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wTuesday, October 11, 2005

LAWNMOWER MAN: That's the title I gave this piece. Of course, Wlady Pleszczynski tweaked it with his impish sense of humor. It ran in the American Spectator last year under the title "Lawn Boy." I republish it here because this looks like a good day to mow the lawn, and it'll probably be the last cut of the year:

Walt Whitman started scratching out Leaves of Grass in notebooks in the early 1850s and he continued to add to it until he died of tuberculosis in 1892. The first printing of this collection of poems was a slender 95 page self-published affair. The eighth redaction was well over 400 pages, and between the first and final editions it managed to revolutionize American poetry. It overthrew the structure and distance of the ancien regime and substituted subjectivity and passion. The first poem began "I celebrate myself..."

My own peculiar concern is the title. It derives from the poet lying on a hill "observing a spear of summer grass." An unidentified child presents Whitman with this blade and asks "What is the grass?" The poet's response is maddening. First he wonders how to answer the kid. Then Whitman uses his inability to explain as an excuse to demonstrate his famous expansiveness. ("I guess it must be the flag of my disposition/ out of hopeful green stuff woven," etc.) By the time he's finished, the reader is filled with an overwhelming urge to open the garage, fetch the lawnmower, and go to work on grassy leaves.

Or at least this reader is, for personal as well as aesthetic reasons. Growing up the oldest of three boys and the only one without allergies, mowing the lawn was a chore that became a privilege. On one side of the ledger, I couldn't get out of it. And my Baptist minister father, who was already shelling out a whole $2 every week for my allowance, wasn't going to break with family tradition and pay me for pushing a lawnmower.

On the other half of the balance sheet, it was a great way to work out a lot of teen angst and pent up rage. I found I could lose myself in the bright sun, the roar of the engine, the dull repetition of starting and pushing and pulling and emptying. It was taxing, to be sure, but I had exactly the right build for it: short and squat with quads the size of tree stumps. At some point, I started to look forward to mowing the lawn. There was a sense of solitude -- just me with my machine and the grass -- that was almost good for the soul.

If not, it certainly proved valuable for keeping up with the Bovenkamps and the Vanderveesons. At the tail end of my high school years, my family moved to a little Dutch Reformed town in northwest Washington with yards that would make most, well, green with envy. In our adopted hometown, a well watered, neatly trimmed lawn is considered a sign of divine election, as well as Republican virtue. By law, if your grass gets to be more than six inches tall, the city will have it mowed and bill you for it. The ordinance is rarely invoked because it doesn't need to be. Six days a week, good upstanding citizens are out watering, fertilizing, and mowing their lawns.

That sort of religious dedication to a well-ordered yard may sound like overkill to some, but I've begun to understand it. After living for a year on the East Coast, in a concrete jungle of apartments and townhouses that tried to simulate the natural world by hosting a few planters in the massive courtyards, I recently moved back to this small town. I saw that the old yard was getting long-haired by local standards, and so I volunteered to give it a crew cut, and the folks were more than happy to let me go to it.

The old mower was easily located in the garage and I launched into the usual routine: check the gas tank, top it off with gasoline from the spare can, hand pump enough fuel into the engine so that I could start the thing on the first or second pull. It started without incident, and the rhythm of the engine coming to life sounded like an old familiar song that I hadn't heard in a long, long time.

posted by Jeremy at 12:16 PM