A life of mowing

There’s not much more in life that I enjoy than the smell of freshly cut grass on a rainy day. And, while that sounds incredibly typical and sappily poetic, the smell always seems to kindle whatever longing I may have at the time to throw my knees in the dirt and dig rocks out of the ground. In fact, if it wasn’t for the work involved in arranging someone else’s flora and shrubbery, I think I would have made a hell of a landscaper.

Let’s go back a few years – to a time when I was, I guess, an amateur landscaper. Or, more specifically, part of the St. Cloud Parks Department’s mowing crew. These are the memories that are thrown to the front of my mind when my olfactory catches a whiff of grass, of mud, of gasoline – of a time that, in all reality, I was still searching for someplace to land.

I was still a bit fresh out of college: I had graduated with my education degree in December, and, though I was certainly trying (to no avail) to secure a position in a Minnesota school (any school, actually,) I found myself substituting – rarely – and working at a craft and hobby store. My days of slinging video games and bar-rush food were behind me. I had visions of a future. But I needed someplace to work during the summer, a time where there was no subbing, because I sure couldn’t share rent with only 20 hours a week in a weak retail building.

Doug, my boss at the Parks Department, adored me, I think. I came as a breath of fresh air to someone who had interviewed his fair share of college freshmen. Full time employees, or as we were wont to call them: the “old-timers”, aside, I was like an elder statesman on the mowing crew. Never mind that I’d never ridden a lawn mower, or operated a gas-powered trimmer, or driven a truck with a trailer on it – I was hired immediately.

I loved it. I felt like one of the guys. I got dirty at work. I came home smelling of gas, or grass, and dirt – always dirt. I took pride in the parks I would mow; trim; sculpt. I took pride in taking one-and-a-half-hours of breaks during my eight-hour workday. I learned to play Hearts, and 500, and became successful at them both. I enjoyed my job, for the most part, and aside from working at FuncoLand (which, really, never felt like a “job” in the sense of going to a place where you work and earn a paycheck, and instead had the feel of an exclusive club that required some basic dues and gave a tenfold refund check on whatever you bothered to put in) it’s the best job I’ve ever had.

Really, though, there’s a lot more to it than that. I feel like I actually learned something working for Doug – more than just how to mow. I was a city boy; I never did as much as mow more than the one-eighteenth sliver of a city block that we called our yard. But, at the Parks Department, I found myself cutting my teeth on basic landscaping; trimming trees and around fences successfully; applying paint to work vehicles; driving trucks (diesel; with or without trailers; dump;) building fences; affixing siding to garages. I spent much of my time practicing disk golf while I was standing (or at times, sitting) watch at the park shelter at Riverside. I got a great tan. I even lost a little bit of the ol’ paunch (don’t worry, I’ve put it right back on.)

But what I really enjoyed was the mowing. I learned to take a great satisfaction in a smooth lawn, or a perfectly trimmed chain link fence. The tracks the mower blades made would steer me in a spiral, circling constantly until – at last! – I spun tight circles around the final patch of long grass. I understood the art in slicing bluegrass around a baseball field in patterns that signify a home team’s logo, or a special anniversary, or the first game of the World Series. Even now I can feel myself growing, in a purely horticultural sense, older and older, as if at the age of thirty I will already be at that stage where I fertilize my garden three times a summer, keep even the hidden patches under a constant blanket of moisture, and curse those “damn kids” that keep riding their bikes over the front corner of my lawn.

But I’ve got a few years until that happens. Until then, I’ll just be content to float back to those days on the Toro, with fresh oil (that I put in myself) and sharp blades (which I grinded down on my own). When I worked – worked – for a few months outside, within the elements, as a lackey on a mowing crew.

Who ever imagined that muddy grass would bring that sort of memory?

This was lovingly handwritten on April 12th, 2005