The Lesson of Lawns

The perfect lawn

The perfect lawn

I’m guilty. I admit it. Although cutting grass when I was a teenager kept me in spending money in the summer, I have abandoned having a yard that looked like a putting green.

In Gimli, Manitoba, where I grew up, the summer campers/cottagers were a source of pocket money for movies, hamburgers and fries, candy, comic books and, later, dates with local heartthrobs. Sometimes, I got jobs painting cottages but, most of the time, the market was for lawn cutting.

Most of the cottage husbands were Friday to Sunday night men. They came down to the beach after work on Friday and went back to Winnipeg Sunday evening. Winnipeg, in high summer, is sweltering, humid, oppressive, and, in those days, there was little, if any, air conditioning. Every summer one of the papers would have a picture of someone frying an egg on the hood of a car or on a sidewalk.

Meanwhile, wives and children were ensconced in Gimli cottages, either owned or rented. The cottages, shaded by large, old growth spruce trees, made of wood with lots of windows and screens so the night air could flow inside and cool breezes from Lake Winnipeg could blow through, didn’t absorb the heat the way that city buildings, built of stone and brick, did.

The husbands, coming down by train or car, were much like the fried eggs by the time they arrived. The cooler air perked them up. They lay in hammocks and napped or had a beer while their bodies cooled off. They were in no mood to mow lawns or cut down weeds. Instead, they hired local kids.

My first lawns were cut with a push mower. This was hard labour, the kind of hard labour that should only be handed to hardened criminals. Gimli was cooler than Winnipeg but when you are twelve, pushing a lawnmower on a lot two chains (66 feet) wide, the sun beats down on you until your shirt is soaking wet and you have to keep going to the artesian well and its ice cold water. The water was so cold that we believed it could crack your teeth.

I can still hear that hand pushed lawn mower. Whirrr, Whirrr. The trick was to get up some momentum. That way you could overcome the resistance of the grass. I didn’t have a grass catcher on the back. That meant when I’d finished cutting the grass, I had to rake it and deposit it at the edge of the back lane. Then, with a pair of hand shears, trim the grass from the sides of the wooden sidewalks and along the edge of the property, from around trees, and along the perimeter of the cottage. Standing, waiting to be paid, I felt like a red twister licorice stick left in the sun.

Payment? One dollar. However, if memory serves me correctly, a movie was twenty-five cents. That was four movies. A hamburger was twenty-five cents and chips (French fries) were a dime. Ice cream cones were a nickel. That lawn was worth twenty ice cream cones or ten comic books.

I went up and down the nearby streets knocking on cottage doors offering my services. Men in shorts and bottles of iced beer in their hands said, “Okay, kid. A buck. Do a good job.” They’d put in their time and come Sunday night would board the train back to the hell of Portage and Main.

Some people wanted their yard kept up but others, whether they didn’t care how the yard looked or didn’t want to spend the money, let their grass grow quite long before hiring me. I quickly learned that those lawns needed negotiating. Pushing the lawnmower through the grass was hard, slow work. Sometimes, the grass, if it was damp, jammed the mower and I had to stop to clear the blades. A dollar fifty.

Life and capitalism became easier when my father bought one of the new gasoline power mowers. The price stayed the same but I could cut more lawns per day. In those days no adult male would have been caught dead cutting lawns as a job. It was kid’s work. Today, grown men arrive in trucks, towing trailers filled with equipment.

Spruce trees were a mixed blessing. In those days Gimli had a forest of large spruce trees. Yards with a lot of spruce trees often had untidy grass in patches that were easy to cut. However, spruce tree roots lie on the surface of the ground and I had to bump my mower over them.

Occasionally, I’d get someone asking me to cut knee high grass and I’d have to go at it with a scythe. I liked that work. There were two types of scythe, the S shaped one and the straight handled one. I preferred the S shape. I learned to be wary of the blade, treating it with respect. I learned to sharpen it and to keep the point up and not jam it into the ground. I loved the rhythm of the work, the way the grass fell as I swept the blade ahead of me. I sharpened the blade with a whetstone and watched that I never brought my hand against the gleaming edge.

Maybe because cutting grass was, for me, paid work, I’ve never had any great desire to create a putting green lawn. I see them as some sort of mental aberration and think uptight, controlling, type A owner. However, that may just be an excuse for my indolence.

