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The call of the lawn


THIS TIME of year, if you're blessed (or burdened) with a lawn of some sort, it beckons. Actually, that's far too polite a way to put it. Back in the 1970s, singer Joni Mitchell, marooned amid the affluent pools of L.A., rhapsodized about "the hissing of summer lawns." But that was arid Southern California - not verdant Maryland, not during a very cool spring that's like steroids for fescue. In these parts, lawns don't hiss. They shout at you. Yes, you. Get up, get out, get at it. Mow. Each and every week - or every other week if you like to walk on the wild side. Hour after hour, all spring, summer and fall long.

From sea to shining sea, this is a nation of lawns, 100 million of them or so, averaging a third of an acre each - a vast unbroken patchwork of closely shaven welcome mats that deep thinkers have variously linked to our Savannah genes, our lust to tame nature, our status needs and even the communal bonds and duties of democracy. Americans pour tens of billions of dollars, tons of unhealthy chemicals and untold man-hours into keeping America's single largest crop unnaturally green and trimmed. And then, like Sisyphus, they do it again and again.

When we acquired our irregular patch of lawn, with its odd little slopes and forested edges, we vowed aloud as to how we wouldn't get lured into obsessive grooming. But the call of the lawn is powerful. As it turns out, walking behind a small mower, its little engine noisily polluting away, can be, well, calming, a respite from everything but the minute contours of a tiny sliver of earth. For better or worse, after a long summer of mowing back and forth and up and down, every inch is known. And even if this is not somehow satisfying, there is the deep pleasure of having mowed, of looking back over the battle won - at least for a week. It's kind of like the pain of writing and the pleasure of having written.

One summer, when we deluded ourselves that we were flush, we hired a guy to cut the lawn. He was young and wiry and had one of those zero-turn mowers that he maneuvered quickly and effortlessly. Oh, cursed envy! It took him less than a half-hour to our two or three hours. And every now and then, he'd cut the back yard twice, in a cross pattern, and for a day or two it would look like centerfield at Camden Yards. It was almost worth the money just to sit on the deck and look over his handiwork - until we got the bills. Back to mowing ourselves.

We wish we had the social courage displayed by an old colleague, who has taken great pride for about the last 15 years in not mowing his lawn. Early on, he hauled leaves into his yard to hasten its return to nature. After a few years, new trees and then even some wild orchids took root, and on better than a half-acre he had left at most 20 square feet of grass. But lawns are like formal dining rooms. Though we may not actually use them, we're afraid to have a house without them - for fear of damaging its resale value. My colleague recently sold his house, wild yard and all, and got his price, but not before his wife made him mow that last 20 square feet of lawn.

We are hardly that brave, and so we mow on. We tell ourselves it's exercise (no SUV of a lawn tractor here). We tell ourselves that, like getting the oil changed in the car to keep it running nicely, it's one of the prices and prides of homeownership.

We have to confess that we love, for a while at least each spring, the smell of that peculiar tonic of grass clippings and gas fumes produced by mowing. And of course, there's no telling the trouble we'd get into if we weren't cutting the lawn. But in the end, we mow ambivalently, cutting through both the grass and our growing sense of pointlessness.

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