Category Archives: Pastoral Living

Delayed Mowing for Pollinators

A silly little poem I wrote, but what the heck. It’s all about the images that follow. For more on my thoughts about lawns, read my earlier blog post “Musings on Mowing the Lawn: An Environmental Conundrum.”

Delay the engine, the crush of wheels,

pollinators of all sizes are needing their meals!

Sunniest blooms, a lively display—

brings much more delight

than a lawn trimmed up tight

like a T on the green

of the PGA.

Long LawnSmall Bee 1Small Bee 2Wild StrawberriesDandelions

Screened

blue-jay-branch-tree-nature-animal-plants-1446183-pxhere.com (1)

Photo from pxhere.com

This morning I sat down at my breakfast counter to a creatively crafted omelet with broccolini and sharp cheddar, local-baked white toast, and raspberry jam from the farmers’ market. It was a simple feast, but a feast none-the-less. I took my first bite and looked out the window at a blue jay in the lower branches of a small pine. I idly wondered what it was doing. Was it eating the seeds of pinecones?

No sooner had I swallowed the bite, as this question drifted away, when an impulse seized me: I should check my email on my phone! The phone was lying within easy reach on the counter, facedown, the way I usually put it so I am not distracted by messages that appear. The ringer is off, so I am not hostage to every notification. Still, something inside compelled me to grab for it. But … I resisted. I consciously resisted, thinking, if I pick that thing up, I won’t taste this delicious breakfast I just made. I will mindlessly shovel the food in while my being is sucked into the screen and pulled in 20 different directions.

I finished my breakfast with mindful bites, allowing the salty cheesiness and the green goodness of the broccolini to rest upon my tongue. But as I ate, I wondered—what drove that impulse? Something inside me in that moment was not content to just BE, as if I harbor a fear of the mundane, of these moments in the actual physical world where nothing in particular is happening. Except, so much is happening! The jay in the pine, the snow sliding off the roof, the clouds of the big nor’easter rolling in, the water on the wood stove bubbling. Perhaps, too, I was driven by guilt. It was already 10 am on a Saturday morning and I needed to get to my writing client work if I had any prayer of taking Sunday off as a “normal” weekend day.

Getting “screened” is a ubiquitous cultural experience. It’s one thing to listen to a news story about technology addiction, and quite another to observe it in your own life, the lives of your friends, and then attempt to do something about it.

The other morning I stopped into my favorite bakery where they serve creamy lattes flavored with malted cardamom or ginger-maple. They have a range of cookies, scones, and croissants that keep me honest about making sure I get my body moving at some point each day, whether it’s a walk, yoga, or a fitness dance session. As I waited for my drink, I noticed a young couple sitting at a table facing the window to the street. Their backs were to me. What I saw was this: both of them were comfortably side-by-side, their heads and necks bent forward, and they were motionless. Intrigued, I repositioned so I could see what they were doing. They each had a large cell phone flat on the table, index finger on the screen, tapping and sliding. Neither of them spoke to the other. The whole 20 minutes I was there. Neither of them moved. As I passed on the way out the door, I glanced down and saw the comments bubbles and emojis of social media.

A couple weeks prior, I was in the same coffee shop meeting a dear friend for conversation. We were talking about pretty intense life challenges. But the whole time, her phone was face up on the table. At regular intervals she would jump as if jabbed in the back and pick up her phone. Then she would exclaim, “Oh, no, it’s my son. What does he want now?” Or, “It’s my husband. God, I hope he is okay!” The adrenaline rush that passed through her every time a message flashed was amazing to watch. It was clear that phone was keeping her, daily, in a constant state of mild anxiety. Needless to say, our conversation lacked a coherent flow with so many starts and stops. I felt genuinely concerned, with her being so jumpy from attending to every message.

I am not immune to getting screened, as my breakfast this morning illustrates. I am an information junkie. I LOVE to learn as much as I can about this crazy, fascinating world. This drive increases as I get older. I just want to have some sort of understanding of “What the heck?!” before I die. Where did we come from? Why are we here? What is dark matter and what does it mean about reality? What is that jay doing in that pine tree on this frigid morning? You know, those kinds of questions. Because of this, if a wondering pops into my head, I reach for my phone. This is one of the cool things about technology—all this knowledge at our fingertips! Such a gift!

I also use my phone to track my calories, my client hours, and even to make sure I haven’t died in my sleep to lie undiscovered for days while my cat roams the house traumatized by my demise and hungry. Yes, there is now an app called Snug that allows people who live alone to quietly check in each and every day. If you don’t check in, the app texts your emergency contacts. Pretty cool!

There are also endless, fascinating podcasts to download that make long car drives a pleasure.

The problem is, once that little device is in my hands, there is no telling where I will end up or how much time will pass in that state of mental fragmentation within my benumbed body. Over time, I realized that certain activities such as surfing my Facebook wall often caused me to experience all sorts of negative emotions, such as guilt for not knowing that remote acquaintance lost her dad. Or a lonely pang of wanting a dog again after seeing a cute post of someone’s pup. Or a feeling of missing the train because I can’t afford to plan any exotic vacations. Or disbelief and discouragement over someone’s heartless condescension on a political thread.

On a recent New Years Day, I went for a walk in the woods. As we tend to do during moments of “beginning,” I was pondering my writing coaching and editing business and what I wanted to do concerning its marketing. I was pondering my life overall, what I wanted to discard and what I wanted to enact. I stood in a small grove of trees. It was silent except for a crow’s intermittent caw. Then the wind picked up and the trees made a soft sshhhh sound. I made a decision. I wanted a robust physical existence, not a robust virtual existence.

