Death of a Lawn Mower

The novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald knew that Americans find public expression of their successful lives in a neatly groomed lawn. Jay Gatsby was so horrified at Nick Carroway’s ragged lawn next door that he sent his gardeners over to mow the offending sward. As the nation was more prosperous by the 1920s and homes were set back from the road, owners mimicked the greens of Mount Vernon, Monticello and the great estates of 17th and 18th century Britain and France. Inventions of mechanical and powered mowers to replace laborious scything offered much encouragement.

A lawn is an expensive investment, but realtors know the kerbside appeal of perfectly manicured grass helps house sales. It is a sine qua non for the modern suburbanite. Impressions of something familiar we grow up with are hard to budge, and when lost we feel bereft, but if we can step back mentally, it may be seen in new light. When I look at a ‘perfect’ lawn now my mind toggles between lawn and desert (call it cognitive dissonance if you like).

Looks more like a barren landscape on second thoughts

Why desert? Because among nuanced meanings lawns and golf courses are desolate and barren landscapes. If anything tries to nestle in a monoculture of non-native grass it is quickly doused in herbicides and pesticides, which gardeners use even more profligately than farmers. We fight frantically to conquer every weed and bug. Striving for perfection is a virtue better reserved for indoors because outside nature hates uniformity and tidiness.

Nick Carroway is more my kind of guy than his rich neighbor, although I came round lately. I am letting my lawn grow long and wild, like my hair and coronabeard. You might wonder if they are all reactions to the current contagion, yet I argue it is mindfulness and not just a lazy mower.

I love to watch knee-high stems swaying in a breeze. The sward is too dense for weeds to anchor, except the pretty polkadots of white clover and a few wildflowers on the lawn. Did I say lawn? I can now call it meadow. Deer and cottontail rabbits feed and fertilize; butterflies dance by day and lightning bugs cruise at night; goldfinches cram on seed heads; our dogs love to romp and nuzzle there. And, so, besides aesthetics and entertainment value, new and more abundant life sprouts from the death of lawn.

Ben approves of the lawn transition

It is no longer a source of noise and atmospheric pollution (gasoline mowers produce 10x more per hour than a new car). Clover is a bugbear of lawnists, but the virtuous plant boosts soil nitrogen and protects the crust in drought. Without a sprinkler system no water is wasted (more an issue in the West). Overseeding is natural and spontaneous instead of broadcast by hand from a packet, and better quality because the seeds originated from parents that thrive by natural selection. There are obvious savings from lawn chemicals, and precious time is captured from edging, raking and aerating. No more is surplus phosphate drained into streams that open into the Chesapeake Bay.

Lawns only feed pride, yet their collective acreage exceeds that of any food crop in America. What a terrible waste of resource! There is still no shame cultivating a chemical lawn (not yet!), and some homeowner associations and local authorities levy outrageous penalties when people neglect their front lawn, like the retired Florida man threatened with foreclosure when he didn’t pay fines. Lest my readers worry the lawn police will turn up on my doorstep my experiment is neither overlooked by neighbors nor is it kerbside. But I still need to observe politics at home.

There is another reckoning, however, when land is left fallow, and mine will arrive later in the summer with the scorching Virginia sun. That is the time to mow, and not a light task even with a lean and keen Austrian scythe. But it will be a day for looking back with satisfaction and enjoying a rare kind of pride by mowing as our ancestors did in the great estates of yore. 

There’ll Be Bluebirds Over

The American composer of “There’ll be Bluebirds over the White Cliffs of Dover” either had the excuse of poetic license or didn’t know that bluebirds are absent from the British Isles. But the song became one of one of Dame Vera Lynn’s signature performances for stirring patriotic hope in 1942.

There are three species of bluebird in North America (all thrushes). Someone who grew up in Tidewater Virginia doesn’t remember seeing Eastern bluebirds here in the 1960s, probably because urban sprawl and competition from introduced species robbed them of natural cavities to make home. But no longer.

nestboxes
Male Eastern bluebird (photo: Inge Curtis)

The friendly songsters are now common in local meadows and suburban gardens thanks to human interference, sponsored by the Virginia Bluebird Society and kindly people who provide nestboxes. The best boxes are not the kind found in knickknack stores, gaily painted (for predators to find) and with a perch close to the entrance hole (to help predators look inside). Constructed of rot resistant cedar, an ideal box has a 1.5” entrance hole protected by a wire mesh predator guard and a snake guard on the pole. While these safeguards are not 100% effective, most broods reach the fledgling stage for the most dangerous days of their lives.

