Thursday, June 12, 2008

Mowing: On An American Odyssey

I'm lying in a reclining chair on the deck of my mom's house. My eyes are closed. But my senses are being bombarded, by the hot sun and the feeling of being home. How comfortable it seems. Crystal blue sky, perfect temperature. When I look up I see the tops of maples planted by my father 40 years earlier. The air is fresh. All is well with the world. Then I hear it, a low humming motorized rumble. Like the buzz of a 300-pound gas-guzzling mosquito. It's the power mower. My mom's seen fit to cut the yard's grass again. There she goes, riding high and tight on the soft cushion seat of the yellow and white machine. Her bonding with backyard nature is outlined in a fit of starts and stops, then a drop of the rotary blades.

And now my meditation has been broken by the kiss of those blades bearing down on the inch-high grass cover.

Just three days earlier, I had my own turn with the mower. Mom had been mowing then as well. Before I knew it, daughter Billie was on the beast, a Cub Cadet, lifting her foot off the clutch, moving forward, easing into reverse and across my camera shots. Then I climbed aboard and helped out by mowing a large swath of the yard myself. It brought back memories of cutting the same grass when I was a teenager, the only difference being that my brothers and I didn't ride then; we pushed the mower, and it would take hours to do our weekly yard chore.

Not anymore. My mom can whack the whole quarter-acre yard, neatly circumnavigating the house and a wide range of furs, maples and bushes, and Dad's old pigeon house, in a matter of ninety minutes or so.

But the act of cutting the grass three days after it was last cut now strikes me as a huge waste of energy, and time. I look down at the neighbor's place, the broad yard of another happy gardner. Yep, his grass is golf-course-green cut, looking like the fairway! How had I missed that happening?

I look up at the other neighbor's, the Micks' yard. It's longer, perfectly fine at an inch-an-a-half in height. Then I note the rumble of the mower again, smile at the wide brim of my mom's straw hat and her fixed look of concentration. Or is that accomplishment?

America is said to have 4% of the world's population, but it uses 25% of the Earth's resources. 5 days at my mom's place in suburban Thornvile, Ohio, shows me how that is possible. Every house in the neighborhood has at least 2,500 square feet of floor space, and each is now fully engaging its whole-home air conditioning unit. Each broad driveway has a fuel-inefficient pick up truck in it, in addition to two or three other vehicles, one of which is probably an SUV.

Mom cruises by the edge of the deck, the mower's audio force splitting my solice. She looks quite stately as she turns the Cadet's steering wheel with calm know-how.

If she wasn't doing this, I guess, she'd be watching Oprah or driving us to the mall again. (God love her!) Yep, most likely we'd all be back down in Lancaster, or back up in Newark, perusing the bargains that seem inescapable in America today: from jeans for seven bucks and a pair of BBQ sandwiches for five dollars to half-price luxury rental cars and mansions for 30% off.

The mower roars past my head again, Mom on yet another sonic round, and I feel like I know why, many years ago, I began questioning some of the values of small town Ohio in the first place. (God bless this home!)

Quite a few Americans, people who have grown up in hometowns like mine, don't "question" mowing, or the way many things are done; many of them don't consider conservation of resources so important, unless it's good for their wallet. That's just not part of their grammar. What they do know and value is the "good life," which means, basically, material well being: i.e., achieving as much as they can achieve, obtaining the things that represent the good life ---and more. Finish school. Jump on a career path. Make money. Buy a car, a house, whatever. (At a family reunion this week a cousin praised her stepson, aged 23, for just putting down the money for his first house.) The bigger the better. To be in the real in group, landscape a BIG YARD. Even if it means cutting the grass 2, or 3 times a week: so be it.

Of course, America is not the only country where people value financial security. It is a place, however, where the value of ownership, or being a proprietor, is very strong. Just look at the yards, and the mowers!

Oops! My mother has lifted her blades and looks in my direction to ask whether or not I want to give a hand!


Guo Cheng said...

I think it is good to stay at home town and enjoy yourself. Do you also enjoy the petrol price, Sensei? I guess there is no MRT in you home town, right?

Brad Blackstone said...

No, there is no public subway system, or even bus system, in my hometown. And yes, the price of oil is giving my hometown neighbors something to complain about!

Guo Cheng said...

Sensei, you should be glad. It seems among the students your taught last semester, I am the only one who still update my blog regularly. (1 > 0)