When one has a small business, or a band, and I have both, social media and an online presence are a must. But just how much, how often, and what kinds of online media can be a choice. I realized that most of my best clients come via word of mouth. I took my business off of Facebook. I never, ever had gotten any client through that page. Instead, I ramped up my LinkedIn for professional visibility. And I delved into the joy of my blog. That was it. No Twitter. No Instagram. I am busier than ever.

And, in one of the best decisions I have made lately, I took Facebook off of my phone. I thought about and researched deleting the account. Or going dark. But I have too many friends with whom I don’t want to lose contact. So I just took it off of my phone.

It was astounding how not having Facebook on my phone changed my life. Just one simple change like that. I no longer lose hours a day to all those screened emotions. I spend less and less time updating my persona online. I read more books. I write more letters (remember those??). I send more cards. I meet more friends for coffee. I make more phone calls and actually talk to people.

I no longer think in Facebook posts. I no longer respond in comments bubbles. My blogs are intentionally long, like real chapters or developed articles. I fear that the breadth and lack of depth of thoughts and of information is at the root of many serious current issues we face as humans. So many people knowing so little about so very much. Just a little of this. A little of that. How can we ever make informed choices?

Recognizing the ways that getting screened affects my life is a work in progress. I must remain aware, observing my own behavior and that of my friends and that of strangers. How is this habit affecting me, affecting us all? Our relationships? It’s fascinating. And a little horrifying. And definitely annoying. Of course, I am as easily sucked in as the next person. The wild and wacky world of quantum physics theories? Right there at my fingertips. On that device! Or maybe a good omelet recipe. Or a page on the behaviors of blue jays.

 

 

Dominion: Lording Over Nature

black duck

Photo by Doug Brown on Pexels.com

“We have seen that no species can evolve apart from its co-evolution with all other species—meaning that all have played their role in our evolution. We could not have evolved by ourselves. If we look at co-evolving living systems through eyes other than our own, we will quickly see that we have no more reason to consider ourselves a supreme form of life than have others.” Elisabet Sahtouris

Just yesterday my neighbor posted a picture on Facebook of his cat watching, through a sliding glass door, a turkey eating seed scattered on the deck of the house. Immediately someone commented to his post that the turkey would make a tasty meal and advocated that my neighbor consider acting on this possibility.

This is a comment trend that I have frequently noticed on social media. Someone posts a picture, out of curiosity or in awe, of a pristine wild creature, and it’s not long before the guns come out and someone suggests killing and eating the star of the photo. Usually a semi-polite but slightly heated debate about hunting ensues.

Now, I would guess that the cat watching the turkey is indeed interested in an adrenaline-filled chase of the winged creature (likely not weighing in the fact that the bird is 3 times its size), and, perhaps, the cat in the window is even salivating a little. But it’s a cat.

What I wonder is why the first “highly-developed” human commentary on these kinds of Facebook posts is about snuffing out the bird and gnawing on its leg. Okay, maybe biology explains some of it. “Me caveman. Me eat meat.” But here in the modern US, we are not exactly starving. (Well, some of us are, too many of us, but that is a subject for a different blog post.) What I mean is that the commentators on these social media posts likely have a sizable refrigerator that, if not full, contains adequate sustenance such that a photo of a large bird, or perhaps a doe and its fawn, or a sea turtle, should not immediately trigger salivary glands and thoughts of bloodshed.

Inevitably on these post threads, some wildlife “expert” contributes that the species is overpopulated and there is a dire need for humans to step in with their traps, poisons, and firearms. At first glance, this seems reasonable, maybe even a justification to kill the critter. This comment may also be to assuage some sort of subconscious guilt that energizes over the age-old spiritual questions that arise when a human takes the life of another living creature.

But perhaps these comments come from insidious cultural conditioning. Somewhere, likely through a variety of religious and philosophical texts, we humans got the idea that humankind was plunked down here on this planet, in this galaxy, in this universe, to hold dominion over all the creatures, plants, even rocks, minerals, air and water. I would argue that this foundational belief in the self-maps of many people is what spurs these predatory comments, and this is what spurs the subject to then wander to hunting “rights” and population “control.” For if we hold dominion, it’s our right to shoot that turkey. If we have ultimate sovereignty and control, then we are charged with the responsibility to “balance” wildlife populations.

This notion of dominion thus allows for those that would love a drumstick to be absolved ethically and morally for wanting to end the life of the seed-eating turkey. It’s our role and job as humans—as stewards of the earth. But part of the definition of steward is “responsible care.” And I have to say humanity has not been adhering to these words where nature is concerned.

When I was a kid, I never saw a single wild turkey in my rambles throughout New England woods. I didn’t, in fact, ever see one until I was in my mid-thirties. Now, almost every time I drive down our Vermont roads, I have to stop to wait while a flock waddles across the road. I see them in cornfields, in backyards, near farms, and even in neighborhoods of towns. They are everywhere! So if I had to make an educated guess, I would agree: wild turkeys are overpopulated.

As a country girl, I do not judge or begrudge my neighbors and friends who hunt for food for their tables. I know most of my neighbors use all of the meat, and even the feathers. I know they hunt ethically, causing as little pain as possible. I know that their dinner had a happy, wild, natural life, thus being a kinder meal than eating a factory-farmed bird struggling to stand with its oversized breast while suffering in overcrowded, nasty conditions. I get that hunting can be a morally superior, sustainable food choice.

