Nature loves a shaggy lawn story, if neighbors don't


It's rough out there in nature, and every autumn, I do my part to make things a little rougher.

Consider my yard, part of a small, forested island in an emerald sea of sprawling, Eastern Shore lawns, where the John Deeres outnumber the white-tailed variety, and hunting and fishing now trail mowing and mulching as most popular sports.

In a suburban world where land use tends toward the manicured and the smooth, my yard remains a bastion of dishevelment, a monument to all that's ungroomed and shaggy.

Well, a yard reflects its owner, the neighbors will say, over the clatter of their chipper-shredder-bagger-vacs.

And leaning on well-worn rake handles they will wonder darkly, as smoke from their fires rolls like a sea fog through the streets: What kind of citizen lets leaves just lie where they fall?

The answer, I think, starts with the way of water and the fundamental shapes and textures of the natural earth -- it lies in rough pathways vs. smooth ones.

In the beginning, before there were lawns and concrete and asphalt, the surface of virtually the entire Chesapeake watershed was rough and porous.

Forests covered it from what is now New York, south to Norfolk, Va., and west across the Blue Ridge and Appalachians. Rainfall did not whoosh off the land in sheets and jets; it meandered and percolated through the deep duff of leaves and pooled in the pits left by rotted stumps of forest giants.

It has been estimated that peak flows of fresh water into the bay in those pre-European days were lower by 25 percent to 30 percent; and base flows feeding the estuary's rivers during droughts were 10 percent to 15 percent higher because abundant ground water fed them in the absence of rain.

The whole system was stabler, cleaner, clearer.

One yard cannot recapture a 41-million-acre watershed, but it is a start; and the local squirrels and rabbits and robins and quail all seem to like it.

In fact, there is growing evidence that roughness is regaining currency across a broad spectrum of our dealings with the land:

* Farmers, who once left fields of bare, erosive earth all winter, now often leave a cover of winter grains or stubble from the fall harvest, into which seeds are punched with a minimum of plowing the next spring. "It looks rough" they say, and takes some getting used to; but it saves energy and topsoil, and also keeps fertilizer and pesticides out of waterways.

* For the sake of wildlife and clean water and less fuss and bother and expense, Baltimore City has recently 'just said no' to mowing 2,000 of its 6,500 acres of park- land.

Similarly, the state park system's "Grow not Mow" program aims to let 25 percent of its smooth mown lands revert; and more roadway median strips around Maryland are beginning to blossom with native wildflowers, as the land is allowed to speak for itself once more.

* We might take a lesson from England, where the Bishop of Oxford is heading a national movement to create wildlife havens in churchyards and cemeteries.

It is rough justice perhaps, but a local churchwarden in the village of Worcester recently resigned after he was reprimanded for keeping his grounds "too tidy."

* Golf courses, notorious consumers of chemicals in the quest for perfect putting greens, are increasingly leaving the rough rougher, the fairways a tad coarser, and they are letting the edges of streams and ponds go naturally vegetated to filter rain runoff.

Diamond Ridge, a highly regarded public course in Baltimore County, has a total chemical budget one-tenth of what an old-style course might require. A stream on the premises has water clean enough for trout.

* Roughness is in again, even on the bottom of the bay. Few people realize the extent to which a century and a half of dredging and tonging have flattened the natural reefs in which oysters grew throughout the Chesapeake.

There is conjecture that a bottom hilly and lumpy with oyster reefs might have provided better habitat for shellfish.

Some scientists even speculate that the tides, moving across the jagged surfaces of the old reefs, created turbulence that kept the bay's waters better oxygenated.

A thrust of oyster rejuvenation experiments in both Maryland and Virginia is to rebuild oyster reefs, to put some roughness back in the bottom.

I don't offer the benefits of rough vs. smooth as anything so fundamental in nature as a law of physics. But complexity in textures and structures does extend a common thread through a lot of our most intriguing environments.

The very shape of the bay, with its crinkly, scalloped edges, deeply indented with thousands of rivers and creeks and tidal sloughs, lends endless interest and liveliness to the estuary. This edge, an estimated 8,700 miles of it straightened out, is where so much of the bay's fish and birds and animals make their living.

A smoother shoreline would perhaps have its virtues, but it would be nothing so intimate as the Chesapeake, from which Maryland has adopted a state dog, a state boat, a state fish, a state fossil and a mascot for our state university.

So it is that roughness, starting with one's own yard, is perfectly consonant with good citizenship.

To be sure, there are practical considerations to be dealt with before abandoning all leaf raking -- a strong wind in late winter, scattering your leaves across adjacent velvet lawns, is not neighborly.

The answer here is simply more roughness.

I'm planting bushes and shrubs, and am going to experiment with some ground covers, to hold the leaves on my property.

I recently saw an article about what looked like an excellent sustainable rough system -- a yard in New England that had maintained itself for 50 years in oaks with a ground cover of pachysandra that caught and composted the falling leaves.

So rake and mow if you must. Spend those golden autumn days smoothing your turf against all that's natural. Slowly, we're learning better; meanwhile, this rough beast is slouching off to do some fishing while he waits for his hour to come 'round.

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