The lawn break

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A friend of mine who's extremely competitive tells me, with noticeable signs of regret, that suburban lawns are no longer the male battlefields they once were. The decline of lawns as fields of intense rivalry, he says, is ascribed to the rising popularity of such pastimes as racquetball, handball, volleyball, tennis, jogging, marathon running, martial arts, and dieting, all of which are besting lawn maintenance in the minds of those who relish the excitement of winning and losing, and the study of charts, ratings, and the various other standards of comparison.

I'm relieved to learn that the heat has left the lawn scene. It's pleasant to think about sizable numbers of property owners finding outlets for their competitive drive that are more fashionable and satisfying than growing the lushest lawn in the neighborhood. Their moving to greener pastures means that those of us who've been content to be casual keepers of lawns can go back to sleep. No longer will we be bound to feel that we're tending lawn in an arena.

We're now free to return lawnkeeping to its normal simplicity and let ourselves freely enjoy the pleasure of being close to the land for an hour or two. That, to me, is the best part of having a lawn - feeling that closeness to nature underfoot, running your hand over the newly mown blades of grass, getting black soil under your fingernails as you dig up a plantain or a dandelion. No matter how small or ragged or weedy, that piece of ground is yours - a touch of country.

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Getting out to the country seems to be taking longer and longer every year, for what may have been holdout farmland or some undisturbed open field a half decade ago has now been recruited in the outward march of industrial plants and office complexes, far-spanning shopping plazas, and clusters of condominiums. Yet right outside your door is a plot of sustaining earth - a keepsake to aid a restive spirit.

I've heard people complain now and then about the weekly task of cuttng grass. True, it's a routine, much like setting the alarm clock, and shaving, and keeping records for the tax collector.

I can't for the life of me find any fun in keeping tax records, but I feel quite differently about cutting grass every week. I think of it as a lawn break. Instead of dwelling on the routine aspect of the job, I see it as a change in the jumble of the week's larger concerns. A lawn break moves your feet onto the good earth and into the sunlight and leafy shade. While doing a chore, getting a breath of exercise, you're unwinding - freed for a while from the clock. There's a measure of unhurried peace in pushing a mower back and forth - unless there's also a threat of rain.

A lawn break has a distinctive quietude, at least in my case. There are only two of us in our block who use the old type of power mower - the one where the operator provides the power. I use the unmechanized ''push mower'' because machines - any but the simplest - are mysteries to me, and I've noticed that owners of power mowers often make side trips to the garage for the tool box. I want no such interruptions during lawn breaks.

My uncomplicated old mower, besides not requiring any tinkering, does its work with a gentle metallic spin that calls up languorous summer evenings of long ago. In slowing life down for a spell, a lawn break somehow clears the mind. Whatever the explanation, lawn breaks somehow uncage the bird of imagination.

Even those who begrudge the hours they spend on their lawn would probably agree that maintaining a miniature field of grass is a sensible custom, one that brings the magic of earth tones to the open space so prized by the human spirit. And despite the jeremiads about the weekly cutting chore, the crabgrass, the high cost of sprinkling, the mysterious brown patches, there don't appear to be a significant number of landowners who have found a successful alternative to honoring the aged custom of lawnkeeping. In our whole town I know of only one dissenter. He has replaced his entire front lawn (and perhaps his back lawn, too) with small buff-colored stones. His idea has had plenty of time to catch on and start a trend, but nobody has paid him the honor of imitation.

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