I do see the language that we use for hunting as stemming from the dominator model, however. We call hunting “sport,” our prey “game”, and we “harvest” kills as if we were farmers. But at least harvesting is a more respectable term than the poor word choice of “bagging” a turkey or a doe, wording more symbolic of a joking, cruel conquest.

But before I’d jump to hand out more hunting licenses and increase the length of turkey season, it seems prudent to ask the question why—why are turkeys everywhere? Are they truly overpopulated, or do they just have less wild space in which to roam? It seems we humans are overpopulated and eating up open spaces and forests like Hungry Hungry Hippos (the silly game some of us played as kids where we tried to “eat” as many marbles as we could with our plastic hippo heads).

Why were there hardly any turkeys in the ‘70s and tons of them now? A complex systems approach is needed. What is going on in their ecosystem to foster this burgeoning? I would bet the reason is tied to some bumbling actions, intentional or unintentional, of the supposed stewards of the planet—us.

In Virginia Scott Jenkins’ fascinating book, The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession, which is all about domination of another natural environment, our yards, she writes about how humankind has long been “at war” with nature. Nature has been our greatest conquest. She quotes John Crowe Ransom, writer and literary critic: “Ambitious men fight, first of all, against nature; they propose to put nature under their heel; this is the dream of scientists burrowing in their cells, and then of the industrial men who beg of their secret knowledge and go out to trouble the earth.” She then quotes feminist activist Annette Kolodny who “concludes that the brutal images of man against nature reflect ‘the very pattern of our current ecological crisis’”. Jenkins continues, “Wilderness has also appeared as the villain, with the pioneer as hero relishing its destruction” (134). We can’t be at war with nature and her stewards simultaneously.

I can hear the Facebook commentators now: “Good grief, it was just a silly joke about eating a turkey.”

At home, I often observe the flock of turkeys that dines on my neighbor’s porch and entertains their cats. The large birds have colorful, shiny feathers, sometimes sticking out with wads of burdock tangled in them. They walk slowly and carefully through the snow, pecking at this and that, their big feet leaving forked tracks. They appear serene, though alert. All I have to do is open the door and they take awkward flight. Sometimes I’m amazed the lumbrous fowl can even get off the ground. They often bunk down under the pines right behind my house near the marshy watercourse. Well, it is supposed to be marshy, but my other neighbor mows it flat each fall. He tells me he wants it the way it was when his grandfather had the land, when cows ate all the vegetation in the low-lying wash. I’ve observed the turkeys picking pathetically at the remaining scattered weeds and seed stalks, and surmise that the vegetation in the wash was likely their winter food source. So now they must resort to bird feeders. Indeed they have a good memory. I had a feeder out back last year, but have not put it up this year. Sure enough, at the beginning of the snows, the flock trucked right under the tree where the feeder used to hang, clucking and looking about, as if in confusion. “Well, it was here last year!”

I enjoy these waddling intricacies of perfection that somehow organized out of the universal chaos that our microscopes and statistics struggle to comprehend. They bring a smile to my day as they bob their heads and yodel about the backyard on their way back and forth to the feeder. I am glad my neighbor with the cat is not inclined to sup upon our feathered friends.

Bibliography

Jenkins, Virginia Scott. The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.

Sahtouris, Elisabet. Earth Dance: Living Systems in Evolution. iUniversity Press, 2000.

 

The Acceptable State of Busy

The other day I went into the staff room of the small college where I teach, and after I punched in the door code that lets faculty and staff in and keeps students out, I encountered a young staffer seated at one of the round lunch tables munching energetically on chips.

“How’s it going?” he asked loudly.

“Pretty good I guess,” I replied. I was lying. I was tired. I had a mountain of portfolios to grade in the upcoming week; each of them would take an hour. My checking account was overdrawn. I was currently working with my TMJ doctor to find the right mouth splint adjustment to relax my jaw joints enough while sleeping to keep me from biting my tongue off in the night.

“Me too!” he said, with seeming enthusiasm. “Pretty busy, which is good I guess.” He crunched another bunch of chips. “Makes the day go by fast,” he said, as I hustled into the bathroom to check my eye makeup and comb my hair. I was late to my learning center mentor shift.

“Agreed,” I called back from the bathroom door.

Inside the bathroom, I looked in the mirror and grimaced. Fluorescent lights always create a ghastly effect, making me look ten years older than I really am. A thought pounced on my mind.

“No you don’t,” the thought said.

What?

“You don’t agree. At all.”

My inner self was right. I didn’t prefer to be busy, or for my day to go by fast.

But, in my “congenial colleague persona,” I had just demonstrated how mindlessly our culture views busyness as a good thing. When did “busy” become the acceptable good? The desired state of being? The best and most successful modus operandi of our species? Sayings of busyness abound:

“The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.” Walt Disney

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” John Lennon

“Rarely have I seen a situation where doing less than the other guy is a good strategy.” Jimmy Spithill

Productivity: produce, product, production, gross domestic national product (note the first word is “gross”)

Bottom line. ROI – return on investment

Get a move on. Daylight’s burning. For chrissake, hurry up. Get out of my way.

The early bird catches the worm.

The noise of busyness is ever present.

When I was a kid one of my favorite books was The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf. Ferdinand does not headbutt, kick, and run about and try to get in good with the other bulls. Nor does he share their aspirations to be selected to go and fight in the bullfights. He just wants to sit under his cork tree and smell the flowers. For this he is viewed as extremely odd. Speaking volumes about this little book, Hitler and Franco banned it, while Gandhi embraced it.

How could I explain to this guy at the lunch table that what I really wanted was to sit in an open field all day long like Ferdinand the bull and simply smell the flowers? My vision of a good day, of success, was slow and quiet. Just being.

