Before long, summer chore will be handed to next generation

Posted: Sunday, May 09, 2004

It's started again. They're out there, millions of 'em and spreading. If you listen really closely at night, you can hear 'em plotting their morning advance.

I swear.

Just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean it's not out to get me. Beware the annual attack of the Alaska lawn!

All dashed in dew and just soaking up the photons, those blades of grass stare back at me as I peer through the blinds at a "back forty" bathed in morning sunshine. OK, it's more like a half acre, but when you're cutting it two or three times a week it can seem like a third of a homestead.

Once a year about this time I straighten out the garage whether it needs it or not. We don't use it for the cars, which weather rapidly unprotected in the environment outside. The garage holds everything else. No need to explain that, I'll bet.

Anyway, there in the back, its handle folded for winter, sits my 6.5 horsepower, 21-inch-cut, self-propelled, transmission drive, big-wheeled Yardman mower with the drive clutch adjustment that has a "convenient" dead-man squeeze grip I have to secure in the on position with a bungee cord to avoid carpal tunnel syndrome.

High on a shelf out of reach of small children is the red 5-gallon gas container that seems always to be running out just when I get myself stoked up to go cut the lawn, forcing me to risk what enthusiasm I might have mustered by the need to make the 10-minute drive to the filling station and back.

Returning with a full gas can, I loosen the cap on the mower's tank and start filling. The first cut of the year is a little like spring training in baseball, a time to buff off the rust in that hand-eye coordination thing. Yeah, I spill some all over the engine. I always imagine starting it up and burning my eyebrows off in a fireball of exploding gas fumes.

But the spilled liquid evaporates fairly rapidly, and nothing remotely like that has ever happened to me. But, one hears stories, know what I mean?

If there is a silver lining to cutting the lawn early in May, it has to do with the orientation of my house to the sun at this time of year. My home sits on a generally north-south slope. The first grass to green up grows within a few yards of the south side of the house, due probably to the warmth. Beginning about a week and a half ago, the grass on the entire back yard began catching up. It's been cut once this week and already it's as lush as three-inch thick pool table felt and ready for another shave.

The grass on the north side of the house, however, has hardly begun to emerge from the yellow blanket of last year's long-dead growth. It just doesn't get enough sunlight yet. A few weeks from now, that portion of the lawn will add a third more to the work.

Pushing the mower to the back yard and firing it up, I have to make a decision. Should I make horizontal passes across the slope, circle the acreage in ever diminishing concentric squares, or choose the path of most resistance (at least half the time) and proceed with vertical passes along the fall line? It's early in the year. Horizontal passes should do. When I'm in shape, I might choose the vertical path. It's guaranteed to work up a sweat and reduce the flab.

Ten minutes into the chore I'm perspiring, but I seem hardly to have dented the duty. What's cut looks pretty good, though, so I continue.

In a way, despite the labor involved even with a so-called self-propelled model, there is something cathartic about cutting the lawn. While you're at it, there is little else to do except think, and you can shut that down with a CD player and a pair of earphones.

I mean, there you are wrapped in an envelope of god-awful noise, shielded from virtually every other kind of communication the barks of dogs, the ring of the phone, the call of the wife. If I don't look up at the deck railing, I might never even see her frantic waving. Sometimes, this can be a good thing.

About two-thirds of the way down the yard, I can see the end of the job in sight. But now I have to dodge around the berry patch, which hasn't begun to do anything at all yet except get in my way. A couple of months from now, we'll start enjoying the harvest.

Because of the way my house is oriented on my one-third-acre city lot, a cut line parallel to its back wall is not parallel to the lower border of the property. We built it that way to maximize a magnificent view of Kachemak Bay and the mountains beyond.

But what it means is that, as I approach the lower part of the yard, I'm suddenly cutting a large triangle-shaped area, not a rectangle. Being a man cursed by some requirement for the illusion of symmetry, I have to rectify this by angling the mower along a line matching the lower border, and then back-tracking to cut the triangle I've left undone before proceeding to finish the project.

If it's warm out, I'm truly sweating by this time, my shirt sticking to my back, my glasses clouding up. At least the bugs aren't out yet. That's the worst. A couple of weeks from now, cutting the lawn will be accompanied by an annoyance of airborne arthropods frightened skyward by the roar of the engine and the denuding of their jungle hideout.

The effect is mitigated by a gentle breeze, which, fortunately, is a daily occurrence in Homer, usually starting in the early afternoon. I typically wait for the day breeze before counter-attacking my lawn. Otherwise, you get eaten alive.

In the evening, following the job, I like to sit on the second-story deck with a drink, a little jazz playing in the background and watch the swallows in dogfights with insects far too small for me to see. It is comforting to know their nimble aerobatics are keeping nature in balance.

"Hey, look at that!" I tell my 11-year-old daughter. "Somebody cut the lawn!" She cocks an eyebrow in my direction. "C'mon, dad."

The other day she asked if she could learn to run the lawn mower. Little does she know she'd already being doing the job on a more-or-less permanent basis if we lived on level ground.

"Sure," I say cheerfully. "As soon as school's over."

It won't be long before it's her job, not mine, and I can enjoy my afternoon drink without the need to change my shirt.

Hal Spence is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.

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