Stories in the Grass

Every two to three weeks I mow the grass. Three weeks stretches the limits, and the lawn becomes wild again. Actually, it can’t properly be called a lawn; there’s not a flat patch in the nearly two acres, and–like most Western NC lawns–it is a mixture of wildflowers, wild onions, clover, and various species of grass (I couldn’t name them for you). When we first moved to this place, nearly two years ago, it took me some time to figure out the most effective (and easiest) routes through the property with a mower. I’d prefer a ride-mower, of course, but I fear I’d roll it down the bank. I’ve got it figured out now, and it takes me around two hours to finish the job. They are two pleasant hours, and, as I’ve discovered, it is some of the most valuable time I spend as a writer. I’ve found stories everywhere in that grass.

Mowing the lawn has become a task that, for the most part, requires little thought–it’s simple and repetitive work. I put in my earbuds, select a playlist and begin. Pushing the mower from one side to the other and back, I work in an even zigzag from top to bottom so as to avoid hiking up the bank (I had an English teacher in high school who fell backwards while pushing a mower uphill–took off his big toe; I don’t want to be that English teacher). I move in straight, easy rows, and my mind is allowed to wander–wandering is one of the most valuable exercises for any mind, especially a writer’s. I’ve often broken through writer’s block while marching those rows–solving an issue with conflict or character development, listening to my characters speak and provide me with a new scene of dialogue, or landing on a new short story (developing an idea to write a blog post about mowing the grass).

The property is beautiful–pastoral, even–and on just the other side of the gravel driveway at the base of our hill, which marks the property line, there is a field of tall grasses with tufted tops, full of the same varieties of wildflowers that grow on my own plot: buttercups, dandelions, daisies with white faces turned up, and the most lovely little purple bells that grow tiny and many to a stem with their mouths turned down (I wish I knew their names). There are times when I stop pushing the mower, especially when the breeze blows, to just look at that field as the wind brushes over it in waves; the greenery ripples and the wind is visible. It’s the closest I can get to an ocean wave in these mountains and it might even be lovelier. Along the edges of my property grow rhododendrons, which are in a full pink bloom right now, dogwoods with white four-petaled blooms, fire-red azaleas, wild mountain-laurel bushes with tight geometric blossoms laced with pink, and a few tall dangerous poles of Devil’s Walkingstick. The place smells like sweetness, earth, salt, pine, spice, and sex. I would be a poor writer if I could not see and smell a story or poem in all of that.

When I’m there, with mower in hand, I imagine there are stories all around me and unaware of me, stories that are there when I’m not. Life is busy in the grass, busier than me: grasshoppers, cardinals (so many cardinals–crimson males and rusty-red females), finches, blue jays,  hummingbirds, moles (which I’ve never seen but know by the softness of their tunnels beneath my feet), carpenter bees, honey bees, yellowjackets, the fireflies that come out at dusk and night, flashing their silent signals of pale green. All this life: living, vying for space, fighting, killing, birthing, dying–maybe even loving, I don’t know. As far as I can tell, in the grass it is life without philosophy, and there is something beautiful and, well, philosophical about that. It’s life that perhaps is full of meaning but does not need to express that meaning or understand it. It just is, and I get to read it and maybe write it.

I sometimes imagine that I am the greatest conflict in that story. I’m an extinction event, or a displeased god, that rolls over their world with such loud, catastrophic purging every few generations, and I wonder if they remember me–tell stories of my coming and wrath. Probably not. But I do imagine it. Remembered or not, it must be terrifying–a life and home literally mowed down. The first mow of the spring is the saddest for me. That’s when the daisies are tall and in thick bunches, and when I mulch over them to leave their bodies wet and undone, they don’t grow back, not until the next spring. But they do grow back. Everything returns, and so do I, to even out the carpet of green, so it can come back–wild, uneven, fragrant and beautiful. I think there must be more story in that return than anything I could ever write.

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