It is time to cut the grass.
I do wish this task could wait another week, when the weather will be cooler, but now even the weeds have begun spreading their demon seed. The trash the hobos and young delinquents inevitably scatter is no longer visible but has been lost amidst the green chaos as ships might be lost in high seas. The wind catches the crest of grass blades and tosses them back at forth at will; a turbulent ocean of willowy chlorophyll set dancing and swaying to the heat’s mood music as if in one phrase and cadence. Above us, pigeons have overtaken the treetops and apartment windowsills. They look down, turning their heads to the side, as if to shame me, being aware of my present hesitations.
And so I must try to start a reluctant mower. The last time we crossed paths, we’d had a sincere disagreement over the cleanliness of the oil in the engine, and the amount of time I’d taken to cut the expanse of this or another small park. Call it a clash of culture between the human sense of free will and the idiosyncrasies of the one-cylinder internal combustion engine. The cutter itself is a vicious, lazy, immobile metallic bastard, and so I approach the machine with fear and a substantial trembling of the knees and wits.
I gently pull the starter cord and think again regretfully about why I am here, cutting the grass in a crappy little square of green behind some apartment buildings at the edge of Paris, instead of sitting at a window watching some other idiot cutting the grass of my private garden in Meudon. In 1968, I was at university, on my way to that better way of life, when I got caught up in the moment, so to speak. My fellow students were rioting against the establishment, claiming “Sous les pavés la plage” " which means basically, let’s get out of here and break something. Their riots shut down the country for the month of May. I took things one step further and shut down my bourgeois parents’ dreams, deciding I’d never work for the system again. Of course, here I am now, a few decades later, wearing a green uniform and doing yard work for the city. Needless to say, I regret my choice, and karma seems to delight in finding a plethora of ways to throw it in my face.
For example, this same scenario, on a smaller, more diesel-scented level, is what is happening when I repeatedly try to start the mower. Like the rebellious students from my memories, it is now smoking and staring at me mockingly while openly refusing to work.
While I stand vigil over the uncooperative machine, someone at the open window of one of the apartments around me begins to play Chopin’s Nocturne in B-flat minor, Opus 9, Number 1. His left hand flows over a sequence of simple arpeggios to start the piece; a bee suddenly flies at my face as I pull the starter cord again. And while the pianist’s fingers flourish over consecutive bars of D-flat, I pirouette outside to the frustration of a mower not starting, and a bee that intends to fly up my nostril. I dance beautifully, yet in full panic, to the somber mood of the music. By the time the nocturne concludes with a Picardy third, I am spent, the mower is still unmoved, and the bee’s assault on my nose has been officially terminated.
The pigeons coo in soft appreciation. The first sweat of the day meanders its way down my forehead, in a rivulet the same shape as the River Seine. As a former student of history and politics, I can’t help but get caught up in the romance and the reverie of the distant past. History teaches us many things, like the importance of bathing, or that you can still be a genius, even if you have a bad haircut. Could a recollection of history help me with my lawnmower problem?
I try to think about gardening. Some people have literally gone crazy over it, like the Dutch, who, in the 1630’s, fell victim to “tulip mania” (sort of like Beatle mania, but with flowers and an economic bubble, and thankfully, no Yoko) Or the Germans, who invented the lawn gnome, and, according to some sources, this charming ditty, to be sung raucously between beers and bratwurst at Oktoberfest:
‘I’d rather fight with my friends and raise a glass,
Than let this lawnmower kick my ass’
But then, I mustn’t forget my own culture in all of this. After all, have you ever seen a French-style garden? In 1662, when it seemed like croissant and palace -building technologies could advance no further, King Louis XIV had to come up with something else to establish our reputation. He got his enormous wig unstuck from a narrow doorway at Versailles and called in some experts, including a gardener named Le Notre, whose work he’d admired at the house of his disgraced Minister of Finances. This new idea was born: Think hedges " not like the one that blocks you from seeing your neighbors’ disturbingly naked lawn chair exploits, but short ones, in curving arabesques, encircling multicolored flowers in swirls and patterns. Think long rows of trees shaped like round-bottomed pyramids, each one exactly the same height and width as the next. Think, basically, “Edward Scissorhands” -- but more Renaissance-y, with just a hint of Fabergé. And how did they cut the grassy plots between perfectly perpendicular, topiary-lined pathways? These were the pre-lawnmower days, so they used scythes.
Yes, that was our golden age. On his deathbed, Louis XV, the Lizard King, reportedly foretold the death of French-style gardens with the famous quotation, “Après moi, les mauvaises herbes.”
History would prove him mostly right. After all, there were the English, who, reacting to the calculation and deliberate artificiality of our garden style, created the English-style garden, bringing our countries’ centuries-old rivalry into the leafy domain of shrubberies. The English garden is everything the French-style garden strives not to be: wild and without rigid geometry. As an added bonus, instead of relying on complicated motifs made of different types of flowers for eye-catching decoration, the English garden features “follies”, or little mini-buildings made to look like, say, a Greek temple or an old, ruined church. Plus, no scythes: before the invention of the lawnmower, they just put a flock of sheep out there and let them do the work. No tired arms, no potential decapitation of innocent bystanders (this last thing, in fact, didn’t become popular here in France until a century or so after the invention of the French-style garden, and was almost considered sport during the Terror).
I survey this small park again. The pigeons take on picaresque quality. And now that I think of it, those piles of refuse partially hidden by the tall grass have a certain air of mystery, not unlike a miniature church ruin.
I sit down on the nearest bench. Shooting a quick look to the apartment buildings’ windows, I take a trusty can of beer from the pocket of my uniform, and drink deep. I think when I return home tonight I’ll look up the numbers of some local sheep farmers. Perhaps the English were right after all.
This piece was written in collaboration with fellow OSer Dom Macchiaroli , who had all the good ideas.
If you visit Dom's blog in a little while, he will be posting this story as well...but with a special treat! Enjoy!