Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Why I Will Mow In May

Spring has sprung, and that means that the ground cover in my front yard is suddenly growing again. Grasses and chickweed, bugleweed and clover and dandelions, a wild heteroculture suddenly surging upward in a riot of green. That means that it’s mowing season again. 

Some folks don’t like mowing, viewing it as an onerous and pointless chore. But I’ve always liked it. As a teen, I looked forward to mowing the yard, because it was utterly satisfying. Sure, it needs to happen pretty much every week, but it’s one of those things that you do that has a definite result. It’s not abstract, not uncertain. It’s not a Zoom to develop a plan to create a task force to consider writing an overture to the General Assembly, as much as that warms the Presbyterian heart.

You do it, and it’s done. Like a made bed, or a sink emptied of dishes, it's as satisfying as a contented sigh.  

There's been a pushback against mowing lately, of those earnest "well-actually" Newthinks that pop and
meme about in our addled collective subconscious.  

Mowing is bad.  Don't mow.  Don't mow for the whole month of May!  No Mow May!  Let the pollinators pollinate!  Let the grass grow, man!  Let your freak flag fly!  It's habitat, too, bro, cultivate habitat, for our little crawly friends.

Which it certainly is.  Ever take a long walk through a field of tall grass at the height of summer?  Though I grew up in the urban megaplexes of DC and London and Nairobi, I remember doing that.  One particular afternoon hangs in memory, a hike near the rural Virginia home of a family friend when I was thirteen.  I remember how alive that meadow was, the slow windblown eddies across the surface of it, how the waving grass leapt and whirred with hundreds of grasshoppers.   I remember the brightness of the sun, and how alive everything felt.  I remember the tickle of the grass against my arms, against my bare legs.  

And after we got back, I remember not just the tickle, but the ticks.  The dozen-plus ticks I found clambering on my legs, on my back, in my socks, in my shorts, and squirming their way with thirsty intent towards my tender regions.  Even thinking about that now makes me itchy.  

Tall grass is habitat, without question.

That said, I'm no fan of the synthetic, lifeless monoculture of the American suburban lawn.  It's false life, with all the uncanny valley wrongness of astroturf or a reanimated relative.  It's why my own lawn is speckled with flowers and variety, all of which is evidenced here on this page.  But if you don't mow, you and your children and your dogs and neighborhood chipmunks will suffer.

Because mowing is not merely aesthetic. It serves a purpose.  That purpose, for me, goes well beyond reducing bloodsucking parasite populations.  

I am a gardener.  In my yard, mowing serves my compost piles, which I rely on to hyper-locally produce the earth that fills my nearly 300 square feet of raised beds.  For them, mowing is absolutely vital.

Back in the Fall, every single leaf that fell from the thirty plus trees that shade my back yard went into a pile, because, well, it’s compost. Six months worth of coffee grounds and filters, every peeled carrot shaving and bit of onion skin for half a year, all of it has been blended into that giant pile of dead leaves. It’s easy to look at that brown mound in winter and see nothing. It seems inert, lifeless, just a lump of matter. Which it is, right up until the moment you feed it with mowed greens in the Spring.

Because mowing a lawn is an act of harvest.  It's profoundly and directly useful, and I look forward to it as I look forward to collecting up fallen leaves in November.

All those lush green May clippings are rich with nitrogen, which is a veritable feast for the millions of teensy tinesy little microbes that have been sitting patiently among the leaves in one of the five by eight fenced compost piles in my backyard. Dump a couple of bags of cut ground cover onto the pile, give it a good oxygenating pitchin’ with a pitchfork, and the little microbiome of that pile comes to life. It’s no longer a pile of cold leaves, but teeming with life and the promise of life.

I go out, and I turn it on a wet day, and the pile smells good.  Not of rot and death, but sweet and alive.  It's warm, too, radiating heat as the energies of hundreds of millions of organisms thrive in the cuttings from my efforts.  Steam rises from it, filled with the scent of rich organic earth being birthed.  

My mowing last May is feeding my growing beans and tomatoes, my squash and my potatoes.  It will fill my table this summer.  The excess will go to the Little Free Produce stand of my church, joining with the outputs of other gardeners to feed those who have need.  That cycle of life and generous intent repeats, year by year, tied to the ebb and flow of life and the seasons.

So I will mow this May.  It isn't a drab and dismal duty.  It isn't a mindless, pointless ritual serving the cold demands of a soulless suburban deity.  

It's participating in the joyous bounty of creation.