Rites of spring

The roar of the mower is a sign of life, says Hephzibah Anderson

Root and Branch

This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Can you hear it? Can you smell it? When the lawnmowers rev up and the air fills with the unmistakeable scent of cut grass — sweet, crisp, almost quaffable — it’s a sure sign that the growing season is upon us.

“Who was the fool who made January first New Year’s Day?” asks Grandpa Spaulding in Ray Bradbury’s nostalgic classic, Dandelion Wine. The day when the grass is finally long enough for cutting, triggering a “great swelling symphony of lawn mowers . . . that really represents Beginning!”

Along with ripening blackberries, the first trim of the year is recorded in Nature’s Calendar

Along with bursting buds and ripening blackberries, the first trim of the year is one of the data points recorded in Nature’s Calendar, the UK’s phenology database. This lengthy biological record stretches back almost three centuries, and contributors began logging the date of their lawn’s yearly inaugural mow in 1974, a time before those velvety emblems of pride and order (not to mention curtain-twitching conformity) began being dug up to make room for wheelie bins or a second car, a patio or the still more ubiquitous wooden deck.

Grass is something that most allotment gardeners are keen to get rid of, but the association that my plot belongs to is happily laissez-faire, its strictest rules reserved for the use of Roundup and unsightly polytunnels.

A couple of neighbouring plots even feature lawns, which is why, on a recent Sunday afternoon, the gentle sounds of chirruping birds and the spading over of soil were drowned out by the noisy throat-clearing of a lawnmower.

Bradbury’s machine clattered and chattered, this one droned, blaringly, and it took me straight back to my childhood, when our elderly neighbour would mow daily — sometimes twice daily. Broken up by the slenderest landing strip of cowering chrysanthemums, his manicured expanse of lawn looked as barren as Mars, a kind of verdant desert.

Nowadays, someone would probably have staged an intervention — that mowing screamed OCD — but instead there was only his wife’s piercing offer of a cup of tea, which would crest the din and leave the rest of the village waiting with bated breath: would he accept it and allow tranquillity to resume?

I suspect he dreamt of a ride-on mower, like the one on which Alvin Straight made his 240-mile journey across America’s Midwest, becoming immortalised in David Lynch’s 1999 film The Straight Story. But this was the 1980s, and most grass cutting was done with the kind of clunky walk-behind models whose reluctant start was accompanied by a hefty belch of petrol fumes.

Air pollution is just the beginning of the lawn’s negative environmental impact

Air pollution is just the beginning of the lawn’s negative environmental impact. Its roots go back to the grassland surrounding medieval castles, kept clear of trees to provide an unobstructed view of any approaching, and potentially hostile, callers. By the seventeenth century, a clear distinction had been made between pastures (featuring the first lawnmowers — the sheep and cattle that ingeniously fertilised as they munched) and grassy areas meant for pleasure and promenading.

With time, what began as the preserve of the upper classes — who else could afford all that scything and shearing? — became increasingly widespread, nudged along by the popularity of sports like football and golf, and the
creation of urban parks to counter the social ills of rapid industrialisation.

By the mid-twentieth century, it had gone mainstream, symbolising upwardly mobile suburbia. Scientific advances encouraged the pursuit of the perfectly smooth, weed-free lawn, monocultures whose maintenance requires more chemicals per square metre than are used even by arable farmers — not to mention a great deal of water.

Nature’s Calendar shows that the first lawn cut of the year is getting earlier, and lawns, together with the particular aspect of our relationship to nature that they epitomise (as Monty Don says, it’s all about control), have played a part in that. Maybe it’s only fitting that scientists now believe that the scent we all love so much is actually a distress signal, a bouquet of green leaf volatiles sent from lopped blades.

My own allotment plot features a circular central patch of grass

My own allotment plot features a circular central patch of grass. In the manner of the lawn’s aristocratic early adopters, it’s tended by hand with shears or, if my daughter is in the mood, safety scissors. But my same small helper has also planted it with the daisies I recently weeded from our strawberry and rhubarb patch — a source of summery trinkets for the two of us, but the scourge of every mowing devotee.

While I’m always drawn to the idea of a chamomile lawn, had I the space I think I’d follow the example of King’s College, Cambridge, whose iconic back lawn last year became a meadow, creating a biodiversity-rich ecosystem that, full of harebells, buttercups and poppies, also looked beautiful if incongruous.

The buzz and hum of the insect life that meadows attract provides its own symphony, too — one that, even if it doesn’t shriek “Beginning” with the decisiveness of spring lawn maintenance, also takes care not to nudge us any closer to the end.

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