::Literate Blather::
Monday, May 28, 2007
Essay: On Mowing the Lawn

I mowed my lawn today. The spring grass – the color of clover -- still had the soft, velvety feel of newness and a sheen of dew still dappled the blades. It was as tall as mid-calf and beginning to look like an unkempt meadow. I dragged my electronic lawn mower out of the garage and carefully cut the grass back.

I enjoy mowing. I like the feel of my muscles as they push the mower; the sweat on my brow and down my back. I like the smell of freshly cut grass. It’s a pungent, earthy scent that reminds me of baseball, picnics, and darting through lawn sprinklers on hot August afternoons.

Mowing the lawn is a chore. But it’s work that has an easily identifiable beginning and an end. I get to watch the results of my labors as I progress. There are no hidden tasks, mysterious agendas, or extra work orders. I make course corrections immediately for any missed patches and when I’m finished I get the satisfaction of a neat, beautiful lawn.

I’m a rarity in my New England neighborhood.

Few of my neighbors mow their own lawns. Oh, there are some hold-outs – mostly neighbors of my father’s generation. But the majority of the Baby Boomers and Generation Xers hire landscaping companies to do the work. It’s a new mindset. Mowing the lawn is menial – a trivial and irritating task that is better left to others with the time and motivation.

So once a week pick-up trucks loaded with industrial mowers, leaf blowers, and Brazilian laborers descend on my street. The sound of engines and blowers roars above the song birds and the laborers mow the lawns of my neighborhood. These strangers also prune shrubbery and throw down cedar mulch.

Then they load back on the trucks and vanish for another week.

Sometimes my neighbors are home and watch as other people perform the duties that were once considered the admission price of home ownership. My father would never have dreamed of hiring someone else to mow his lawn. It would have been a sacrilege. It would also have cast dispersion on his character.

My father will still judge a man by the condition of his home. Neatly mowed, nicely painted, and well maintained speaks well of a man’s makeup in my father’s world. It also speaks to his Puritan work ethic – a willingness to sacrifice leisure time in order to take care of his property.

This mindset – and one that my father passed on to me – is disappearing. No longer are chores like mowing the lawn considered part of a man’s duty. In fact, I often get friends and neighbors asking me why I mow my own lawn. Why waste the time? Why not spend the money to hire someone to do it?

“For a hundred bucks a month, I don’t have to bother with it,” one friend told me and then said to me. “Don’t be so cheap.” In his mind, my reluctance to hire a stranger to do my own chores is about money.

This same friend is the father of a young boy. His son mimics Bill, the landscaper he hires to mow his lawn. The boy pushes his toy mower up and down the driveway as Bill mows the lawn. The boy idolizes Bill while my friend sits in his living room watching the Red Sox play on TV. This strikes me as sad. Isn’t the boy reaching for something in Bill that his father just isn’t providing?

I wonder what he is teaching his son.

Will his boy learn that responsibility can be pushed to others just as long as you’re willing to compensate them for it? That getting something done is more important than doing it yourself? Will his son ever learn that there is something inherently special and satisfying about working with his own hands? Menial labor isn’t menial at all. It’s about a sense of accomplishment – about self-reliance, responsibility, and doing a good job.

I mow my own lawn because the thought of hiring someone to do it for me embarrasses me. It makes me feel like a less of a man: That I’m shirking a chore that belongs to me. I might not be able to put on a new roof or fix electrical wiring, but I can at least mow my own lawn, water my garden, and pull up the weeds growing between my patio stones.

Yet most people don’t mow their own lawns. They don’t paint their own homes. They hire maids to vacuum and dust. There are many reasons: They don’t want to; they are too busy; they can’t be bothered; they are too lazy; or maybe it is simply one of the conditions of a society that gets too affluent.

Whatever the case after I finished mowing my lawn and stowing my gear, I pulled out a lawn chair and sat. I opened a cold beer and smelled my grass and let the scent push out memories.

My rest was richer and more satisfying because I knew that I had worked hard, that I had accomplished a chore, and that I had fulfilled a responsibility – a responsibility to myself.

Read our essay on the lies of technology

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