I am not advocating a life devoid of purpose, contribution, and meaning. But I wonder how modern society’s current trajectory, which most days seems bent on mass destruction, might change if we just slowed down—the way we talk, walk, breathe, drive, think, and do. What if we sat and listened? What would we see if we just looked at what is really going on all around us? How would it change what we DO?

What are we really accomplishing with all of this busyness? Is it what is best for ourselves, our family and friends, for society, for the planet?

I try to carve out time for slowing down and observing. Interesting words we use – to carve … cutting and slicing as if time were meat on a plate, or a tree to be fashioned into a wood carving statue. Rather violent, this idea of carving time.

When I do slow down and observe, I am often appalled and astounded at some of the awful things we do and say to each other, what we do to fish, birds, plants, oceans, forests. It takes guts to listen and look.

But I am also inspired and hopeful, enlightened. Always I see the most beautiful moments of the natural world. Sometimes I see the tiniest acts of joy and kindness between fellow humans.

I take a long, deep breath. And the fresh air is a delight.

IMG_0278

 

 

 

Braking for Butterflies

In New England it’s late summer and the days are growing shorter, but still the sunshine-infused hours flow by lazily. The breezes are easy, not yet carrying down Arctic briskness and warnings of winter.

Floating on the wind, in sync with the slow energy of the season, are a myriad of butterflies—some white, some yellow, and some orange. Of note this year, and hooray for this as their population has been of concern, is a seemingly large number of monarchs (Danaus plexippus). These beauties maneuver the lift and fall of air currents with astounding grace.

Unfortunately, butterflies like to crisscross and hover over the back roads. In a speeding car, they are a challenge to miss, the flyers moving much more slowly and randomly than the hulk of metal propelled by fuel in a straight-forward trajectory. It’s common for the hapless butterfly to glance off of the windshield, or hood, and tumble to the road. I guess it’s human conditioning to say, “Oh well, it’s just an insect. What can one do?” This thinking is likely further justified by the idea that one has to get here or there as quickly as possible to do this or that, as if that task is one-thousand times more important to the grand scheme of the universe than the said butterfly’s mission to sip a flower or a raspberry, to pollinate, and prepare to travel thousands of miles to their winter hibernation grounds in Latin America.

While I never like hitting any living creature large or small, I will admit that I was one of those humans that made these justifications in my mind. That is, until this summer, when I took the time to observe the reality of these mishaps of vehicle to Lepidoptera, the insect order label taken “from the Greek, ‘Lepis’ = scale, ‘pteron’ = wing” (“Biology of the Monarch”).

This summer when I have witnessed a butterfly hit by a car, especially a large monarch, I’ve stopped to move it off the road. I do this just in case it was not injured badly and might still live. Sometimes my efforts are fruitful: the butterfly emerges from being stunned, grabs my finger with its legs, and takes flight. However, more frequently what I have discovered is rather horrifying: rarely is the insect dead. Instead it is alive with some part of its body maimed, be it its wings, legs, or torso. Alive, they lay in the gravel or on the burning hot tar awaiting death. For hours.

I’ve taken to mercy killings, putting them to a quick and painless end, though it saddens me to do so. I’m well aware that an insect’s experience, biologically speaking, of “pain” or “death” is considerably different than human awareness of such things. Science even indicates that they don’t really feel pain. I argue even so, to lie maimed on a road, is this not suffering in whatever the capacity of the experience?

The other evening I was taking a walk when I happened upon yet another monarch lying in the road. It’s astounding, actually, when you start to pay attention, how many are hit on a daily basis. I bent to pick it up, hoping it was dead having had a quick ending. But no, it was alive, it’s antennae swiveling this way and that. I inspected it carefully in my palm—wings were intact, torso intact with a bit of gravel and possible slight body injury on one side, a couple of crumpled legs. Maybe it will have a chance, I thought.

I carried it home where I studied it further with a flashlight, determining that recovery just might be possible.

Lining a small box with some paper towels and grass, I put the butterfly in the box, and set the box in the warm garage for the night. I added in a geranium blossom and some flowering clover. Not exactly sure what butterflies eat, I drew upon my knowledge derived from helping a client write a book about raising bees and added in a lid full of sugar water, put a dab of honey on a piece of clover, and put in a thimbleful of plain water, then propped the monarch up near the lid of sugar water. I was concerned that it didn’t seem to want to use its two good legs and had yet to flutter its wings. But its head moved all about curiously and its antennae continued to twitch this way and that. It seemed not to be suffering egregiously. I put on some classical music on my little garage radio, figuring that studies have shown it to be soothing to plants, why not an injured insect?

I’ll give it the night, I thought.

While preparing dinner—salad with blueberries and raspberries—a little light went off in my mind. I remembered seeing butterflies hovering around the black raspberry bushes out back, possibly sampling the berries. So I mushed up a raspberry and stuck it in the lid of sugar water. The monarch immediately unrolled its proboscis (its straw-like mouth). I joyfully watched it checking out the raspberry, then turned out the garage lights to resume my dinner preparations. Checking occasionally, I found the butterfly was still moving its proboscis about near the raspberry and turning its head this way and that. A positive sign. Yet I was disturbed that it had yet to move around otherwise.

Before bed, I checked on the butterfly one last time. This was about 5 hours after I had picked it up from the road. The monarch had stopped moving, its antennae resting at half-mast. I thought perhaps it was sleeping. Do butterflies sleep? I didn’t know. It’s amazing how little we humans really know about the workings of the natural world, yet we impact it daily. Leaving the classical music on, I went to bed. I did not hold out great hope … it seemed the insect’s legs were not working and its wings had perhaps been paralyzed by the hit. Still, it did not appear to be suffering and I wanted to give it a chance.

