IT IS BARELY EIGHT O’CLOCK on a fine summer morning, and my mother has called to chat. My father’s new riding lawn mower has just been delivered. He gets on the horn, breathless with excitement: “Twenty-one horsepower!” he shouts. “Twenty-one!”
Why a lawn tractor? It’s not just that I don’t take kindly to modern ways or that I feel strongly that a perfectly good, non-polluting pair of scissors will do. It’s that my parents’ suburban yard is a far cry from 1,200 acres in the Red River Valley. It’s smaller than some apartments I’ve had.
There are many things in life I don’t understand. Suffering. Pi. The plot of The Usual Suspects. Lawns. What are these verdant fiefdoms that make feudal lords of ordinary men? These places where weeds, rodents, and children meet with equal banishment? These objects of obsession, chemicals, and manic grooming? (Not unlike certain relationships I’ve had, come to think of it.)
I do not believe in lawns. Oh, I know they exist. It’s hard to deny something that covers 30 million acres in the United States alone. And how could I forget all those times as a kid when Mr. Torgelson yelled at me for taking a shortcut across his pristine plot of land? But I’ve never done a lick of yard work, and it’s not because of my delicate constitution. It’s just common sense: One need only glance at the back cover of Lawnmower Man to know that no good end can come of yard work.
Maybe it’s because I’m lazy. Maybe it’s because I’m sensible. Maybe it’s because I’m a woman. There are some people, whose gender I will not specify but heretofore will refer to as “men,” who just need to conquer something, anything, and yards have become Manifest Destiny writ small. A perfect lawn has become proof of machismo in a society where duels and burping contests have lost favor. I’m surprised the boys haven’t taken the tacit competition to its natural conclusion: monster-truck lawn-mower rallies, wherein, say, suburban gentlemen trick out their riding mowers with enormous wheels, girlie mud flaps, and Turbo 400 transmissions. Then they take to the neighborhood, revving the earsplitting engines and crushing smaller mowers or hapless mobile homes en route.
My father has lived in the suburbs for some 50 years, but you can’t take the plow jockey out of him. Every mowing aboard his miniature tractor is a harvest of sorts, and in these waning days of precious summer, the smell of fresh grass clippings seems to satisfy the latent farmer in him. But he’s a tinkerer, too—and never content to leave anything as it is. One day I expect to find an assortment of micro-crops in his yard, no doubt genetically modified to produce cans of Leinenkugel’s.
Maybe there will come a day when I conquer my fear (and laziness and reason) and connect with the land—or at least the yard. I would probably let the weeds have their way and cultivate the dandelions as carefully as one does roses, then tell the neighbors that it’s all native grasses (Philistines!). What’s more likely is that I’ll just lay out a durable, all-weather rug cut to the exact specifications of the lot’s borders. I’ll keep a rug sweeper on a hook in the garage and some spot remover on a shelf nearby. And there I’ll be someday, standing in the front door, in a housedress, cigarette in hand and curlers in hair, channeling the fury of Mr. Torgelson, hollering, “Get off my rug, you damn kids!” MM