Tuesday, October 5, 2010

On mowing the lawn

(I doubt these guys are saving any gas.)

I've been mowing lawns since I was about 7 years old.  We would never let our young kids use dangerous power equipment like that today, but that was a different time.  The yard had to be mowed, my father worked long hours away from home, and my mother was busy with two younger siblings.  I've mowed lawns of houses in which I have lived in Ohio, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Oklahoma, and New York, so I have given the activity a great deal of thought.  In fact, thinking is mostly what one does while mowing the lawn.

I mow about a half acre here in Ithaca.  Until 5 years ago, I used a walk-behind mower and it took 3-3 1/2 hours to complete the job; after I got a riding mower, the job was reduced to a third the time, so it gave me less time to think than doing it the old way.  Now I feel rushed.  I have to cover a lot of mental ground in only an hour or so.  I used to have time to outline my classroom lectures in my head while on the mower.  Now, I can barely enumerate the names of my kids and grandkids before I am finished.  When we rented a farm in Monteverde, Costa Rica years ago, the peon who worked the place mowed our lawn by hand, with a machete.  Wow!  He must have gotten a lot of thinking done.  He always seemed like he had life pretty well figured out, and the abundant time he had cutting grass probably contributed to that.  We modern North Americans can cut the grass lickety-split with our fancy machines, and we are clueless about almost everything.  See the correlation?

One of the first issues in mowing is exactly how you are going to do the cutting.  What pattern will you adopt?  Most of us mowers probably go around in a square, shooting the cut grass to the outside of the mowed area.  That means you are going counter-clockwise, because the outlet on the mower is on the right side.  I have seen some mowers simply go back and forth, first shooting the grass to the outside, and then shooting it to the inside of the mowed area.  That seems bipolar to me.  Some of the vegetation gets cut once, some gets cut twice.  Some aficionados have recommended that I mow my lawn using swaths that are diagonal within the yard, rather than horizontal or vertical.  Pretty fancy, so it would look good from a Google Earth photo.  But I stick with the counter-clockwise square, so I can easily determine that the geometric shape remaining to cut is diminishing in size as I go.  I need that positive reinforcement.

I have learned a great deal of ecology while mowing lawns for five decades in half a dozen states.  I apply no chemical spray to my lawn, so it is a bit rough with all sorts of herbaceous biodiversity that tell me something about what is under my feet.  One learns where the wet areas and the dry areas in the yard are located.  This often comes in handy later if you want to plant flowers or trees in the yard.  I learn where the yellow jackets have their hole in the ground, after they find me first.  I know where the pickerel frogs, which like wet meadows, live in my yard.  I enjoy the beautiful orange hawkweed blooms, just before I whack their little heads off, and I have followed the health of the same patch of buttercups for years.  I am aware of when crickets hatch in August, and I then anticipate the female turkeys that bring their brood through the yard to feed on the abundant insects.  I see deer droppings, and dog poop, and the occasional raccoon pile.  I know where moles like to dig their tunnels, and I know where they never dare to try.  And I see the non-sentient seedlings of white ash trees that are forever trying to find a home in a yard that is cut to the ground repeatedly.

So I think and I examine and I reduce the height of the vegetation. I accomplish mental work, I learn some ecology, and I make the yard look better simultaneously.  It's multi-tasking, the manly way.  When the mower is put away in October for the winter, I feel like I have closed up my mobile office or my lab for the season, and I truly look forward to all the mental stimulation that next May will bring.  Next time you have this chore to do, focus on nature's classroom that is all around you, and try to enjoy the relative solitude the job provides.  And remember, don't drink and drive, or try to send text messages as you negotiate that counter-clockwise square.


  1. What a wonderful post! I never realized what can be learned mowing a lawn. I absolutely loved your thoughts!

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  2. Great words, you've definitely sold me on the finer points of mowing the lawn that's for sure.