Part I: An Aural History of Lawns
Is there communication through lawns?
When I’m out cutting the grass I notice how people look at me and stop for a minute. They seem to enjoy watching me work. Somehow they know that I like my work, and they watch for a while how I create a pattern in the lawn out of the longer grass.
When I look up from my machine, I see the looks on their faces. It’s a kind of peace, a harmony that they experience. I bring out the character of the lawn from the grass. I don’t fight it. I aim the lawnmower down the line of the wheel marks left from the last row that I just cut. In this way I make sure that there are no tufts of grass left uncut. Often grass gets pressed down by the wheels and then you miss it altogether and only see it when you rake it afterwards. If you’ve created a good pattern out of the grass you hate to go over the lawn again just to get those tufts.
Yesterday I was cutting the lawn after the rain and a girl walking on the far side of the street stopped and watched me. Her name was Rosemary. I enjoyed that moment.
But the real pleasure I felt was in the work.
I love my lawn and the smell of it after a rain.
Rosemary saw me through it.
What are the problems and their solutions in lawns?
I hate raking. And I hate clipping around the edges, unless I have a lot of time and then I like the look of neatness that this creates. I feel quite satisfied afterwards.
No matter what size a lawn is, there are always edges, and raking. Edges are just something that has to be done. I use a new electric trimmer and that helps. It will never be a love, however.
I don’t usually rake a lawn. In fact, raking can be harmful to the roots of the grass. If the cuttings are left unraked they act as a natural fertilizer to the soil, and this helps the lawn over the years. Many people prefer the look of a carefully raked 1awn. Even so, if you cut a lawn often enough, it doesn’t need raking after each cutting. I use the electric rotary mower and this helps. I find that the dual chute system of the electric helps
spread the grass, so you don’t get it collecting in strips like with the gas-powered mowers.
There will always be edges. And raking.
But the love of the mowing carries you through it.
Do you ever dream about lawns?
I have had this dream several times:
I am cutting a lawn. It is the front lawn of my parents’ house. I am sixteen in the dream. A girl stops on the street and watches me. Her name is Rosemary. She smiles then moves on.
Sometimes in the dream it has just stopped raining.
The lawn has an interesting shape at one edge, a rolling curve created by a line of shrubs by the front porch. What I want to do is start with this interesting edge and follow the same pattern right across the lawn. But I feel that I will never be able to resolve the far edge satisfactorily because that edge is straight and borders on the curb of the street.
What I end up doing in this dream is starting with the patterned edge and then allowing it to diminish as I go across the lawn until the pattern settles gently into a straight line at the far edge.
This also resolves another problem: there is a tree in the centre of the lawn. Normally the best way to cope with a tree is to form a square around it and work towards it from the four edges. Because of the one interesting edge whose pattern I want to follow, I don’t do this. I want very much to integrate the tree with the pattern of the lawn.
What is the meaning of Lawn as dream image?
I have felt different things about this dream.
At first I felt it was telling me about my life, that I had become the tree held between the tension of the edges of the lawn and that the edges were my parents – the curved edge my mother, the straight edge my father.
Then I felt the dream was a premonition. It was telling me that a great change was about to occur in my life and that this change would be triggered by a new woman in my life (Rosemary, the girl on the street).
Whenever I had the dream I felt something different about it. But the tree in the dream was always me.
Then, just after I stopped having the dream altogether, events occurred that told me I had been completely mistaken.
I was not the tree.
I was not the grass.
I was the pattern in the lawn.
It's a funny thing about lawns, most people don't even see them. They cut and tend them but seldom talk about the problems they encounter along the way.
Your lawn is more than grass.
Did you know for instance, that the lawn season begins in the fall when everything else is dying?
That's what my dream was telling me: for the truth you don't always have to look below the surface.
What is the natural life cycle of lawns?
Rosemary told me an interesting story about lawns: when she was just two years old one of her older brothers died. She went with her father whenever he cut the grass around her brother’s grave, and from then on she associated her father cutting grass with somebody dying.
