I live on an ocean of lawn. A continuous carpet of fescue rolls for several yards out toward the street before plunging down a three-foot slope to the sidewalk. It wraps around the corner, snuggles up to our driveway, and sprawls unhindered onto our neighbor’s property. When the sun is low in the sky, and breezes ruffle the blades, the lawn almost looks majestic. But it is what it is: a monocrop both dull and demanding. Dull, because its only variety comes in the form of weeds; demanding, because, like a head of hair, to look its best it must be cut regularly, and I’m the one stuck cutting it.
I once thought I liked mowing. My previous home sported a shady patch of lawn surrounded by hedges and flowerbeds. Mowing it required a few rounds with a reelmower, an activity that made me feel pleasantly Zen, like those Japanese monks who stand on rocks and rake the gravel into meditative patterns.
That was before I moved into a house collared with 2,500 square feet of lawn. Pushing a mower up and down slopes, along curbs, and across concrete steps felt more like jackhammering than gardening, and shaving an ever-smaller rectangle of grass under a shadeless sun felt less like meditation than penance.
But while out in my unruly and roughly shorn yard I kept my sweaty grumbling to myself, because of my next-door neighbor, a retired military man I’ll call Bert. Bert loved his lawn. It was as neatly cropped as a 1950s buzz cut. Spring through fall, twice a week, Bert stepped out of his house, strapped a back brace around his torso, and shoved a monstrous electric mower up and down his yard. His labor of love lasted a fraction of the time I spent battling my lawn in vain. The result was a stark line in the turf drawn between our houses dividing my mess from Bert’s precision.
Bert and I have never discussed lawn care, yet I couldn’t help but recognize that line as a major affront in the turf wars: a rebuke, a subtle statement of our opposing philosophies of lawn care. My lawn is mowed, therefore I am righteous. Your lawn is slovenly, therefore you are degenerate.
Every time I went outside to mow — not very often, it must be admitted — Bert was already there, mowing his already-mown lawn. Bert is of a generation that revered lawns as symbolic of the American dream. Free and open, the expanse of lawn flowing from home to home along tree-lined, suburban streets represented unfettered possibility. I grew up believing that a lawn, though useful for kids and pets, is not all that there is to a yard. Trees, flower beds, and patios are useful too. Yet I meekly relented to my lawn, and I mowed it to avoid neighborhood shame.
The last time I went out to mow, Bert had just finished with his mower and was returning with his leaf-collecting equipment: a long-handled spike and dustpan, the type used by city employees to collect litter. As he efficiently speared the cherry-tree leaves that had fallen on his lawn, I inefficiently rattled around my own yard. A bit later on, when I paused to catch my breath, a metallic chirping sound caught my ear. Bert, on hands and knees, was trimming his grass with scissors.
Bert wasn’t an entirely manly man after all. He was also a girly man, preening his lawn one blade at a time. I finally noticed that his geranium beds were decorated with delicate wire cages, and throughout his yard plastic pinwheels spun merrily in the breeze. Bert kept everything neater, not just his lawn.
All this time I thought I was engaged in an unspoken macho contest, man to pretend-man, duking it out in a turf war. The lawn harkens back to the primordial savanna, the grassland of the hunter. Convention dictates that men sweat over turf grass while women primp and preen the rose beds. Flowers and vegetables are domestic and nourishing, and therefore female. It was Eve, after all, who got too involved with her garden.
I had it all wrong. It wasn’t a war after all, just a difference of personal preference. My neighbor is meticulous; I am not. Slowly, my lawn is shrinking, swallowed by encroaching vegetable boxes and shrubs and flowers. I don’t think Bert laments its passing. My lawn will became part of a garden, while his will stand short and proud, ruffling briefly like a million little flags in the breeze.