The Moral Imperative of a Good Lawn

We're only two or three months away from snow.  Good.  That means no lawn care and a respite, for a few blessed months, from the raging debates we've had over it.

I'm scared to start it.

I'm scared to start it.

I've lived without a lawn since leaving my parents' home for college in 1981.  As a kid, a lawn meant a spiky, spongey green carpet that tickled my bare feet and stained the knees of my jeans during touch football games.  It didn't mean wrestling with weighty, emotionally-fraught issues such as sexism, global warming, noise pollution, conspicuous consumption, pesticide use and the cardinal sin of sloth.

It started this spring, when we had to decide on how we were going to perform that most basic act of lawn care, mowing.  

I say we, but what I really meant was Mark.  Of course he was going to do it.  I was going to be too busy doing more girly things, like setting up the compost pile. Since he was going to do it -- of course! -- he had to be comfortable with his tools of engagement.  And he was most comfortable with a rider mower.  

I think of rider mowers, and I get an image of a big fat guy in a Motley Crue T-shirt, the sleeves torn off of it to reveal his tattoo of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a Camel dangling from his lips, ripping around the grass with a beer in one hand and the steering wheel in the other.

Or am I confusing mowing with golfing?

 Anyway.  My reaction was akin to a cat with a fur ball: Ack! 

Rider mowers are okay for somebody with a five acre lawn.  But our lawn could be tackled by a push mower.  Push mowers signify that you're a hard worker, a laborer.  It's more honest.  

"Okay," said Mark, a hint of exasperation in his voice, "but what kind of push mower?  Gas, or electric?"  It came out like a dare.  How socially responsible are you going to go with this? Are you going to have me cutting the lawn with scissors?

The edge in his voice was the frustration with the sheer number of factors we had to juggle in trying to gauge just who we were trying to please, and why.  There was The Neighbor.  He has a rider mower, and his lawn is two times smaller than ours.  He drives that little John Deere green machine around without a hint of sadness or remorse. He'd think we were a bit nuts to try to tackle our lawn with anything but a Husqvarna zero turn rider mower with a 23 hp Endurance Series V-Twin engine by Briggs & Stratton with a 46-inch blade.

Then there's the my sister, who I love and admire, whose husband cuts their grass with a non-electric, non-gasoline, push mower, the kind they call "self propelled."  She winced when Mark said he wanted a leaf blower ("They're so noisy, and their diesel exhaust pollutes the air"), furrowed her brow when he said he wanted a snow blower ("They're so noisy, and their diesel exhaust pollutes the air") and gasped audibly when we announced we'd decided to buy a $2,800 rider mower from Sears ("They're so noisy, and their diesel exhaust pollutes the air, and YOU PAID HOW MUCH?")

I called Sears the next day and cancelled the order.  I felt hot with buyer's remorse and polluter's regret.  I envisioned my carbon footprints scorching the grass of my backyard, tongues of flame shooting from the soles of my boots.

Meanwhile, the grass was getting longer and Mark was getting anxious.  "What will the neighbors think?" he said, looking out the window at the lawn, roiling in the spring breeze like a field of wheat.  

For a while, we toyed with the  idea of using my brother's decrepit old rider mower.  He was offering it free of charge, which eliminated the shame of conspicuous consumption.  We would be reducing, reusing, recycling.  We would also be inheriting. Inheriting a bucket of wing nuts that was as far from a Husqvarna as a balsam flyer was from a hovercraft.  

We were back at the beginning, no further along in our choice of grass cutting implements.  We finally settled on a gasoline-powered push mower.  We would be making up for the environmental sins of fossil fuel consumption and noise pollution by having to break a sweat pushing it.  

Now came the moral psychology of fertilizing the lawn.  That engendered even more dark nights of the soul for the two of us.  Mark wanted to blast the weeds with something, anything, to make them go away and to assuage his guilt over the way our purslane, crabgrass and dandelions were encroaching on Our Neighbor's fairway-worthy lawn.  I warned against that, mindful of my nieces and how they wouldn't be allowed to run barefoot in the grass if we sprayed the lawn with pesticides.  I was advocating for pulling each dandelion out by hand, until I doffed a sun hat and some gloves and a little spade and settled in on weeding the ones that had sprouted in the cracks between our brick driveway.  I spent five minutes on one dandelion before throwing in the trowel.

I tried dousing them with "environmentally friendly" copper spray.  My sister suggested boiling water.  Nothing doing.  They thrived.  They wore me down.  My high-minded resolve vanished.  Vexed, I went to the hardware store and bought RoundUp -- the most toxic, no-holds-barred weed killer out there -- and sprayed the driveway with it.  Within three days, instead of a field of green sprouting in the driveway, I had a field of brown.  It looked that way for a week or two until the weeds finally curled up and disappeared like the legs of the dead Wicked Witch of the East in The Wizard of Oz.  

I resolved to do better, be better, be more socially conscious.  I would just let the lawn be.  What did it matter whether we had purslane or grass, as long as we kept it trim and tidy?  Then my neighbor mentioned how he couldn't treat some of the weeds in his lawn because the weeds in our yard would just send out another battalion to retake the front, and I saw why Mark was concerned with what the neighbors thought.  He wasn't playing a parlor game, he wasn't trying to guess what they were thinking.  He knew what they were thinking.  Now I did, too.   

More waves of shame.  

Even so, I went nuclear on Mark (not an option for lawn care, by the way) when he told me he had contracted with a lawn service.  

"YOU SPENT HOW MUCH?!" I shrieked.  And to think we had wasted $10 on a grass seed and fertilizer spreader at a yard sale a few months back!  For what?  For some teenager to do it for us instead, wearing a Motley Crue T-shirt (his dad's), sleeves cut off to reveal a Chinese character tattoo that he thinks means "warrior" but really means "angry face all the time,'  holding a Mountain Dew in one hand and a pesticide applicator wand in the other.  

Hospitals have medical ethics boards.  I say every community should start a lawn ethics board.  I am mentally exhausted.  My compassion meter has timed out.  I'm ready to rake the whole thing up and plant rocks.  I'm praying for snow, thick and heavy. 

And then we'll have to decide on how we're going to clear the driveway.  Shovel, or blower?