The Yarded Gentry

I am not a complete Luddite, though much of my writing might betray my tendencies otherwise.  In fact, one of the most useful loans made to me on moving to Clinton was a gasoline-powered push mower. Actually, it was a bit after I moved here, and I’m pretty sure pity played a big role in the mower coming to live in my garage.

In spite of singing the praises of my old-fashioned reel mower as an organizing tool (and indeed, it was on my postage stamp-sized lawn in Vermillion), the hard truth is that the thing can’t make a dent in the maddeningly lush expanse of growth that is this double lot-sized lawn.

When the sun came out earlier this afternoon (like an odd, blinding foreign object in the sky after so much rain), pretty much everyone emerged to tend to yard chores.  It took me a bit longer than most of the neighbors to work myself up to the task–I am one of the very few in this ‘hood without a riding mower, so conquering the lawn feels a bit less like a Sunday drive and more like slaying the dragon.  In the end, you put on your gauntlets and do the thing, but not before considerable thought on the job ahead.

To my farmer mind, all that grass and forbs (this lawn is no monoculture) ought to have animals grazing it–or maybe I should be waiting to make hay–instead of embarking on the weekly sport (I do think that’s what it amounts to in some of my neighbors’ minds) of creating a tidy yard.  Vast expanses of neatly trimmed grass are a holdover from the landed gentry of the old country–who used their grounds as an expression of their ability to hire peasants to do their yardwork.  So, essentially we are upholding a tradition of nobility while doing all the work ourselves.  What kind of suckers are we?

Earlier in the season, one of my next door neighbors let his lawn go–it was an amazing thing to see, and it called to mind the green manure plots of a friend down in Southeast South Dakota.  Dean and his wife, Vikki, live in an old farmhouse east of town, but they got pulled into the city limits when a golf course community was built even further to the east.  After that, they caught no end of hell from the city for their “unkempt lawn.”

When I saw that gorgeous patch of clover and rye, something in my evolutionary past tugged on me.  From deep in my genetic makeup, a wide-eyed bovine surfaced with a mad desire to 1) roll in the stuff, and 2) eat it.  My sense of decorum (I was on a farm tour with several others who didn’t seem to feel the ancestral pull) and singular stomach stopped me, but just barely.

In the end, my neighbor here mowed the field his lawn had become by hiring a guy with two riding mowers–one driven by the hired man and the other by the neighbor.  It was an impressive feat but also kind of sad to see it felled–a bit of a Samson-shearing for that powerful surge of Spring growth.

I have been a little more regular in upholding my townie responsibilities, and I can tell my push-mower marathons are a thing of amusement to some of my fellow Clintonians (Clintonites?  I’ve probably just made yet another hilarious gaffe I can turn around on the next new person who moves to town).  I know this because I’ve had people mention, with a sly smile, that they’ve seen me “out mowing again.”  Now why would they say that unless my method or technique was somehow unusual–and amusing–to them?

Another of my neighbors seems to be lusting to make mulch from my clippings–clippings I let lie after the first few cuttings because of all the dandelion seed heads in them.  She said to me one day that she’d like to use some on her flower beds because (she instructed me), “when I use them, I don’t get weeds in my flower beds!”

I said that’d be fine, but it caused me to picture the look on a cat’s face when it brings you a dead thing because you’re obviously too damn stupid to hunt for yourself.  I quickly realized that trying to defend my actions, as a young and inexperienced outsider, would be about as useful as explaining myself to the cat.  When you move to a small rural town, you are a dumbass until proven otherwise, and you don’t prove yourself by talking.

This isn’t to cast aspersions on my neighbor or my new community–the attitude toward newcomers is a handy defense mechanism developed over decades (centuries, even) of true dumbasses coming to small towns in a misguided attempt to solve the outside world’s perception of rural people’s “problems.”  The real problem is that outsiders don’t have a clue what the real problems are, and wouldn’t have a clue of how to solve those problems if they knew.

So, it really doesn’t bother me to be treated like a slightly dimwitted but well-meaning new resident.  On the whole, everyone has been exceedingly welcoming since I got here, and I don’t grudge them an occasional laugh at my expense.  I’m pretty sure I deserve it.

I hope they’re still laughing when I tether that cow in my yard.


3 responses

  1. Rebecca, I am sure the people in Estelline think I’m an odd duck, too, as I have been converting the large expanse of lawn and trees we inherited from the former owners into a more productive (and, in the eyes of the town’s residents, a messy) edible landscape. When we first moved here, I felt compelled to maintain the lawn as it was given to us, and even bought a riding lawn mower immediately, but after a couple of years, tired of spending 4 hours every weekend just mowing the lawn. Some parts of the lawn we didn’t even see until we were mowing it. Permaculture saved me.

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