Mowing the lawn: Freud’s id meets Melville’s whale

beyond beliefs headercaricature of a man pushing a lawnmowerA poet examines the psyche of the obsessive lawn warrior

As I was mowing the lawn on a recent fall day, for what was undoubtedly the last time this season, I was puzzling about the folly of it all. I surveyed my freshly clipped domain and saw not a golf-course green, but futility itself.

My back yard betrays the fact that I am no obsessive lawnmower jockey.

I am lackadaisical about turf building. Sorties with the broadcast spreader, dispensing fertilizer and supplementary seeds, have been known to happen, but only on rare occasions.

Even then I am chronically parsimonious with water (the price of the stuff in our town suggests pretensions to Perrier), and I have never developed a fond alliance with herbicides.

weary man behind a lawnmower
What drives the inveterate mower of lawns?

My dedication to producing the perfect sward, as a casual glance at my lawn would instantly confirm, has never gone over the top.

I admit I do have a bottle of weed killer. It is not actually a poison; it is designed to interfere with photosynthesis, and is only deployed to discourage leafy invaders from establishing themselves between the garden walk pavers.

Still, I have my steadfast side. Simply mowing the lawn is not sufficient. I am adamant about thwarting dandelions whenever they dare to appear, mercilessly wielding my shovel to sever their taproots, even as I confess a grudging admiration for their wily persistence.

It matters not that their tender green leaves would make a fine complement to a garden salad, and their blossoms are said to be amenable to the wine maker’s art.

Crabgrass? Oh bane! I’ve pretty much given up trying to defeat that tenacious foe. There is a nascent plan to tear out our existing 600-square-foot collection of eclectic grasses and chronic bare spots next spring and replace the lot of it with farm-grown sod.

A battle half-heartedly joined

I have my doubts about the wisdom of doing that, but maintaining the status quo is tantamount to surrender.

Garden at the home of French Impressionist painter Oscar-Claude Monet.
The garden of French Impressionist painter Oscar-Claude Monet has little room for manicured lawn.

If I allowed myself to be introspective about this perennial challenge I would probably align my thinking with that of the seminal turn-of-the-20th century French Impressionist painter Oscar-Claude Monet. His delightful garden, immortalized in his paintings, had no truck for expanses of lawn grass. What little grass (and weeds) it contained were subdued and seemed to blend seamlessly with the irises and roses and chrysanthemums.

When it comes right down to it, manicured lawns are an unnatural act. They are the antithesis of a functioning ecosystem, dependent on constant intervention to prevent them from turning into true habitat for layers of other plants, and critters large and small.

America’s lawns, in aggregate – encompassing tens of millions of acres – consume more herbicides and pesticides than farmers do. The amount of water poured into the soil to keep the grass growing green is, well … prodigious. And it is, by and large, wasteful. Weeds drink the stuff, too, and their aggression is thereby redoubled.

A social convention

crabgrass wanted poster
Crabgrass is a bane of lawn-keepers, but it is hardly alone.

We were irrevocably set on this labor-intensive course by one Edwin Beard Budding, who, in 1830, invented the modern lawnmower. Acceptance of his infernal machine was aided and abetted by any number of equivocal – and dubious – justifications: Short grass thwarts bugs and snakes. It controls allergies. It enhances property values and helps sell houses. It just looks better.

Needless to say, the notions gave rise to, and  are eagerly promoted by, a huge and lucrative lawn-care industry.

So widely held are those assumptions that ranks and files of homeowners in neighborhoods from coast to coast do not dare contravene the accepted wisdom a lawn’s social importance, lest they be branded slothful, or even a public nuisance.

Faced with the pressures of their peers, the stresses of every-day life and in some cases, the imperatives of local laws, many a lawn-owner has thrown in the proverbial towel and retreated to the expedient of employing a lawn service, typically a mechanized squad armed with mowers, blowers and chemical spreaders that periodically descends to conduct blitzkrieg against the quack and knotweed and their ilk.

That resort is a fathomable bow to social convention. But it does not explain the resolute, uncompromising guardian of the grass who will not be outmaneuvered by a surge of spurge.

Truth be told, there may be something psychologically deeper, some id-driven force, something akin to religious fervor behind the compulsive need to manicure grass. Man has had a long flirtation (OK, more like a delusion) that Nature is something to be conquered, tamed and bent to his will.

Psychoanalyzing the lawn warrior

In his book, American Compass,  my former journalism colleague Bill Meissner has had the temerity to analytically examine the question. He is a fine writer, a perceptive author and academic with a fact-seeker’s gimlet eye and a poet’s vision. I think he may be on to something.

