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Al Batt: The attack of the fine fescue

Tales from Exit 22 by Al Batt


“I want to sit up front with the adults!”

I said that aloud while pushing a lawn mower this week. It didn’t matter. Nobody could hear what I said over the sound of the grass cutter or a mawn lower as Reverend Spooner, the unintentional creator of spoonerisms, might have called it.

The importance of a well-manicured lawn is as small as the little end of nothing whittled to a point to me. I recall my first expedition into the wild world of lawn mowing. My father said, “Have I ever told you how I met your mower?”

The lawn mower was invented in 1830 by Edwin Beard Budding, an English engineer. His might have been the mower my father gave me. It was a walk-behind, push-ahead, motorless reel mower with its best years happening long before I was born. I began to smite the grass with that contraption. The Rolling Stones should have been singing in the background, “You can’t always get what you want.” If I had $1 million for every hour I enjoyed pushing that mower, I’d still be broke. Dad kept it sharpened, so its blades were sharper than I’d been and they churned through the grass. Our yard was nearly surrounded by trees. Twigs and branches fell or were blown onto the lawn. If I didn’t see them because my brain had wandered off, the mower’s blades tried to cut the twigs. This often brought the mower to a screeching halt. That taught me to never tailgate. I pushed all day without running out of grass. 

You could ride on that mower if you were a fly. I like most things, but stable flies didn’t make the list of things whose company I enjoy. They cause me considerable discomfort and have little to recommend them. Chiggers, ticks and buffalo gnats (black flies) didn’t make that list either. They’ll be sorry. I told Santa Claus. Their common names are stable, dog or biting house flies, and they target dogs’ ears, the legs of cows and horses, and me. Stable flies look like small house flies and both males and females bite hard. If a grizzly bear had a stable fly’s attitude, we’d all be toast. I’ve heard them referred to as ankle-biters, a reference to their favored feeding sites — my ankles. They’re fast fliers, usually biting low on the leg, feet and ankles, although any bare skin is fair game. Their bites cause cattle to stomp or kick and my shins have felt the misdirected anger of a cow. Decaying organic matter such as grass clippings, compost piles or bedding straw are ideal breeding areas. The flies prodded me along and I mowed as if I’d fetched fire.

White (Dutch) clover doesn’t need mowing. Bees and butterflies like clover. I do, too. Once considered a standard of lawn excellence, it’s good at smothering other broadleaf plants such as dandelions (otherwise known as Irish daisy, peasant’s cloak, priest’s crown, swine’s snout, wet-a-bed or yellow gowan) that commonly populate lawns. A leguminous plant, clover fixes atmospheric nitrogen and makes it available to neighboring plants. Lawn grasses grow better when clover is present. A lawn containing clover needs less fertilizer. Clover grows well in both sun and partial shade, is more tolerant of drought than most grasses, tolerates soil compaction and remains green as the rest of the lawn turns brown. White grubs disappear from turf composed entirely of clover, which is highly resistant to dog urine. Clover does offer grass stains for the clothes of deserving youngsters.

I walked the beans when I was a dear boy. I pulled weeds that didn’t want to be pulled and cut volunteer corn from fields. My mother relished the chore. She claimed it was a perfect job, because you could stop at the end of a row and see what you’d accomplished. Most jobs didn’t offer such a prompt performance review. I looked back and saw replacement weeds already in place. Maybe mowing a lawn provides that same disillusionment.

Karl Marx didn’t say that lawn mowing is the opiate of the masses. Why do we mow lawns? Because it feels good when we stop.

My wife’s riding lawn-mower has a 358-cubic inch engine, a spoiler, steel wheels, parachute and a zero-degree turning radius. She says pushing a lawn mower for hours under a hot sun makes me look like Brad Pitt. Therefore, mine is a push mower, but it’s self-propelled. So am I. The mower runs out of gas before I do. I am thankful for that and more.

Al Batt’s columns appear every Wednesday.