Bluebirds are nesting in two of our four boxes, each with five sky blue eggs. I don’t peep inside again until the chicks have flown after gorging on countless insects and arachnids brought by doting parents. Then, I clean out old nests that might harbor parasites, and usually find the lodgers have made new ones of pine straw and small sticks a few days later for a second brood. Even if I trained for months using forceps to weave the straw I doubt I could craft anything that would pass a bird’s inspection.

Our third box is still vacant and the fourth has a house wren sitting on brown speckled eggs.

Bird eggs are among the most beautiful objects in nature. They are delicate works of art, sometimes decorated with pigments as if squirted from paint guns in the oviduct on the day before laying. It is no surprise that ground-nesters have camouflaged eggs or that eggs laid further north tend to be darker to absorb more heat. We might expect cavity nesters, such as owls, kingfishers, woodpeckers, and wood ducks, would have pure white or buff eggs as coloring provides no obvious advantage. The colors of bluebird and wren eggs are among the exceptions, which goes to prove that nature hates uniformity and ruins our simple hypotheses.

Box taken over by house wrens
Adopted by house wrens

Data from over 4,500 nestboxes on 410 trails across Virginia are compiled by the Bluebird Society. Our local chapter of Master Naturalists monitors a few hundred boxes in parks and around golf courses every week between March and July. On a trail where I help to monitor 41 nestboxes, there were 63 bluebird fledglings in 2018  (a wet spring) and 97 last year, plus a few broods of chickadees and tufted titmice. Nestboxes raise thousands of extra birds.

This year the coronavirus pandemic disrupted our survey, but not the breeding season, which may even benefit from less human traffic and noise. But human nature doesn’t seem to change as I heard that three of our boxes have been vandalized. Who could do that to bluebirds?

 

Celebrating the Dirt Road

Dirt roads are the borderland between flourishing nature and the black sterility of asphalt roads. Gravel roads are dirt roads after they have been improved with crushed stone to make them more resilient to wear and weather. Dirt roads of all kinds are the roots of rural life.

Dirt roads are the rule in poor corners and countries, and road maintenance crews are rare so travelers must use their own ingenuity to conquer the problem of a wash-out after a heavy storm. I remember a journey in the back of a truck with Lani tribesmen in the Highlands of West Papua where a new stream formed by an overnight storm carved a deep crevasse in mud across our route. There was no going round or back so we scouted for a pair of logs to lay over the six foot gap the exact distance between the wheels, and then very gently roll the truck across to firm ground on the other side. For local folk it was a minor annoyance compared to the trials of their day, but I doubt many Westerners would have gotten through without their cell phone.

I believe there is more romance driving on dirt than on tar because you never know what you may encounter or, sometimes, even know where the road will end. For sure, there will be potholes and more wildlife on the way, and in rural America you might not realize when the public road changes to a private driveway until you reach a ranch or mobile home where only invited guests are welcome.

Driving on dirt or gravel in summer is musical, except in the desert, because life still clings to the ground instead of buried under poisonous tar. As the tires are steered along the paired track, stalks of vegetation in the center play a random tune on the underside of the vehicle. The lower its frame to the ground the bigger the orchestra.

I was musing about the profile of a gravel road I know, and why they all look like a Mohican hair-cut with a mid-line sprout separating bald patches on each side.

Why the difference between the green and the gray? Does it need regular traffic to stay that way? The example I was looking at was an old driveway where road and foot traffic passes infrequently, yet it still had two bald lanes running in parallel. It seems that where there’s been a history of traffic the vegetation is suppressed for a long time, maybe even for centuries. That’s why you can still see some places in the Plains where wagon trains went out West, and old logging trails are visible in the forests of Appalachia.

Another explanation for the difference is drainage because the grassy center probably retains more rainwater than the smooth camber where it runs off quickly. That maybe so, but it doesn’t explain how the difference started in the first place. Besides, I found a flattened area where vehicles used to turn all over the place and it was bald, apart from a few miniature patches of grass where growth had stalled.

The real explanation now seems obvious, especially to a gardener who avoids trampling the ground and keeps the soil particles loose with a fork and hoe. For even if a road is no longer taken, over its history the weight of passing traffic compresses dirt and stones under the wheels, but rarely on the crown of the road which stays more porous so plants can put down roots to reserves of water and oxygen in the gaps. Dirt roads are truly about roots and routes.