Although he’s best known as a novelist, Nicholson Baker also writes essays from time to time for various magazines around the country. “The Way the World Works,” Baker’s new book, collects his magazine work from the past few years.
I have a soft spot for Baker’s latest book because it includes some kind words for newspapers and libraries, two institutions close to my heart. But Baker also writes in celebration of a great number of other things, including kite string, the telephone and mowing the lawn.
I think I understand why Baker takes pleasure in cutting his grass. Much of a writer’s life involves the intangible, moving squiggles of print from one place to the other, and a solid job like trimming the yard can help anchor the brain to something more solid than a line of words.
Even so, when I came across Baker’s praise for lawn mowing, I wasn’t surprised to flip to his dust jacket bio and learn that he lives in Maine. Anyone who views cutting the grass as a joy is not, I usually assume, a child of the South.
In Maine, I would imagine, mowing season is short enough and mild enough to make cutting the grass hardly more tiresome than an autumn stroll. Here, though, the long, hot mowing months are a test of endurance, with fall as the finish line in a marathon of heat, gasoline fumes and the occasional mound of fire ants.
Thanks to a recent online column in The American Scholar by Paula Marantz Cohen, I’ve just learned about a short story by Leo Tolstoy in which a peasant farmer is told that he can own as much land as he can encircle in a day. Flushed by ambition, the man pushes himself to run around a very large circle, dying from exhaustion as a result.
If there’s an American corollary to this Russian tragedy, maybe it’s the idea that we shouldn’t own a bigger lawn than we can comfortably cut in an hour.
My wife and I bought a house with a big yard a decade and a half ago so that our kids would have enough room outside to play. Only in walking across the yard after signing the sales agreement did I start to grasp the mowing chores ahead of me.
We first got a riding lawn mower, but an abundance of tree roots and flower beds made the big machine impractical. I traded it for a self-propelled model that, in silhouette, might be mistaken for the horse-drawn plow my grandfather used in his field.
Maybe, on some level, cutting the grass reminds suburbanites of their roots, only a couple of generations past, on the family farm. We show the same pride in a freshly manicured lawn that our ancestors might have taken in nicely tilled rows of corn or beans.
Like agriculture, cutting grass also connects me with the cycle of the seasons. These October weekends are a victory lap of sorts, as the days grow briefer, and the lawn begins to fall asleep until spring.
As autumn deepens, the yard will grow thick with sycamore leaves — the lawn slipping, like the year itself, into an eerie quiet that tells me winter’s not far behind.