The next morning, I got up to see if there was any improvement for the injured member of the family Nymphalidae, subfamily Danainae. The monarch sat quite still, in exactly the same position at the lip of the sugar water, antennae at half-mast. Dead. Part of me was relieved that I didn’t have to kill it to end its misery. And perhaps, at least, its last hours had been pleasant—a warm, quiet garage, soft paper towel with fragrant grass and geranium, a taste of raspberry, and classical music—more pleasant than lying in the gravel, waiting.

Regardless of the current pronouncements of science about if and to what extent each living insect, animal, tree, or plant “feels” or doesn’t feel, or to what degree they experience consciousness, I believe there is a lot we don’t understand about energy, consciousness, and the bend of the universe. As Socrates professed, “the only true wisdom is knowing that you know nothing.” I try to keep this open mind and heart. I recognize that nature has her own hierarchy of suffering: survival of the fittest, needing sustenance to survive sometimes taken in cruel ways. And at the same time, I feel it is entirely possible and true that all matter and all living beings are manifestations of one, divine and universal energy—call it god if you will, the goddess, the Great Spirit, the outward thrust of the Big Bang. I felt there was a bit of me in the life of that butterfly and a bit of that monarch’s essence within me. It deserved my compassion.

This summer has brought a shift in my awareness of even the little creatures that may fall in my path, and so, to the extent that it is safe for me to do so, considering the roadway, the traffic behind me, I brake for butterflies.

Butterly three

Work Cited:

“Biology of the Monarch Butterfly.” NatureNorth.com: Manitoba’s Online Nature Magazine, Nature North Zine, 2018, http://www.naturenorth.com/summer/monarch/monarchF2.html.

Confessions of an Arachnophobe

I’m sorry. But they had grown much too big, much too fat, much too meaty. One, I saw, even ate its own brethren—the husk of a spider body, white and tan, blowing in the breeze from a thin strand of web.

The final straw was when I went out the back door in the early evening and felt a cobweb cross my face, then lay across my hair. I screamed. Of course. And jumped. And ran a few silly steps while frantically combing my fingers through my hair, hoping not to feel a cool, doughy wiggling thing under my palm.

You see, by this time of summer, they have grown to the size of small toads. In fact, one time I had a guest point emphatically to a corner of my porch. “That spider’s as big as a TOAD,” he declared.

So it was time. I had a broom and a mission.

As terrifying as they are, I’ve grown much less hysterical than in the heyday of my arachnophobia. Now I study the creatures closely with a cortisol-infused curiosity. I can even tolerate one or two setting up camp about the exterior of the house.

They are, after all, reminiscent of dear Charlotte, the amazing spider who could spell. My residents do not craft words, but, rather, elaborate architecture. And they catch flies. But what I remember most about Charlotte was her egg sack, the one that Templeton the rat had to gently extract from the livestock barn and carry in his mouth to Wilbur’s crate as they prepared to leave the county fair.

What I remember was that Charlotte’s egg sack hatched dozens and dozens of little tiny Charlottes, all destined to grow big, fat, and meaty.

And this is what propels me to act.

Ever so gently, one by one, I invited my houseguests onto a very long broom. Each spider was hesitant, confused, and then frantic. I aerobatically balanced the speedily crawling eight-legged creature on the broom while I trotted briskly across the lawn.

I tried to find spidery places, webby places in which to deposit them where they could find some protection and possibly construct a new web. Under a pine tree. In the brush pile. I have no idea if they can survive such a move. I have no idea if they are like the animals in The Incredible Journey and can find their way back.

All I know is that, temporarily, I no longer have to wallow in one of my biggest fears—that one of these plump arachnids will plop on my unsuspecting head.

That night, it poured … buckets, a waterfall. Tucked up in bed, a crisp white sheet to my chin, rain drumming on the metal roof, I thought of them out there. In the wet and the dark. Web-less. Lost in a strange neighborhood.

Musings on Mowing the Lawn: An Environmental Conundrum

I’ve been participating in it all summer: the quintessential summer ritual that provides comfort and nostalgia almost on a cellular level. Mowing the lawn. The smell of cut grass intoxicates me, invoking childhood memories of wet sneakers, running fast across the grass chased by my friends, and hitting a birdie with a badminton racquet. A freshly mowed lawn conjures feasts of buttery ears of corn and cool watermelon balanced on collapsing paper plates while swatting mosquitoes and trading stories with family, or reading by the glow of a flashlight in a tent in the backyard during a long, hot summer night illuminated by fireflies winking on and off.

Growing up in the American Northeast, I experienced plentiful soft, green, expansive lawns—at my house, my grandparents’ houses, and friends and neighbors’ houses. It’s just the way it was. Well, except when I was a toddler in Bakersfield, CA, which I vaguely recall as a flat, hot, shimmering brown expanse, our little manicured tract house wavering in the heat as if it were only a mirage. Oh, and in the hills outside of Albuquerque, NM, when I was in my 30s, where the yard was high desert scrub with pale green sage, pretty yellow chamisa, and fragrant juniper. Dancing out the door in New Mexico barefoot routinely resulted in a sharp stab and an “ow, ow!” that required a retreat to the deck to extract the thorny goatshead about the size of a large pea except sporting sharp barbs in all directions—also appropriately named puncturevine weed—from the tender bottom of my foot. My dog used to step on them and hop to me, holding up his paw in a pathetic plea for assistance.

