Sisyphus was a lawn boy

When people say, in that certain tone of voice, "We're getting serious about the lawn this summer," wise listeners will excuse themselves, muttering that they have a really interesting trip to make to the dump.

Nothing, surely, is less fascinating than another man's crabgrass.

Dull subjects have been known to inspire satire. Grass is too dull even for that. The obligatory jokes about green cement are enough to leave you begging lawn-lovers to return to "getting serious."

There is something absurd -- but unfunny -- about people leaning on rakes in the postures of farmers, surrounded by all those 50-pound bags, laboring like a medieval peasant to produce . . . what? Nourishing food? Eye-feasting flowers? No. Little blades of green stuff you can't even walk on.

Well, there's a new spirit sort of scything its way across the country's waving fields of fescue. This summer when people speak of "getting serious about the lawn," they may mean they earnestly intend to ignore it.

In the pages of the Press magazine Phyllis Battalle writes of something she calls the "wild yard" concept. "Since everything else on earth is going up," she reasons, "so may our grass."

She supplies more than an economic justification for benign neglect. The whole ideal of a lawn she declares to be "a boring ambition," compounded of the worst elements of American work ethic and European country-estate snobbery.

Having stamped on grass, ideologically speaking, she takes to the high ground of ecology. She accuses the pampered lawn of being "environmentally unsound," pointing out that the grass fanatic is an enemy of the dandelion, the clover, and even the wood violet. She notes that more than 2,000 native plants and wild flowers are threatened with extinction, according to the Smithsonian Institution , and she implies that lawn- keepers, with their garages full of chemical-warfare sprays and cruel uprooting gadgets, are the most relentless endangerers of these species.

Her coup de grace to the well-made lawn is delivered by another "wild yard" advocate, Lorrie Otto of Milwaukee, who wonders: "What happens when we raise our children in an endless sea of mowed grass? The landscape is so dull. Does that make the inner landscape of people -- the mind -- equally dull?"

This argument is so neat -- like a perfectly bordered lawn -- that we caught ourselves reacting against it on a kind of intellectual "wild yard" basis. And just as we were about to donate our hand mower to the Smithsonian! We simply could not find it in ourselves to blame "Johnny-can't-read" on the well- cropped lawn.

Then we read quite a different opinion on grass in the Texas Monthly. Stephen Harrigan, as the title of his article suggests, was a "Lawn Boy" -- a professional who spent his summers mowing other people's lawns, sometimes 12 to 14 hours a day.

Harrigan gives a nod in the direction of the "wild yard," speaking of "the unruly integrity of nature." But he turns down all the heady invitations to go philosophical.

Grass exists to be cut; he exists to cut it. His only pride, his only purpose is to cut it all, leaving no "Mohawks" -- those tufty thin rows that amateur mowers neglect to shave in cutting too wide a swath.

Harrigan believes that grass is anonymous stuff that should be dealt with anonymously. He gives his partner the pseudonym of Mulch. Mulch he found an "inspiring spectacle" as he "actually ran behind his lawn mower."

Harrigan's amusing little essay is an ode to "the brute sensation of mowing grass," and by the time he's through, he's made the sheer futility of it all seem almost heroic, like Sisyphus rolling his stone up the hill.

Are lawns mind-dulling or character-forming? Confronted by a lawn, do we, like the "wild yard" liberals, ask why? Or do we, like the Mulch neo-conservatives, ask how?

What will one do with the time and energy saved by a "wild yard" policy -- read Great Books? Or is a small stand of wheat the responsible alternative?

The only certain conclusion is that if we can politicize the Great American Lawn, we can politicize anything.

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