The Metaphysics of Cutting Grass


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Everything I know about cutting grass I learned from my father. He had three rules and one quasi-rule. The three rules undoubtedly reflected his occupation as a systems analyst. Rule 1: To maximize efficiency and, thus, save energy, plot the yard into squares and mow inward from the outer edge. Rule 2: To prevent the engine from overworking and, thus, save gas, always position the discharge chute away from the square. Rule 3: To extend the life of the mower and, thus, save money, always service the machine according to the manufacturer’s specifications. The quasi-rule, however, was prompted not by occupational mindset but, rather, to reward himself for performing the tiresome chore he found cutting grass to be: Have a cold beer afterward.  I follow these rules today, though I confess I do occasionally fail to observe the letter of the quasi-rule by having more than the one cold beer my father permitted himself. But far more seriously, perhaps, I violate its motivating spirit by not finding cutting grass a tiresome chore at all. In fact, I enjoy it. Despite pushing a rotary mower up, down, and across the sometimes hilly terrain of a double lot, I like cutting grass.


Actually, Dad was a hostage to his lawn. Weeds were a noxious assault on Dad’s sensibility, and he waged a grim campaign against them. A brown paper bag and pronged weeder were always on call should an offending dandelion dare raise its head above his manicured turf. An aerator was annually rented and an edger procured — much more efficient than the hatchet with which he had previously edged by hand — and an assortment of turf builders, disease abolishers, and chickweed, spurge, ground ivy, deadnettle, and crab grass dispatchers were routinely purchased and applied.  I have not inherited that passion for lawn maintenance nor felt compelled to mobilize and deploy an armory of lawn weaponry. I own no broadcast spreader; do not monitor soil chemistry, pH readings, soil compaction; do not dethatch, top dress, aerate, fertilize, or apply lawn activators; do not observe watering cycles (I don’t water at all); do not use herbicides, pesticides, or fungicides; hold no animosity toward crabgrass; and am indifferent to fusarium blight, rhizoctonia yellow patch, necrotic ring spot, and snow mold. I am, in fact, sympathetic to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s observation that “weed is a plant whose virtue has not yet been discovered.” It’s all about who does the defining, isn’t it? Dad, though, was unmoved by the contingency of definitions. I quoted Emerson once to Dad. I should have known better. Dad asked, “Was he a homeowner?” “Yes,” I replied. “Well,” Dad declared, “then, he wasn’t a very damn good one.” Case closed — QED, as they say.

Like many men of his generation, Dad was eager to show that he had “made it,” that he was firmly entrenched in the middle class. Thus our house on a suburban cul-de-sac, thus steak for dinner every Saturday night, thus the tail-finned 1959 Chevy Impala, and thus his passion to display a well-tended landscape for public viewing. Men of my generation tend to use means other than our lawns to announce our social identity. Still, grass must be cut, and while most regard it as they would a TV that only showed CSPAN, I like doing it.

Cutting grass is transformative. Having finished, one can see, immediately, that the lawn is manifestly different than it was, manifestly better, improved, prettier. Mowing is applied art; in doing it, one edits the lawn, grooming the ragged, shearing the shaggy, making the unruly ruly. I value this transformation because it stands in such stark contrast to what I do for a living. As a teacher who has instructed thousands of students, preparing them for the event horizon of the “real world” into which they finally disappear, I never really know, in an indisputably empirical way, if what I have imparted has made a dent, has had any consequence, has advanced their skill set, has altered, if only a little, the cartography of their lives — in short, has made any difference.  Perhaps I yearn too much to hear my echo in the world. Yes, occasionally, I do hear from a former student, several years out, that something I said or did has assumed some meaning in their lives. And certainly I understand that students are with me only for 50 minutes three times a week, and that the results of instruction oftentimes reveal their value only in the fullness of time. Still, I find it troubling when, over the course of a semester, I see no palpable impact; I begin to doubt myself, feel vaguely fraudulent. Thus the satisfaction I find in cutting grass: When I’ve finished, I can see, clearly see, a genuine accomplishment, a consequence of my contact, a change in the physical, “out there,” external reality wrought by my expended effort.