In his animated poem “The Man Who Wrestled the Lawn” Prof. Meissner sees “Ahab, drowning in an unkempt green sea.”

The lawn warrior is perhaps contending with something within himself. Somewhere out there in the unruly lawn is Melville’s white whale. The captain of the weed-whacker is a grim gladiator who cannot stop fighting, though he knows that, in the end, he will certainly lose. He is a golfer, struggling for another incremental stroke toward the perfection that will forever elude him. He is Sisyphus. He is Quixote.

Ultimate victory is a tenet of misplaced faith. It is a hopeless quest. When he is finally done mowing the lawn, the lawn tender will inevitably end up under his implacable rival, just as that other poet, Carl Sandburg, predicted when he wrote “I am the grass; I cover all.”

I have witnessed enough of this to know it is true. I believe it. I accept it. Even if my commitment to the cause was strong, I would be resigned to the outcome. But the tug is irresistible. One of these weekends I will take the lawnmower blade in to be sharpened.

Michael W. Dominowski is a contributor to Not For Hire Media.

NY bureaucrats may derail popular, innovative rail biking venture

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rail bikers crossing lake colby
Rail bikers cross Lake Colby near Saranac Lake in New York.

A new, unique and successful economic bright spot is imperiled by old thinking

An ingenious small start-up company in an economically challenged rural area of New York State wins permission to use a small piece of abandoned infrastructure in a low-tech and environmentally responsible way. The company is literally an instant success: it pays rent and fees, creates jobs, generates retail sales across a wide area and tax revenue for the state. It coincidentally helps preserve at least two historic sites and establishes itself as powerful and unique new tourist attraction. Rail Explorers is that company, and, believe it or not, there is a serious state plan to kill it.

One of New York State’s greatest economic success stories is the transformation of the Adirondack region from a remote, forbidding wilderness to a vibrant engine of tourism and commerce while carefully guarding the environment that makes the place so special.

Rail Explorers, headquartered in a train depot in the picturesque Adirondack High Peaks hamlet of Saranac Lake, is an impressive recent example of the entrepreneurial spirit behind that remarkable accomplishment.


A popular attraction with a long reach

The company had its beginnings after Mary-Joy Lu encountered rail biking during a trip to South Korea. She and her husband, Alex Catchpoole, decided to introduce it to the U.S.

Since it began its modest rail bike operations last June, Rail Explorers has drawn upwards of 10,000 people from most of the 50 states and from countries around the world. Less than seven percent of those who have so far pedaled the rails live locally.

Where they came from: Map shows the economic reach of rail biking

Fully two-thirds of the rail bikers say they traveled to the Saranac Lake – Lake Placid area specifically to pedal a modern version of a classic railroad handcar along a short, preposterously beautiful, stretch of abandoned track that once upon a time carried the New York Central Railroad.

The rail bikers say they would not have made a High Peaks visit at all, had the family- and handicap-friendly rail adventure not been available.

Those visitors each stayed in the area an average of about three days. That means they also found lodging, dining, shopping and other things to spend their money on. The existence of Rail Explorers brought an effortless windfall of, by conservative estimates, more than $1 million to the High Peaks area economy..

The economic footprint of Rail Explorers is clearly much larger than its $25-per-seat rail biking ticket.

A rail biking photo gallery

A unique experience

The rail bikes, it turns out, are not bicycles at all. They are sturdy four-wheel people-powered steel railroad vehicles for two or four passengers. They are equipped with comfortable recumbent seats and disc brakes – and bicycle-style pedals.

Riders strap on a seatbelt, then, after a safety briefing, pedal the machine through the spectacular scenery of the countryside. The machines are surprisingly easy to propel along the mostly flat railway, and momentum does much of the work.

The convoy-style excursions consist of up to 13 rail bikes. It seems like a crowd at first, but the bikes soon spread out and the solitude of the forest returns, broken only by the soft clatter of the steel wheels on the rails.

Rail Explorers staff lead the trips, bringing up front and rear, and guard the four roadway grade crossings as the bikes pass through.

The six-mile stretch of abandoned New York Central track between Saranac Lake and Lake Clear, nestled in the High Peaks region of Adirondack Park, was an ideal route. The long-unused tracks are still in good shape. There is lodging and dining available at either end of the trip, and each location has an historic classic train depot – pieces of Americana that would welcome, and benefit from, a small reliable stream of visitors.

A branch of the Adirondack Scenic Railroad shuttles visitors between the Lake Placid Station and the Saranac Lake Station, where they can disembark with plenty of layover time for local exploring or a rail biking adventure.

