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Levin: Mowing The Lawn

Mowing the lawn under the weight of the summer sun is a wearisome chore - around the house, the garden, the barn; between the upper pasture and the riding ring. But, when the dew lifts from Coyote Hollow, which gets later and later in September, I set my course and begin. And sometimes, if I’m energetic, I’ll mow the entire yard in a single outing.The mower blades slice - and the vent spits out – various greens of Timothy, Kentucky bluegrass, witch grass - then, sprays of purple and orange and yellow as vetch, fleabane, and hawkweed fall before the mower.

Beyond, a seemingly endless run of grass stretches ahead of me, past the stonewall, the raspberries, and down the terraces, to the pasture fence.

In Vermont, grasslands are mostly found in yards, pastures, or meadows, ephemeral plant communities that depend on mowers like me to survive. Without mowing, haying, or grazing they would slowly cede to perennials, shrubs and sun-loving trees like gray birch, pin cherry, chokeberry, aspen, and white pine. These, in turn, would eventually yield to shade tolerant trees like sugar maple, beech, hemlock, and yellow birch.

In fact, my lawn and pastures are actually a tiny remnant of that nineteenth century age, when seventy-five percent of Vermont’s forests were cleared for grazing sheep. And as I push my mower through these man-made Lilliputian prairies, I see immigrants from the immense interior grasslands that used to call our Midwest home.

Black-eyed Susan and blue-eyed grass, both prairie wildflowers, grew more abundantly as the forests of the Midwest fell before the long-handled ax. Even the cowbirds that parade around the yard are Midwest refugees.

I mowed five times this summer, just enough to stem the rising tide of seedling aspens and red maples, whose windblown seeds drifted in from the edge of the woods, and red oaks, whose seedlings sprouted from the astronomical number of acorns that littered my lawn last fall.

And while it takes me four hours to mow the lawn, I know it could be much worse. If had to mow the original North American grasslands, more than one million square miles of tassel-headed growth, it would take me about nine million years working eight hours a day. Instead, nature herself maintained the Great Plains and prairies with drought, fire and sixty million roving bison.

I finish the yard, and remember that since the grass has slowed its growth, I’ll be mowing less often now. Before long I’ll be raking leaves and shoveling snow.

Ted Levin is a nature writer and photographer. His latest book is America's Snake: The Rise and Fall of the Timber Rattlesnake, University of Chicago Press, May, 2016.
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