By MICHAEL W. DOMINOWSKI
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.
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.
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
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.