I thought of Rosemary's story when I was visiting my mother six months ago. My mother had phoned and said I should come and see her because she had some bad news about my father.
Before my mother told me the news she met me on the front porch and asked me to stay a couple of days and cut the grass before I left. 'If it ever stops raining.'
The grass was long alright. My father hadn't been able to cut it for three weeks. It was autumn and autumn is a critical time for lawns.
Then my mother told me that my father's operation had shown his tumour to be malignant and that he had about six months to live.
I didn't stay with my mother for two days and I didn't cut the grass. My uncle came over the next day and cut it. My uncle has a good two-cycle gas mower with power start and a mulch setting.
As for my father, he never cut another lawn.
My father had never let himself get close to me, but when I visited him in the hospital he opened up and told me things I had wanted to know all my life about our lawn. He told me that when my parents bought our house they had cut down a huge, over-bearing tree in the front yard and then planted a new tree, the one that grew and became the tree in my recurring dream that I told you earlier.
It was at this point (when my father had only a week to live – as it turned out) that I knew I had been mistaken about my dream.
My father was the tree. He was also the lawn.
Lawn care is important in the fall. If your autumn lawn is left uncared for, fungus can start growing under the tangled mat of grass clippings as soon as the snow falls. This snow mould can create bare patches that show up only in spring.
My father was not an easy person to get to know, but just before he died I started believing I had been able to get close to him through lawns.
Then, after it was over and he was buried under the earth, I realized that lawns had been literal all along, and that they would somehow separate us forever.
What form does the pleasure take in lawns?
Lawns can play tricks with your mind. You can see things in them that aren't there. We all must struggle to see lawns for what they are, in themselves.
I have loved many lawns and I hope to love many more. Lawns are a natural part of life and we shouldn't be afraid of expressing our feelings about them.
Some people love the look of flatness and symmetry of a well-cut lawn. They aim for a one-inch bristle. Some lawns take a half or three-quarter inch bristle, but these always have a good flat surface and must be rolled.
Personally, I like creating patterns. I like watching a pattern take shape out of the long grass. I love the look of the edge between the cut and the un-cut grass. The edge moves and the truth of the lawn is revealed in the process. When someone stops on the sidewalk and watches me, like Rosemary for instance, they see a ritual being enacted. They smile and say hello as a way of thanking me for enacting it.
I've learned not to take this response personally. I know I am an intermediary between the people and the lawn. In fact the pleasure I feel is in knowing this. And in knowing I’m always getting closer and closer to the truth.
Rosemary asked me: ‘The patterns you make in lawns, are they signs of something?’
‘They are activity,’ I said. ‘Not the result of activity but the activity itself.’
Frankly, I don't think anyone could have characterized pleasure more exactly than that.
Is there a secret meaning to lawns?
So many of us have been wounded by lawns.
After my father died I went to cut my mother’s lawn. It was spring by then. The lawn was in good shape, except for a strip by the curb where the road salt had eaten it away.
The rain had just stopped. I looked up from my machine and Rosemary was watching me from the street. We talked for a while.
When I had finished the lawn, my mother and I had a long talk in the kitchen. During this talk my mother told me something unusual. She told me that I had been conceived on a lawn.
‘I’m telling you this now’, she said, ‘because I think it makes a difference. I think it makes a person special.’
What my mother told me helped me to see the dream of Interview 3 in its true meaning.
The tree in the lawn of Interview 3 was the symbol of a single lifetime. The lawn was the symbol of regeneration. The patterns that I had been making all my life in lawns are the activity of coming-to-terms, not with death, but with the fact of having been generated, of being alive in this moment.
That’s what my dream was saying: what begins in grass is resolved in lawns.
My father knew this. My mother- knew it. Now I know it and so do you: never take your lawn for granted.
Aren't you suggesting a connection between lawns and sexuality?
