Time to Mow the Lawn
DON GONYEA, host:
From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Don Gonyea, sitting in for Liane Hanson.
As you ease your way into a springtime Sunday, here's a reminder of one item that may be on your list of chores for the day.
(Soundbite of a lawnmower)
Lawnmowers have been silent for the last few months across most of the country, but as days grow longer, so does the grass. And homeowners turn their attention to sharpening blades and adding the scent of fresh-mowed lawns to the heavy pollen already in the air.
NPR's Scott Horsley owns a lawnmower, and he claims to have every intention of using it on his lawn in San Diego. In the meantime, he sent us this meditation on America's obsession with cutting the grass.
SCOTT HORSLEY reporting:
My lawn needs mowing. We recently had one of our infrequent rainy spells here in southern California, and the clover and dandelions that pass for grass in my front yard suddenly shot up like gangly teenagers.
Personally, I wouldn't much care that my lawn looks more like a pasture than a putting green, but in America, the well-trimmed lawn is part of the social compact. In some cases, it's almost a sign of salvation.
(Soundbite from the television show, King of the Hill)
Unidentified Actor: (As Hank Hill) My lawn is my flag. It tells the world, Here lives a competent, trustworthy, salesman of propane and propane accessories.
HORSLEY: That's Hank Hill, the animated hero of the FOX television show, King of the Hill. For ten years, Hank and his family have been holding a funhouse mirror up to American culture, and Hank has kept his cartoon lawn in a constant state of readiness.
While the series could be set in just about any suburb, creator Mike Judge says it's largely inspired by Richardson, Texas, where some of his former neighbors used giant riding mowers to manicure postage stamp lawns to golf course perfection.
Mr. MIKE JUDGE (King of the Hill Creator): It does say a fair amount about you, I guess. If someone's got a bunch of weeds and an overgrown lawn, they're probably either a hippy or a drug dealer maybe, I don't know.
When we first moved into the house I mowed it once a week. I'd mowed it a couple of times and I hear this weed whacker once, early in the morning. I looked through my peephole and the next-door neighbor was edging my walkway leading up to the door. Which I guess meant that I hadn't done a good enough job.
HORSLEY: I know just how he felt.
A few years ago, my neighbors asked if I wanted to hire their young son to mow my lawn. I figured that was their not-so-subtle way of suggesting I wasn't keeping up my end of the block. That's the thing about lawns. One shaggy eye-sore can screw it up for the whole neighborhood.
Nature writer Michael Pollen(ph) learned that lesson as a child the summer his father, an infrequent mower in the best of times, gave up cutting the grass altogether, ignoring the glares of their Long Island neighbors.
Mr. MICHAEL POLLEN (Writer): I don't want to make him seem too heroic in any way. He's really lazy. And I felt that summer, I was five years old I guess, the hot breath of the majority breathing down our back.
HORSLEY: When one neighbor finally complained out loud, Pollen's father fired up the mower just long enough to carve his initials in the ragged grass. The family moved a short time later.
Pollen's 1991 book, Second Nature, includes a chapter titled Why Mow? When you see perfect lawns stretching all down the block, he says, it's probably a sign of neighbors controlling neighbors. But despite the man-made look of the lawns, it might not be a sign of neighbors controlling nature.
Mr. POLLEN: When I used to mow the lawn I used to think that I was in charge. I was calling the shots. I was subjecting nature to my designs. But now I realize in fact I'm doing exactly what the lawns want me to do. Because what we're doing every week with that lawnmower is keeping the forest from coming back. And that is exactly what the grasses want us to do.
HORSLEY: The grasses have us pretty well trained, it seems. We Americans cultivate some 21 million acres of lawn, and my little patch of 600 square feet is not getting any shorter.
The neighbor kid, who did a great job, by the way, moved away last year. And so far no other young entrepreneur has emerged to take his place. Most of the other people on my block now use professionals to cut their grass. Of the more than a million professional landscapers around the country now, about a third are Latino immigrants. This shift to grown-up lawnmowers worries Wall Street Journal columnist Jeff Opdyke.
Mr. JEFF OPDYKE (Columnist, The Wall Street Journal): I can't tell you the last time I saw a kid walking down the street pushing a lawnmower and holding a can of gas, you know, looking to raise 15 or 20 bucks from cutting a lawn. It's always these gigantic landscaping services that want your business.
HORSLEY: Opdyke cut his teeth cutting the grass at his grandparents' house in southern Louisiana, where, in his memory, it was always 100 degrees, the grass was four feet tall, and the mower weighed 500 pounds. He hated every minute of at the time, he says, but now thinks it was a good experience.
Opdyke wrote a column last summer asking why don't kids mow lawns anymore. His theory: it's the parents.
Mr. OPDYKE: Parents have grown kind of soft in the middle, honestly. I mean, my grandfather was an incredibly nice, caring, generous man but he was also sort of a stickler. You go do this. Learn to work. You know, it's going to be painful, it's going to be hot, it's going to be sweaty, but hey, tough luck, get over it. You know, parents today aren't really the type that are going to say, hey, tough luck, get over it.
HORSLEY: Like Opdyke, I cut a lot of grass as a kid working for my neighbors at first and later for one of those big landscaping companies. I bought my first car with money I made mowing lawns. I miss that car but I don't miss mowing lawns. I'm pretty sure the neighbors would object though if I went the route of Michael Pollen's dad and quit cutting the grass altogether. So later today I'll drag that old push mower out of the garage. And when I settle in tonight to watch King of the Hill, it will be with a clean conscience.
(Soundbite of King of the Hill)
Unidentified Female #1: (As character) Well mister, you have just installed the finest lawn on the block.
Unidentified Female #2: (As character) Oh, it looks so nice. Can I touch it?
Unidentified Male: (As character) Sure. It's a lawn. It's meant to be enjoyed.
HORSLEY: Scott Horsley, NPR News, San Diego.
(Soundbite of King of the Hill)
Unidentified Female #2: (As character) It feels so good against my skin.
Unidentified Male #1: (As character) Okay, that's enough.