Zen and the Transcendent Art Of Mowing Grass

Zen and the Transcendent Art Of Mowing Grass

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Zen and the Transcendent Art Of Mowing Grass

 

As a youth, I hated to mow so much that one day I left our push-mower in the yard to rust and became an expatriated Texas writer. My first story was about an alien being who, in the end, turned out to be a lawnmower.

 

By the time I came home again, I had spent so much time in the East that my Texas friends expected me to move into a highrise in downtown Dallas. But instead we settled sixteen miles to the south, in Cedar Hill. We surprised everyone by buying a place with an eight-acre yard.

 

It was during the summer, and I had to start mowing immediately. "You just stay inside where it's cool," I told Norma, who is afraid of grass. "I'll take care of the yard." As I spoke, I was gazing out at more grass and weeds than I'd ever seen in my life, except at a cemetery.

 

Now whenever anybody from Dallas comes out to see our spread for the first time, they remark on the seclusion, the spaciousness, the scenic beauty. Then they ask uneasily, "Do you MOW all this?" People don't like it when I say yes. They don't understand it. Old friends say I've changed, implying for the worst.

 

But there is a difference between what I do today and the mowing of my youth. Mowing a little patch of front yard is typical outdoor city work: boring, undistinguished, pitiable, drone-like activity. But getting astride a John Deere tractor and spending twenty hours in two days tackling tough thistles, high Johnson grass, giant sticker weeds, and creeper so tough it copulates with barbed wire is the kind of intense activity that, if you survive it, eventually transcends itself. Like Zen or long-distance running, it becomes a path to wisdom.

 

I've been at it three years now, and it's no accident that I don't write as I used to. All I really want to write about is mowing-and then for only an hour or so at a time between whole days on my tractor. The fact is, mowing and writing fill the same needs, only mowing does it better.

 

Mowing eight acres every week would drive some kinds of people mad, but it has served to make me feel in harmony with the flux of the heaving earth as it hurtles through time.

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I have learned the patience of Job, I don't care if I go bald anymore, I sleep like a baby, and my penmanship has improved.

 

When I first got on our little John Deere 110 mowing tractor, I thought I was getting away with something. Because I was sitting down and riding, it didn't feel like work-yet it created the perfect illusion of work. I would get nicely sweaty and dirty, and the sound of the tractor chewing up fallen limbs frightened Norma. All that and the long hours I logged convinced her that I was working inhumanly hard. My only concern was that she would try it herself and see how easy it was. Meanwhile, for the first time in my life, I achieved a uniform tan.

 

Then the tractor started breaking down. The engine blew up from lack of oil. The battery went dead from lack of water. One belt broke, and this inspired all the others to break. I got flats from the spike-like thorns strategically placed by their mother trees for that purpose. I left a trail of nuts and bolts and much larger chunks of tractor that I couldn't identify.

 

The jungle was taking over, and I had no choice but to call in seventy-year-old old Bill Chapman, who arrived on his giant John Deere looking like General Patton. In just three hours he sculpted our steep, rocky, briar and weed-covered terrain into a work of art. Then he sat down under a shade tree and fixed my tractor. Since that time, he has become my mowing mentor, and I can only wonder at what he knows after almost a whole lifetime of mowing.

 

He taught me that you don't have to be mechanically inclined to fix a tractor. It's a matter of attitude. A tractor knows if you're afraid of it or if you have weak resolve. When I leave town and Norma timidly climbs on the machine, it always breaks down-just as my dog quickly becomes rude and unruly in my absence. Once a tractor knows its master is willing to spend all eternity to fix it, then it will run and only break down enough to keep its dignity.

 

Though a tractor is a crude, manmade, hopelessly earth-bound device, its function of mowing conversely sets us on the road to nirvana. Mowing goes beyond the reach of human language, but I would say that it's something like a bright, green dream dominated by sound. The sound is a deafening roar which on given days may contain any number of other sounds, such as clatters or squeaks. There are no people in the dream, which creates a feeling like a martini, and the urge to mow forever is so strong that when you stop, there is a disconcerting sense of moving backwards.

 

But to balance this dream world, real things are continually happening. For instance, our hills are steep enough in places to turn the tractor over. Or, since one of the tractor parts that fell off was the brake, I could always fall in reverse over the eastern ridgeline, snap through the fence, and careen into the arroyo below. And there are new cavernous animal holes hidden in the weeds to watch out for-as well as snakes, tarantulas , fire ants, and great digger wasps of high intelligence.

 

Besides the spiritual advantages of mowing, I sense that to mow is to possess. Legal ownership doesn't seem to enter into it. My place didn't feel like mine until I was able to mow it. And the natural urge to expand is always there, of course. Yet at my youthful age and a little on my 110, I would never dare to head out the front gate and try to take over Cedar Hill.

 

But I have seen Bill Chapman mowing over twenty miles south of here, hunched forward atop his great machine, staring straight ahead, his face the color of a tan that has gone all the way through and come out the other side.

 

Philosophers have long told us that focusing our efforts allows us to achieve otherwise impossible heights. And so it occurs to me that a man with enough mowing hours under his belt could perhaps levitate or walk through walls. And if a man could mow far enough, he could actually possess the earth, or at least all the way to Pampa, Texas.
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