Yesterday, when Rosemary watched me from the street, I asked her if she'd ever cut a lawn after a rain.
She looked away.
‘It's a deep and earthy experience,’ I said, ‘There's a smell the grass gives off. The blades are swollen with the rain and they’re deep green. The bristles are fat and moist and the over-all effect is that of softness. The flat surface of the freshly cut lawn holds the tension between this hardness and softness.
‘It’s quite a sensation working with it then,’ I said, ‘It's firm yet yielding. Giving yet reserved. The lawn is a separate thing but we form a relationship in the work, a unity, like coupling.’
‘Cut grass is good as a mulch for the garden,’ Rosemary said.
‘Especially after a rain,’ I said, ‘It is rich and fertile and helps things grow.’
Rosemary said: ‘Nothing is forsaken, nothing is lost, in lawns.’
Aren't you asking an eschatological question and giving an ontological answer in lawns?
Last night Rosemary and I made love on the lawn. We rolled on top of each other and bits of cut grass stuck to our clothing and to the naked parts of our bodies.
‘l love it now that we're doing it,’ Rosemary said, ‘Tell me something, something important I've never known.’
‘Imagine that we're together for the first time after many years of separation,’ I said.
I brushed bits of cut grass from Rosemary's thighs describing how they looked like something transferred from the pages of a novel we were rolling in.
The grass was newly cut and wet, clinging to our bodies and peeling away onto one another.
‘What is the story of our love?’ she said, ‘Who am I and what happens next because of me?’
I was revealing for Rosemary the secret meaning of the cut grass stuck to her thighs, calling her my novel. I was reading the grass like sentences:
‘I courted you when we were young, then I went off to war in France. When I got back you couldn't wait and were married already to a wealthy man. So I too made myself wealthy and came to court you again with my personal elegance and new blue lawns. You turn me down, however, at the very end.’
‘Maybe they could find you face down in your own swimming pool,’ Rosemary said.
‘We are,’ I said, ‘a short but significant twentieth-century American novel, The ...’
‘I know,’ she said. ‘The Great Gatsby.’
Our story began unfolding even more quickly than I had expected. Our characters began revealing themselves through action. The events of the story, fore-shadowed on Rosemary's thighs, were coming to pass.
There was nothing new for me in this woman.
The crisis of the story occurred right here. I saw all of my sex life as a series of unclean thoughts and impure acts with myself or others on lawns. There were no surprises for me in Rosemary, just new words for describing the acts of sex. I was frightened that I would get bored with it very soon and that it would all end tragically.
I rolled on top of Rosemary and my throbbing member pressed against her belly. I found the centre of her moist desire and entered her like the key in the lock of a Manhattan hotel room door with the shower running in the other room, the radio on, and black lingerie over a chair.
A piece of grass from Rosemary's belly was stuck on my penis as I moved in her. I thought that this piece of lawn was the capital letter 'P' from the word Passion. I dwelt on this thought. I meditated on my passion spelled out in blades of grass on my body moving in the woman.
But the blade of grass was not the capital letter ‘p’. It was the letter ‘g'. The silent ‘g' in the word gnaw, the ‘g' of the ‘ing’ in being.
This story is the child of that coupling.
This story was fathered by the silent 'g' of being that swam into the woman, persisting and entering the central meaning of her round fertile vowels.
This story was mothered by the ‘a’ and the ‘e’ of the woman.
This story's chromosome structure spells the word age: the beginning of time, the marking of time, the events occurring in time and then their ending.
This story is what I thought about as I cut the grass on my mother's lawn after my father had died and the rain had stopped and Rosemary was watching me from the street.
This story is a collection of blades of grass on a woman’s thigh.
Michael Dean's latest book, two novels in a single volume, In Search of the Perfect Lawn and The Walled Garden, is published by Teksteditions.
TORONTO: Michael will be appearing alongside artist-gardener Gene Threndyle at Speaking of Wild Culture on 9th July 2013
Wild Culture Academy