Monday, May 14, 2007

The Great Green Whale

Ahab had it easy. At least once you kill the whale, it stays dead.

Twenty years ago, with little or no money in my purse, I turned not to the sea, but to the land—my land. After watching my rents continually climb until I could no longer afford them, and since I always wanted to live in the country anyway, I maxed out what credit I had and purchased what I could afford—three and a half acres of rolling meadow nestled in the hills, and a forty year old single wide. I was ecstatic—I was a landowner! I walked the grounds, singing “This land is my land, this land is my land, this land is my land, this land is my land…” It was a lot of land to manage on my own, without machinery (I couldn’t yet afford to drill a well at the time)—an acre was originally the amount of land a team of oxen could plow in a day—but I made a deal with a local farmer: you cut it, the hay is yours (nice hay, too, almost all timothy grass). [And to give Ishmael his due, a drainage ditch does bisect the plot, so technically, he’s still correct.]

This was the last year mowing would be so easy. [Loomings, indeed!] I wasn’t worried, though. First, I had no intention of cutting all that grass, just a half acre or so around the single wide, and second, I planned to plant trees, and they would keep the grass (and the winter wind) down. And plant I did—over two thousand trees, one year old seedlings available inexpensively from the state through Cooperative Extension: Norway spruce mostly, 8-10 feet apart, but also blue spruce, black walnut, black cherry, maples, red oak, Austrian pine, all with just a shovel in soil of heavy clay. These trees needed water during dry spells, hauled with a five gallon bucket with water from my newly drilled well. I also had to keep the grass cut at first around the trees, but quickly found I simply couldn’t keep up with what little time I had while working long hours at multiple jobs to cover all the credit I had tapped. Once established after that first year, I figured, the trees would survive on their own.

I was used to grass growing around my parents’ house in the suburbs—I wasn’t used to how grass grows in a meadow. In just a few weeks from mid-April to mid-May, the grass can shoot up to unmowable lengths—a few weeks more, and it’s waist high. Some weeds will reach six feet—makes for slow going with just a push lawn mower. The task was hopeless. But, my trees were surviving, and would one day grow about the meadow. Further, I was happy to just let nature go about her business, well, naturally.

I learned a lot about nature those first few years. I had grown up believing the “survival of the fittest” model, and at first I thought it true—one grass would flourish for 3-4 weeks, crowded out by the next grass, which would be crowded out by the next. The timothy grass field was gone. But the next year, I realized my error—rather than a continuous conquering by new species, the meadow is a ballet: the same grasses reappeared, coming and going according to their seasons, yielding to the next grasses in their seasons. I noticed something similar about insects—they would l leave my garden in peace, even into harvest—unless I didn’t harvest promptly. Then, they ravished the slightly too ripe vegetables.

I also learned just how na├»ve my views were about nature. When my dog and I took possession of the meadow, the ground hogs and deer decided they could find more hospitable loggings, but oblivious to my argument that the meadow and surrounding lands offered more than enough for all creatures, the mice took up residence. So did the rats. I got a cat. Then another cat. I trapped dozens of them, then finally turned to poison—which worked for a while. Rabbits chewed through the particle board skirting. I replaced it with aluminum flashing buried 18 inches, but this was a deterrent, not unbreachable. I got the message—the land must be kept mowed.

Easier said than done. Trying to balance this task with other chores and career obligations, I decided to cut grass for an hour or so each day, working my way across the land. The problem, though, is the grass just cut a week ago is already eight inches high, so I had to continually turn back and start over. I altered my goal to just reach the drainage ditch at least once each summer (singing Talking Heads' "Take Me to the River"--another point for Ishmael).

Then nature helped—one very dry summer, the grass simply behaved, growing much more slowly. I reached the far border, not once by twice. The whale had been conquered. And, the evergreens have thrived on the fertile ground, growing dense, bushy, and rivaling the telephone poles. In many places, they completely prevent grass, in others severely slowing it, and in still others, grass has been supplanted by moss. All welcome developments. Then the next summer, wet weather created such a lush jungle that I could only cut a third of the grass.

So this year, as soon as I could near the end of the term, I devoted several hours on consecutive days to cut, cut, cut, determined to get ahead of the resurrected whale before the grass becomes unmowable again. Or at least survive the encounter. If I can’t match Ahab, I’ll settle for Jonah.

I watched the teenager next door while I was moving away. His mom moved in last year, after the house had been vacant two years, so attacking their lawn (roughly an acre and a half) falls at last to them, instead of the realtor.

They’ve got a riding mower (they don’t have all the trees I do), but I’ve never seen anyone do such an incredibly poor job with one. I didn’t even know it was possible. The lawn looked like someone had attacked it with a weed whacker. His pattern of attack seemed almost arbitrary, and every 10-15 minutes or so, exhausted from his heavy labor astride the mower, he needed a break.

This went on for hours, with no better results. Finally, Mom came out. A conversation ensued. Mom took the mower herself, running the perimeter of the property, calmly smoking a cigarette while the grass took notice and lay behind her in neatly trimmed, golf course quality turf. She dismounted. Another conversation. Junior took the wheel again. He started mowing this time in back, and, while certainly no golf course, doing a credible job. He lifted his eyes, waved. I gave him a thumbs up. Then he took a break. By dark, he had finished cutting 1/3 of the plot.

He finished the next morning, again, a credible if not stellar job, and I continued pushing my aching muscles to strive to stay ahead of the rising tide of green.


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