney southeast, the Chief remembers the time when he could lean over to his grandfather, driving, and yank the keys out of the ignition, and the car would still go!
Ka go ee nah go ay. Goobum napah ko!
“But, this day in heap big safety nation, keys now no allowed slip out from magic hole. Guess little brave might toss out window and big brave must keep driving til run out em gas.”
Chuckling at the thought, he finishes the glass and heads back out the screen door, mounts the riding tractor mower, hits the electric ignition, and is off in a burst of power, to get at that pesky sidelawn once more.