I’ve owned three houses in Victoria, BC. The first had hardly any front yard, a bit of side yard and a grassed back yard. However, I was busy writing and teaching and, sad to say, out of despair, my neighbour, a great air force guy from Gimli, when he couldn’t stand my back yard messiness anymore, would cut my grass when I wasn’t home.

House two had a double lot. It had gardens, gardens and more gardens but it still had a lot of lawn. I kept the lawn cut, in those days, in spite of the slope, running behind the gas powered mower. However, to the chagrin of some neighbours, I did my best to turn the lawn back into a Garry Oak meadow. One of my neighbours swept her lawn with a broom after cutting it. Random daffodils in the lawn, grape hyacinth by the thousands, tufts of this and that. I was rewarded by my attention to meadow and shrubs by three magnificent stages sleeping in my front yard one summer evening. They knew where they were welcome.

My latest house has no grass, except for some quack grass that I’m gradually pulling up by the roots. The yard is all granite with some soil dumped on top of it, enough to grow some trees and a variety of flowering bushes and plants. There’s not a flat spot anywhere and granite hogbacks with soil filled pockets doesn’t a putting green make.

I feel that I’ve betrayed my beginnings, those summer days spent cutting lawns, those quarters and fifty cent pieces and dollar bills. There lingers within me that boy laboring under the sun learning about lawns and earning a living and deciding, at some point, to be like the husbands lounging in the hammocks having a cold drink, napping, reading a book, rather than the hired help. Perhaps, I tell him, I benefited more from cutting those lawns and those long, hot days than just the few dollars that I earned.

Making Hay, 1862

making hay

The first time I went to Iceland, Finboggi Gudmundsson took me to the farm where my great great grandfather and my great grandfather lived and worked before they left for Amerika.

It was one of those fine Icelandic days with no wind off the North Sea, the sky was cloudless, the sun warm. It was the perfect day for making hay and, when we reached the farm, the farmer and his wife were in the hay field.

It was the greatest compliment they could give that they stopped haymaking long enough to serve us coffee and cake and have a brief conversation. I walked the beach were my great grandfather Ketill walked, sat on the stone wall where he used to sit. Then we were away and the farmer and his wife were back to the field making the precious hay for their sheep and cows.

In 1862 when A. J. Symington goes to Iceland, he stops at Thingvalla. They are treated well by the priest, Mr. S. D. Beck (are any of you descendants of his?).

“He is a pastor literally and metaphorically, farming and fishing as well as preaching. Hay, however, is the only crop which is raised here; and the Icelanders are consequently very dependent upon the h ay-harvest. With their short summer they might not inappropriately quote Shakspeare’s lines,

“The sun shines hot; and if we use delay
Cold biting winter marks our hoped for hay.”

Symington gives us one of the clearest pictures of haying that I have found. He says, “The scythe used by the Icelanders is quite straight and not half the length of ours. The numerous little hummocks, with which pasture land is covered, necessitate the use of a short implement, so that it may mow between and around them; the hillocks are form one to two feet high, and from one to four feet across. In some places the ground presents quite the appearance of a churchyard or an old battle-field. These elevations are occasioned by the winter’s frost acting on the wet subsoil. If levelled they would rise again to the same height in about 7 or 8 years; but the farmers let them alone, because they fancy they get a larger crop from the greater superficial area of the field, and this old let-alone custom certainly saves them much labour. The primitive state of their agriculture, as well as the peculiar nature of the Icelandic soil, may be inferred from the fact, that there are only two plows in the whole island and no carts. A spade, a scythe two feet long, a small rake with teeth about an inch and a half deep, and ropes made of grass or hair to bind the hay, which is carried on men’s backs or conveyed by horses to be stacked, are all that the farmer requires for his simple operations. The hay, especially that which grown in the tuns, is of fine quality, tender and nutritive; and, with even any ordinary attention to drainage, many a fertile vale cold be made to yield much more than is now obtained from it.”

One crop. Upon it life depended. Everyone turned to making hay for this was not a grain economy. The Icelandic population lived on hay for hay fed their sheep and cows and those two beasts provided milk, meat and wool.

The rule was simple. Harvest enough hay to keep your animals through the winter or you will die of hunger. Those who lived close to the ocean might supplement the hay with seaweed but it was a supplement, not a staple.

With every stroke of the short scythe, with every pull of the rake, the haymakers could think that will be another mouthful of skyr, a drink of whey, a piece of smoked meat this winter. It was a direct equation your ancestors all understood.