Which all makes a lush green lawn sound like a panacea of peace and loveliness. Which it is. And … it isn’t. Just sit outside on any beautiful afternoon, and it will begin: the drone and whine of small engines near and far, drowning out the cheery songs of the birds, drowning out whispers of the breeze in the trees. Each week, men, women and children all over the United States, even in dry Bakersfield and Albuquerque, turn keys to start up a host of mowers and then spend anywhere from one to six hours circling in a zen-like jostled reverie to cut the grass. Some industrious souls with smaller lawns or a propensity for masochism still use push mowers, or even reel mowers with no engine, to push and pull with aching arms and a sweaty brow to create those neat, fragrant, carpeted grass lines.

Life is short. Damned short. So why are we content to dedicate our precious summer hours to such a seemingly futile task? The grass grows right back within a day or two, in a wet summer sometimes hours (I swear I’ve seen it grow), taunting us to drop what we are doing to tame the lawn once again. Every year I think about this more and more. While the American love affair with the lawn feels as essential as apple pie, it is also a waste of resources, time, and fossil fuel, only to create what is basically an environmental wasteland.

Having a nicely manicured, sizeable lawn around one’s home is what we do as responsible, well-to-do Americans. It doesn’t matter if one is lower class, middle class, or upper class, a nice lawn makes a statement: I have property, and I have my life together.

Unkempt lawns evoke visions of squalor—a flea-bitten, bony bloodhound sleeping on the porch, skin twitching to disturb the flies landing on his tattered fur. A wooden door slightly crooked on the hinges with a torn screen. God forbid, chickens scratching around in the front yard in the bare dirt amongst some rusted tin cans. Let’s throw in a couple of barrels and a broken down car. This stereotypical, economically prejudiced view of unkempt yards did not arise from our DNA; it was not ordained by a holy writ from above. It was, pun intended, cultivated. Yes, this mindset was intentionally crafted by the likes of the United States Golf Association, the United States Department of Agriculture, and numerous American garden clubs like the National Plant, Flower and Fruit Guild, and the Home Culture Club starting in the late 1800s. The campaign for the lawn went well into the twentieth century and the pressure and cries for “responsible yard care” were additionally bolstered by a growing, robust lawn care industry sporting the latest and greatest lawn care tools, mowers, and toxic chemicals, often with ads that planted visions of wealthy elites or stirred lust with voluptuous housewives in billowing short skirts pushing a mower with a single lovely hand.

In Virginia Scott Jenkins’ meticulously researched and thorough book (who knew a book called The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession could be so riveting), Jenkins states, “The domestic front lawn is a typically American landscape feature. Lawns can be found in all parts of the country, from New England to Florida and California. Houses in Phoenix have front lawns…But this has not always been the case. Lawn grasses are not native to this continent” (9).

When I first read this—call me naïve or uninformed—I was shocked. Lawn grasses, the very fabric of my childhood outdoor escapades, were not native?

Jenkins goes on: “Lawns were new to most Americans in the nineteenth century. Homeowners were taught to incorporate the new lawn aesthetic into the landscape and to learn how to take care of their lawns. It was a slow process, but by the mid-twentieth century, front lawns had become thoroughly integrated into the American landscape” (10).

Jenkins explains how the transformation of the American yard had to do with European immigration, obviously, and a desire to imitate the grand, sweeping estates of European nobility (think the grounds of Downton Abbey), exemplified in America by the numerous gorgeous park designs of Frederick Law Olmsted in the mid-nineteenth century (Jenkins 25). About the same time Americans began to covet this European aesthetic, the United States Golf Association began a quest to find the best blend of grasses to create the perfect golf green. To do this they enlisted the help of government scientists and what would eventually become the United States Department of Agriculture. Through ignorance and bumbling, settlers had pretty much destroyed America’s native grasses, so grass enthusiasts turned their sights to importing, interbreeding, and otherwise messing around with Mother Nature to manufacture grass seed blends that could survive in the variety of climates across the United States. Kentucky bluegrass was brought here from overseas in the late 1700s, likely from the Middle East and other parts of Europe (sorry bluegrass musicians, it’s not from “down home”), while other grasses were shipped over from Africa and other parts of the world. These new grasses “escaped” out into the environment, washing down riverways and streams until they began to populate more and more land tracts.

In the process of importing and integrating new grasses—to keep up with the Downtons, to tee off on a carpet of velvety green—useful approaches to the front lawn, such as raising vegetables in sizeable gardens, raising chickens, and other endeavors that resulted in broom-swept dirt yards, were quietly tucked away in the far reaches of backyards, hidden from view. Such activities of sustenance were viewed as below what affluent families should have for a front lawn aesthetic, even to the point where towns and cities passed rules or ordinances (still in place today) for property maintenance outside the home. Jenkins quotes an 1897 horticulture book: “…our suburbs will not always have so many uncared for, weed-grown lots littered with empty tin cans, badly kept ‘yards’, and impassable roads” (32).

Enter home and garden clubs, women’s magazines, and a “City Beautiful Movement” all of which became mouthpieces for the USGA and USDA, patiently instructing the poor ignorant masses on proper lawn care and home maintenance strategies which required time-consuming labor for which no working class person back then, or even now I might argue, actually had the time. The wealthy simply had their servants or groundskeepers do the planting, weeding, fertilizing, and mowing, tasks carried out by hand or with rudimentary tools and machines. According to Jenkins, America’s first mowers were patented in the 1860s.

