Managing the lawn: a life lesson

Gardening is like doing a jigsaw.  A pointless way of passing time until you die. – Jeremy Clarkson, The Times (London)

Yesterday, the Supermodel and the kids were off in the San Jose area, visiting my in-laws (“Grandma G.” and “Guy,” as the kids call them).  Having a little extra time on my hands and the weather being agreeable, I chose to spend a couple good chunks of the day catching up on the yard work — specifically mowing the back lawn.

One of the reasons we moved to this house over five years ago was that it had lawns, front and back, and we wanted our children (our daughter was 2½ at the time, our son was actually born a week before the move) to have their own space of grass to play in.  Previously we had been renting part of the first floor of a drafty old Victorian that was surrounded by fruit trees and rose bushes in various states of repair, but no real open space to speak of.  Our current locale has a substantial back yard with some trees (oak, almond, olive and one we can’t identify), and a front yard with plots of grass broken up by cememnt walkways.  Plenty of soft green for the little ones to gambol.

Of course, in this fallen world everything has a downside.  The downside with a lawn is that you have to take care of it, or pretty soon you don’t have a lawn, you have a weedy patch of dirt.

In fact, that was pretty much the state of things when we moved in, back in January 2004.  I don’t know if the previous tenants had kids or not; what I do know is they had a passion for auto and bicycle repair, and that’s what they used the back yard for.  You’d be flabbergasted by the amount of old car parts, bike parts, broken tools, chunks of glass, bottle caps and I can’t remember what all I dug out of that space — even as late as 2008 I was still finding things.  The highlights were the block of a V-6 engine that had simply been abandoned underneath the larger olive tree, and which was simply too heavy for me to lift (our landlord Chuck, bless his heart, finally found someone to haul it off, or I would’ve had to turn it into a planter), and a chunk of cement that had apparently held a post of some sort, which I was finally able to break up with the back end of an axe and fill the hole with dirt.  Oh, and the pile of ashes in one corner, evidently the remains of an improvised barbecue pit.

The first year with the lawns (front and back) was literally nothing but digging out junk and pulling weeds.  I had to take the axe (the blade side this time) to a stump in the front yard, in addition to all of the above.  Plus, the trees were all overgrown, which forced me to do a ridiculous amount of long-overdue pruning.  Oh, and I had to remove a huge vine which was trying to take over the same olive tree that had been sheltering the V-6 block.  By the end of 2004, the trees were okay, but the open ground was almost more dirt than foliage, and we were just hoping that we’d have any lawn at all the next year.  Given my traditionally “brown thumb,” I wasn’t optimistic, and had half-decided to plow everything up and start from scratch in 2005.

We did, due to two fortunate breaks.  One is that whoever planted our current lawn had done so using Bermuda grass.  Bermuda grass is great stuff: tough, fast-growing, needs very little water or maintenance.  Round-Up won’t kill the stuff.  I’m partly convinced that if humans do manage to make themselves extinct, Bermuda grass and kudzu will divide up the world between themselves in our absence.  The other is that we live in Stockton, California, a town built on some of the richest soil in the world.  Everything grows here, just about — I joke that you don’t dare throw a soda can on the ground, because if you do, you can come back a year later and find a Pepsi bush in full flower.  The combination of the two meant that the lawn has not only come back, it’s largely thrived.

From ’05 on I’ve mostly had four tasks:

  • pull weeds, mostly in the spring (they like Stockton soil too),
  • keep the trees under control (someday I’m going to break down, buy a 20-foot ladder, push past my vertigo and REALLY do some work),
  • re-seed the remaining bare spots (not too successfully, with how much shade those trees throw, but the Bermuda has made surprising progress), and
  • mow.

The last one is the easiest in terms of detail, but the hardest in terms of interest and energy expenditure.  I own a push mower — yes, you can still buy push mowers; I got mine at Sears, so they’re not hard to find — and I do so by choice.  It’s not expensive to run (no gas, no electricity), it gives you a good workout (especially the back and upper arms), and it tends to naturally re-seed and mulch your lawn (because not everything you cut ends up in the grass catcher; push mowers are delightfully inefficient that way).  Bermuda is tough, not easy to cut with a push mower, but it can be done if you’re willing to make the effort.

So Thursday afternoon, I was in the back yard, shoving the mower around, and I got to thinking how much easier this was than it had been five years ago.  Nowadays, most of the work is just keeping the grass at a nice short length and making sure it has enough water.  And the latter is really easy: set up sprinkler in the evening, make sure it isn’t drenching the neighbor’s yard, turn it off first thing in the morning, repeat every few weeks until the rains return in October.  Any holes in the ground — and they do develop from time to time, due to the nice soft Stockton soil — I simply fill in with grass clippings plus dirt dug up from our basement.  A far cry from the seemingly daily task of chopping through trackless jungle … which was what I was facing back in ’04.

But then a lot of life is like that — you have a problem that seems close to insurmountable but you have to tackle it anyway.  You hack away at it, with more effort than skill.  You feel like you’ve momentarily conquered it, only to see it encroaching on your life again like weeds.  You re-join the battle, occasionally picking up little things that give you an advantage, but mostly just stubbornly persevere.  Along the way, you learn to choose your spots, finding which aspects of the problem are tolerable and which have to be gotten rid of yesterday.  And then one day you turn around and realize that all you need to do is basic maintenance, and the problem won’t return.  You’re past the worst, just keep doing what needs doing and you’re good to go.

We’ve all got something like that in our lives, don’t we?  An addiction that’s now in our past, a sticking point in marriage or child-rearing that no longer sticks, a hump in business that you’ve gotten over.  I’ve got quite a few myself.  For instance, I’d like to have a job — it gets boring being at home most of every day, and I have the typical male desire to bring home the wildebeest for my mate and offspring.  But with few businesses hiring in my skill set (clerical/general office) and a lot of job seekers, I’ve learned to be patient, knowing that with my wife’s job we have a decent income if we manage it carefully.  I’m still firing out resumes, checking my connections — but I don’t get angry about it now.  God is still on His throne, and it’ll happen when it happens.  Likewise with our marriage.  The Supermodel and I have been through some massive struggles, but we’re past them now and in … not a perfect place, but a good one.  We’re confident that we can work out whatever transpires — if we’ve gotten this far, there’s no reason to believe we can’t make it through anything.

And now I’ve got a new thing to deal with.  My mom is dying.  I know she’s going to Heaven, I’m sure I’ll see her there when my life on earth is done, so that’s not a worry.  But it still hurts tremendously, in ways I simply can’t think away.  One thing I’ve found since I last wrote on Wednesday was that sometimes I simply have to take the time and let the hurt hurt.  Forcing it aside or trying to rationalize only makes me more stressed and ornery.  My family doesn’t need that.  So I’ve had to start making that time — sometimes three minutes, sometimes three hours — to let the pain hurt, to be depressed, until it fades (for a while).  Like the Bermuda grass, I just have to let time pass and things take their course.  This isn’t my natural bent (my natural bent is, if it ain’t broke, fix it anyway just in case), but it’s something I’m having to learn in this situations.

So as humorous as my opening quote may be, I will have to disagree with the esteemed Mr. Clarkson of the Times, at least to a point.  If you’re willing to learn what it has to teach you, gardening is not a “pointless way of passing time” at all.  You can gain a lot by watching the grass grow — and by cutting it.

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