But I find there’s another reality involved in grass cutting, one aptly figured by grass itself. Grass does most of its growing invisibly, underground, the result of an intricate root system designed to retain water. For me, cutting grass involves a kind of invisible growth. Ironically, the very routine of grass cutting, its essential mindlessness, clears mental space to fill with intentional, task-unrelated thoughts. I call it “the mull.” I experience regrets; weigh alternatives and make choices; plan upcoming events; sing songs I find meaningful, which almost always means songs from the 1960s; make up poems or recite poems from memory; analyze books, movies, TV shows, and ads; wax nostalgic, sentimental, skeptical, or cynical about something or other, and then wonder why I feel that way; examine assumptions; ponder love, justice, free will, God, or the best recipe for pasta primavera; and wonder at string theory, quantum physics, and Mel Gibson’s proclivity for behavioral meltdowns. It could be that “the mull” is a mind-body thing; after all, cutting grass is a walk. Kierkegaard claimed “I have walked myself into my best thoughts.” Rousseau asserted “my mind works only with my legs.” Thoreau called walking “a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us,” to reclaim the holy land of deliberation and imagination. Less romantically, Eric Klinger, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota, speculates that such a churn of cognitive activity has an evolutionary advantage as a “reminder mechanism:” in resisting the gravitational pull of one preoccupying task, individuals are more vigilant because, Klinger says, they keep their “larger agenda fresher in mind.”

But I find there’s another, less volitional mental activity that occurs while cutting grass, one that seemingly lowers a hook to snag things lurking beneath the surface of consciousness. Experts would call it “the incubation effect.” Most would call it “zoning out.” I call it “the dream-drift.” The mind wanders. Stray images and unkempt thoughts slipstream in from some far away cognitive Pacific.  It’s strange, uncanny, pleasant, and just a bit unnerving, a kind of letting go which, for me, takes the form of a surrender to a mental whateverism, a kind of watching, one step removed, the products of unwilled mental activity, products broken free of any establishing context. It’s a being willing, not a willing — a willingness to be open, not a willed effort to establish a goal against which to measure myself.

Once when mowing I had a sudden image of a first-grade classmate, Drucilla, someone I did not know especially well and had not thought of, ever, for more than 55 years. For reasons I cannot explain, it was accompanied by sadness. Another time I was struck by a fully-formed interpretation of a movie my wife and I had watched two nights previously. It did not take shape; it came to me fully shaped. Yet another time I had an abrupt, powerfully moving image of my grandmother making ravioli, speaking in soft Italian, with 10-year-old me standing beside her on a step stool, watching her crack eggs into a crater centered in a pile of flour. Yet another time Frank Sinatra singing “Witchcraft” sprang to mind. I heard it; my body fell into the rhythm of it. Where does this all come from, and why? No doubt Freudians would rub their hands and say, “Boy, do we have some work to do.” Neuroscientists would likely offer explanations involving neuron-firing sequences and unperceived stimuli. All I know is that a gated mental enclave briefly opened for a showing, that something, some connection, was occurring among my brain’s 100 billion neurons, each, like grass, part of a dense root structure, each entangled with the tendrils of other neurons.

It spooks me that the syntax of our minds is so complex, so capable of recursivity. It spooks me that the texture of our mental experience is so embodied, that our bodies and minds greet each other in mutual recognition and do not, as Descartes would have it, pass each other with an indifferent look. It didn’t spook Emerson, though; he knew that “under every deep, another deep opens.” All I know is that, sometimes, while cutting grass, what Seamus Heaney calls “the music of what happens” happens. I am in time, on the beat. My “I” meets my “me.” We have a beer afterward. Maybe two. • 5 August 2010