By the early to mid-twentieth century, the tutelage on lawn care was plentiful and far-reaching. It was a public relations campaign to rival the persuasion regarding patriotism and sacrifice for the war effort during World War II. Contests, billboards, magazines, hardware stores, and trading cards touted images of gorgeous lawns and intimated that the care was so easy a kid could do it (indeed, many kids got the chore of lawn care). Ne’re-do-wells with sloppy yards were chided and looked down upon by neighbors. This advertisement from an 1888 catalog, quoted by Jenkins, contains a typical message: “Faust’s Fairmont Park Lawn Grass Seed Special Mixture … we know of nothing that will so much improve the appearance, and contribute to the comfort of a home, as a beautiful lawn. It matters not, be it the home of the rich or the poor, its refining and invigorating influence is felt by all alike, for it is one of nature’s gifts” (71).

The creation of our American obsession with the lawn took about a hundred years, culminating in the suburban bloom after World War II, fed in part by the prosperity efforts embedded in the New Deal. I was born in 1963, and thus the ubiquitous embrace of lawn aesthetic and lawn culture has been synonymous in my psyche with affluence, good standing, beauty, small town charm, neighborliness, citizenship, community, and even whiteness. Pretty powerful notions emanate from those blades of grass.

Here we are over 50 years later and some not-so-small planetary problems have cropped up: an even stronger obsession with fossil fuels, the resulting build-up of greenhouse gasses, overpopulation and the resulting loss of wild habitat and open spaces, and the mysterious disappearances of certain species of pollinators. At the same time, it seems our lower and middle class workforce is especially harried and beleaguered, with little time or resources for the laborious upkeep of expansive, grass-filled yards.

 

As I drive my own rider mower in circles for about two hours a week, I have a lot of time to consider this costly ritual. As always, the rider mower casts me into a trance with its circles and jostling and buzzing. But now there is an undercurrent. I’m conscious that this ritual is manufactured, unnatural, and not in the best interest of the sustainability of the gorgeous forested environment teeming with toads, birds, flowers, and trees just at the perimeter of my lawn. I am more conscious that my lawn is a status symbol, born of privilege. I am also painfully aware of the path of destruction that my mowing creates.

I find it quite disturbing—the stream of refuse that arcs out from my hungry blades. Moths tumble; flowers are severed at the head. One time I ran over a frog, chopped it right in half. I thought I was going to throw up. Grasshoppers and crickets frantically leap out of my path and snakes slither to safety. I used to grit my teeth and shrug off the havoc I created, the fact that my lawn puts living creatures in peril. The lawn must be mowed; what can one do? It’s necessary collateral damage. But is it? I’ve found I can mitigate the mayhem by simply driving slower and keeping an eagle eye out for critters. As my mower groans along, I see toads, bees, grasshoppers, crickets, snakes and moths, some moths bearing startlingly gorgeous colors and patterns on their wings. I slow down, stop, or go the other way until the path is clear. I try to mow in the heat of the day, when the living things are not nestled into the grasses to the same degree as they are in early evening when the moisture settles down. Even still, it’s impossible to miss them all.

So this summer I simply mowed less often. I let my grass burgeon to a disreputable five or six inches long and then simply raised the mower blades higher. As a result of this choice, which some may view as neglect, my lawn is a lot healthier. But some of the neighbors didn’t like it. They actually inquired if I had been traveling or had been ill. I also had to fight my own pre-programmed response to a longer lawn: my life is out of control, I am not well off, and I am a sloth. Gradually, though, I grew used to the less-kept look and now even gaze upon it with pride. Lo and behold, more flowers appeared, which I let float as long as possible along the top of the grass, which brought butterflies and bees. In June, I harvested the dandelions, which, counter to the anti-dandelion weed propaganda, carry all manner of vitamins and antioxidants. I ate the leaves; I even put the flower petals in my pancakes one day. Next, wild strawberries appeared. I harvested those. I’ve grown to love this laissez-faire approach to lawn mowing.

Still, I must confess, when I do cut the grass, I feel my sense that “all is right” with the world returning. The smell comforts me, triggering that little kid nostalgia. I love to walk across the grass in bare feet (sure beats goatsheads).

At the same time, the cognitive dissonance clangs: noise, gas fumes, beheading the clover that the bees love, adding more C02 into the atmosphere. When I am done, an area that was teaming with life is silent and empty—only the grass grows. Jonathon Engels writes, “They [lawns] go against nature. We fight weeds and trees from invading the landscape, which is desperately trying to repair itself with these pioneering species. We work sparingly with animals, leaving perches few and far between for the birds, vast expanses of land with no rockeries nor rotting wood for the lizards and frogs. The whole thing keeps growing…” (“Why Our Lawns are Bad”). Such dissonance has me looking for solutions.

Reel Mower

This spring my mother gave me a reel mower that she wasn’t using. Looking sweetly retro, the reel mower has a number of silver blades in a cylindrical pattern that whir and click along with only the power of my muscles, muscles which I know will grow to the size of Popeye’s if I use the mower regularly. Proudly, I loaded the reel mower into the back of the car and took it to the local mower repair shop to get the blades sharpened and have it oiled up. The owner of the shop looked down at my little prize with disdain. “We don’t service those,” he said with a chuckle, as if I were amusing in my quaint retreat to past technology. “In fact, I don’t know anyone who does. Not enough people use reel mowers and they take a special tool and a lot of time to sharpen.” My heart sank. Luckily another guy in the shop piped up. “Steve sharpens those over in Montpelier. He’s the only one around.” “Really?” I asked, brightening. “Does he charge an arm and a leg?” “Forty-five bucks.” So off I went to Steve’s. Steve was a bit of a relic himself, speaking and moving at the pace of a turtle, and I wondered nervously just how long he would be able to keep doing repairs. Not to worry; he did an excellent job.