Rail Explorers is, of necessity, a seasonal operation. This first-ever rail biking season was extended twice by popular demand, and is scheduled to end on the first of November. Winter comes early and hard to the High Peaks. When the snow falls, the rail bikes go to into storage and hardy snowmobilers take over the tracks.

An economy built on innovation

Bringing prosperity to the vast, sparsely populated boreal forests of Upstate New York has long been a challenge. The rules that preserve Adirondack Park strictly govern commercial development.

At 6.1 million acres, the park is considerably larger than the state of New Jersey, but is home to only about 135,000 year-round residents. Thousands of lakes dot the region, and there are 30,000 miles of rivers and streams. But there is not a lot of high-volume industry or commerce. Tourism, spurred by the breathtaking and all-encompassing scenery, has always been the big draw.

In 2011, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s “New York Open for business” marketing initiative promised to “to redesign the way state government works in order to drive economic growth and create jobs.” Cuomo said he intended nothing less than “to transform Albany’s approach to economic development.”

That lofty goal would seem rather at odds with a state “Rail to Trail” plan to rip up the old railroad tracks, at a cost of some $20 million, and add the old roadbed to the region’s already-existing hundreds of miles of hiking and bicycling trails. The plan would doom Rail Explorers and any other companies that might wish to emulate it.

A win-win alternative

There is a competing “Rail and Trail” proposal that would leave the tracks in place and simply widen the railroad bed to accommodate bicycles and hikers, too. There’s plenty of room: The railroad right-of-way is 100 feet wide, far more than the slender strip of land occupied by the track bed.

The “Rail and Trail” plan looks to be a win-win solution. The money earmarked for destroying the tracks would be used far more productively. The hikers and bikers would get yet another route to choose from, and the High Peaks area would keep its latest tourism success.

Nevertheless several state agencies, citing environmental laws, have already concluded it would be impractical to widen the existing track bed, even by a few feet, to share the route with bicyclists and hikers. The bureaucrats had never seen anything like rail bikes, so, the economic benefits of them were not taken into proper account.

The decision has yet to be finalized, in part because the surprise success of the rail biking newcomer threw a monkey wrench into the plan.

We will see if Albany’s new business-friendly thinking prevails. The final decision will come from the governor.

Michael W. Dominowski is a contributor to Not For Hire Media.

As Hurricane Joaquin approaches, a promise to New Yorkers remains unkept

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New York Governor Andrew Cuomo at a podium
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announces creation of the Civilian Preparedness Corps, a program intended to teach people how best to respond to natural disasters. (Hilton Flores/Staten Island Advance)

A program to teach civilians how to respond to natural disasters seems to be gone with the wind

It had been 461 days since Hurricane Sandy stormed ashore, leaving at least 43 New Yorkers dead and laying waste to entire neighborhoods, but the memory was still fresh when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo came to Staten Island and promised that the next great storm would find people far better prepared.

The governor had marshaled a gaggle of local politicians and an array emergency services people – from the NYPD and FDNY to the National Guard – at New Dorp High School. Before an audience packed with citizen volunteers, Cuomo inaugurated what he called the Citizens Preparedness Corps training program. He vowed to provide emergency response training to more than 100,000 New Yorkers, before the year was out.

“You are the first first-responders in your own home and your own neighborhood, and we want to make sure you have the knowledge and the tools you need,” Cuomo said, his words reverberating across the auditorium.

Every volunteer who attended the Saturday, February 1, 2014 meeting left their contact information, and received the governor’s promise that this was only the beginning. Further training would soon be on its way.

Then everyone was given a backpack stuffed with duct tape, safety goggles, a flashlight and other first-responder essentials. And that was that.

Since then there has been no follow-up contact, let alone training, or even mention of it. The CPC seems as dead as those flashlight batteries.

New storm rising

Now Hurricane Joaquin, a storm far more powerful than Hurricane Sandy, is drawing a bead on the East Coast, following a track chillingly similar to Sandy’s devastating path.

One of the many promises that came out of Albany in the wake of the 2012 storm was that gasoline filling stations would be prompted – or in some cases, required – to install emergency backup generators. Storm-caused power outages idled fuel pumps and frayed the city’s remarkably thin veneer of civility.

An informal survey of filling stations on Staten Island suggests that, nearly three years after Sandy, precious few have backup power available.

New York City was severely damaged by the 2012 hurricane. Some of its infrastructure has yet to recover. Other of it has been hardened, it is thought sufficiently, to better withstand another tempest.

We hope so. But it is clear that much more that could have been done has not.

Michael W. Dominowski is a contributor to Not For Hire Media