Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Revenge of the Lawn?

Many years ago I watched a documentary called “Lawns” on PBS and was fascinated by people’s obsession with their yards. Although I had done my share of yardwork in my life, was even part of a groundskeeping crew once in my youth, I never developed this affinity with having the perfect yard. Watching this program, the infinite variety of grasses, care techniques, tools, landscape designs were staggering. Yet everyone they interviewed seemed so rigid about their lawn care routines and practices, it was almost frightening. In fact they showed one home with a ‘natural’ lawn … people who believed nature was intended to be its own creation, to flourish without human intervention. Their neighbors almost unanimously despised this couple, or assume they were lazy or uncaring about the community, simply because their lawn was different. An eyesore, they called it. One neighbor on their block commented “well, it’s a free country” and that’s about as much support as that couple ever got.

In the never-ending battle with lawnmowers and weed whackers, I’m the losing party. Every single time I get my lawn mower repaired, it dies again within minutes. When it is functioning properly, we get a week of rain. The weed whacker was running just fine until it ran out of twine. Upon my arrival back from the hardware store I learned the motor had seized up somehow.

My neighbors on the right, left, and across the street amaze me with their riding mowers. Every man on this street owns a riding lawn mower other than me! How do they afford it? Their shiny green John Deeres look as if they had been just moments ago been driven out of the showroom. And these men are outside mowing practically every single day! Rain, shine, wind, bitter cold, humidity, one-hundred degrees … they tend their lawns as if they are shrines to civilization itself, as if the whole social order would collapse if a single blade of grass were left uncut. Where do these men find all this time to lavish on their lawns when they have businesses, children, lives to pursue? I wonder if they pay as much rapt attention to their kids’ and spouses’ needs.

Around the same time as seeing the Lawns documentary on PBS I watched another documentary on PBS called Sherman’s March. It was filmed by Ross McElwee, who had intended to walk in the footsteps of General Sherman’s armies and document the still-lingering effects of the civil war over a century later. Instead, his girlfriend broke up with him just prior to filming and the project became an odyssey of introspection and documenting his feelings as he traveled. The effect is brilliant. Through McElwee’s cinema verite style we discover his flaws, his idealization of women, his longing for companionship yet reserved, aloof, self-absorbed nature.

One minor point of the film showed a group of men who had some other fixation with lawns – specifically lawn ornaments. In the stealth of night, they would sneak into one another’s yards and steal lawn decorations. These were not just any lawn ornaments, these were giant plastic and plaster large-as-life representations of dinosaurs, elephants, moose, and other wild animals. I guess this was a whole new spin on the ‘steal the garden gnome’ phenomenon.

The pirate spirit inside me was laughing as I watched these men make their strategies and in the cover of darkness wrestle gigantic icons into pickup truck beds and trailers. No doubt it was a fun game, knowing that tomorrow, your buddy just might sneak off with your favorite tyrannosaurus from beside the pool, or your entire mutant flamingo collection, and you might have to triple your vigilance. Now that kind of activity could make me fond of lawns, and their keepers.

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