Once the reel mower was all sharpened and ready, I had another problem. My yard was simply too big to maintain with the little mower. It takes 2 to 3 times as long to mow my yard with it. Like many of my friends, I work, at any given time, about 4 jobs and 50-60 hours a week to make ends meet. To use the reel mower for all of the lawn all summer was just not do-able. Thus, I use it for the portions with the flattest and thinnest lawn coverage. A friend quipped on Facebook when I posted a picture of my reel mower, “If you can’t mow your whole lawn with that, your lawn is too big.” Then I dislocated my shoulder in July tripping while exiting my tent, and sadly for me that was the end of the reel mower for the summer. There is always next summer I guess.

When driving about in my car, I now study what other people are doing with their lawns. I am simply astounded at the size of many homeowners’ lawns, many of which have up to 5 or 6 acres manicured to fairway-quality greenery. According to NASA scientists, “there is now an estimated total of 163,812 square kilometers, or more than 63,000 square miles, of lawn in America — about the size of Texas” (“The American Lawn”). According to this article in the Huffington Post, the American lawn is the largest “single crop” we grow. Perhaps the biggest tragedy, however, is I never see any activity on these vast lawn areas—no children playing, no picnics, no adults napping on blankets, no lawn games. I assume we are all too busy working or too tired from earning the resources to keep a home these days, or are inside hooked to various screen-devices, living in another world altogether.

As I drive, I can now spot the environmentally conscious mowers. They tend to leave unruly swaths of wildflowers scattered about the groomed green. The patches of flowers look pretty, but unusual. A rare homeowner here and there mows only a tiny swatch just around the house with the rest grown to hayfield height. I am all too aware of my pre-programmed reaction—unkempt. The silent judgment that follows is something along the lines of: they must be busy, disorganized, or lazy slackers. And of course there are the growing numbers of ticks and tick-borne diseases to consider, another justification to tame nature’s wildness to an orderly 3-inch carpet. Still, I find I have a growing admiration for these mowers of only tiny swaths.

Back home I walk my property. I have a modest 1.2 acres, about ¾ of which is lawn. How can I create less lawn, yet still retain aesthetic beauty and usefulness? One neighbor has simply transferred almost all of her property right up to her door into orchards, strawberry patches, and vegetable and flower gardens. But she basically works out there in the yard all day, every day. I simply can’t carve out that kind of time, though her productive land is pretty and the produce sumptuous. On one steep back hill on the north side of my property, I am letting the trees grow up wild. I always have to pay to have it brush-hogged anyway. I know it will bring songbirds and create a windbreak. It’s a fascinating experiment—what will Mother Nature produce on her own? So far poplars have appeared, a few maples, and some white pine. Already I notice more bird activity.

Along the road, I’ve let a 5 to 6 foot-wide stretch of grass grow all summer. It looks messy, but I plan to put in a short post-and-rail fence there to create a visual line. Each spring this will save me from raking up the gravel the snowplow pushes from the road to my lawn over the winter. It’s nice to have this subtle barrier of grass and flowers between the road and my space, which is really only “my space” by decree of human invention of the notion of “property.” In this little patch of wildness, I notice how the tall grasses are beautiful when they go to seed, their feathery plumes wheat and purple-colored, waving in the breeze. I’ve always let a back corner along the stonewall go to grass and wildflowers over the summer as well. There is one problem with letting the lawn go wild though: trees will grow up and take over, which can then reduce light and solar in the home. So I have to have this area brush-hogged in the fall, after the frosts have caused the crickets to go into hibernation. Last, I drew in the perimeter edges all around the circumference of my lawn by 2 feet or so. It’s not much, but it helps.

These are but modest changes, but they are a start at least. The American lawn is a conundrum. In spite of myself, I feel a sense of satisfaction after cutting a section of grass. I am okay. I am being a responsible homeowner. The universe is in order. I am American. These thoughts, of course, are a form of brainwashing, instilled by the lawn aesthetic campaign of 100 years ago and the resulting mindless cultural habit that has followed. There is no easy solution as to how to cultivate the yard in alternative, aesthetically pleasing, useful ways. Even with my various creative strategies, my lawn is still too big. Despite the issues, I love my lawn; I like the way it looks, feels, and smells. I enjoy a good competitive game of croquet, when I don’t have an injured shoulder, that is. I like reading out on the lawn on a blanket. It’s fun to watch the robins hop across the grass in the evening looking for earthworms. I am sure more and better solutions exist to reduce the areas I still mow. Finding those alternatives will be my winter research project. For I must answer the little voice that now pipes up as the sweet hay smell lingers over my freshly-mowed yard: You might be thinking you have just done your civic duty and restored order, but in reality you have actually committed floral and insect homicide, burned up some fossil fuel, added more C02 to the air, and created a stretch of environmental wasteland.

 

 

Work Cited

Engels, Jonathon. “Why Our Lawns Are Bad for the Environment and How to Change

Them for the Better.” Permaculture Research Institute, Permaculture Research

Insitute, 3 June 2016, https://permaculturenews.org/2016/06/03/why-our-lawns

            are-bad-for-the-environment-and-how-to-change-them-for-the-better/.

 

Scott Jenkins, Virginia. The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession. Smithsonian

Institution Press, 1994.

 

Wile, Rob. “The American Lawn is Now the Largest Single ‘Crop’ in the U.S.” HuffPost,

            Oath, Inc./HuffPost, 2017, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/lawn-largest

            crop-america_us_55d0dc06e4b07addcb43435d.