Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Return of the Crazy Grass

Recently when my husband and I were playing Trivial Pursuit, he was stumped by a question: Which family of plants has the greatest variety? Reading the question, I was pretty sure I knew the answer, or knew what I would say if the question were posed to me: Grasses.

I was right. I couldn't name another single family of plants (well, maybe I could make an educated guess), but my years of gardening have given me a humble and delighted knowledge of how grasses grow, what they need to thrive, what they do to survive.

When I was younger I didn't care about gardening and disliked even mowing the lawn. But I was a kid; what did I know then about life? As I grew up, I began planting vegetables with my children, to our mutual delight; it was nothing short of miraculous, the way the pale, curved, hard bean seeds grew into lush vines that supplied many dinners as well as stocking the freezer for winter. Or the way the pumpkin vines snaked their way over the garden's edge and onto the lawn, anchored there by thread-thin tendrils they spun out, wound around grass blades.

In those days, I only thought about what I could see above ground, not about what was happening underneath, not about the seeds' softening to open, or the heft of their roots, or the quality of the soil in which those roots nestled and burrowed. Even so, my lawn was an afterthought; I mowed with an old reel-type push mower, noting but not considering the way crabgrass slowly choked out the regular grass.

Now, grass takes up as much of my attention as my gardens. Or, more accurately, the care of grass, which is different. I care about the conditions, the unseen, not just the look of  it. About ten years ago, I began to learn an organic way to take care of the lawn--to literally tend its condition, nurture its health, all without the chemical soak that would pollute the ground water and force me to keep my children off of it.

My initiation was slow; for years I had done nothing, not even watered. First I tried homemade fertilizers (beer, epsom salts, soap), but they seemed to do nothing. In truth, my lawn was a wreck: dry, patchy, flattened, weed-infested. It had no life. It looked beyond hope. That's the way my personal and emotional life felt, too, but that is another story. Or, perhaps it is the central metaphor of this one. I was recently free from a smothering, torching relationship. It was time to learn to thrive again. Though I didn't actually determine to save the lawn (or myself), I did begin to consider how to enliven it.

So I learned about root systems and nutrients, the needs of plants, the lifecycles of weeds. Along the way I found kindred philosophers: the ideal wasn't a perfect lawn, but a healthy lawn. A little crabgrass, a few mushrooms, were not signs of the end of civilization. It is no exaggeration to say that I am amazed by what I learned:

o that grass is a perennial that does best when the soil is healthy, so that its root system can spread out

o that thick, healthy grass chokes out weeds

o that leaving the grass longer (3 inches) instead of cropping it short creates shade so that weeds have a harder time sprouting

o that crab grass has a short root system and new growth is easily inhibited

o that newly sprouted crabgrass, besides being a luminous shade of bright green, has almost no roots and is easy to destroy by simply pulling

o that vinegar kills weeds but not grass

I found a fairly simple routine that slowly turned my lawn greener, less weedy, and beautiful to my eyes: corn gluten meal in spring (a natural weed and feed--deters the sprouting of crab grass); organic fertilizer in summer, and soybean meal in the fall (a natural winterizer, like Scott's, only safe). In the process, I found a local, family-run farm-and-garden operation where I can buy these products, since they are really crop byproducts. I bought my raspberry bushes there, too, and a Weigala bush, and recently took their recommendation for a stinky spray that deters rabbits from munching flowers. And yes, it's also organic.

But mostly I found a joy that has sustained me in the way a deep faith does. My lawn's percentage of crab grass has decreased gradually; each year there is less, and in the process I have learned patience and perseverance. Weeding gives me a sense of purpose equal to writing or teaching a class or hosting guests. Yes, it is work, but those hours I spend happily crawling around the yard, gently parting grass to find the stems of stubborn creeping Charlie are hours I use to reflect on my children's lives, the love in my life, the sanctity of the daily. My work literally produces results, but the intangibles are powerful too: a gentler attitude toward myself and my family, a rapt attention to the details of life, a sympathy for the rough-edged and tough-looking.

I continue to be a student of grasses because there are so many--the cultured and the weed, the sun and the shade, the wild ones from the old prairie. Each variety has a different stalk, leaf shape, color, texture, life cycle. Each has a different feel, a different grace. A summer paying attention to the lawn demonstrates subtlety, the colorwheel of green the grass embodies in its progress from April to September. Its own ecosystem, its own routine, its own stubborn ways.

For instance, every mid-July, when temperatures rise and precipitation begins to wane, new varieties of grasses appear in the lawn. I don't know their names, only their distinctions: shapes, colors, thickness of stem. One, a tough-stemmed, small-leafed variety that resembles clover, grows in patches. But on closer inspection, a patch turns out to be a small cluster of grass, for each stem splits an inch from the ground, sends out new stems with leaves, a bouquet of weeds. Another, the light-green, lettuce-looking grass, seems to have no roots at all for the way it releases the ground when I grasp the stem with my fingers.

And then there is what I call the crazy grass. It is the color of swamp grass, variegated as it grows taller with a green so light it is almost white. Each stalk seems individual--it does not branch--but each sends out two or three leaves (or should I call them stems?), smooth, firm as the leaves of lilies, arched and graceful. Small fleur de lis. I first notice it near the clothesline pole as I mow, and I kill the engine and sink to the earth to pull each stalk out, one by one. They are easy to distinguish from grass and crabgrass, and they are easy to pull; one firm upward tug, and I can gather a handful in a few minutes' time. The stalks at the bottom are thick before they diverge into leaves. The thickness is soft, like the flesh of a ripe pear. Each time I mow, there are more stalks to pull, but fewer each time. When do they seed themselves, I wonder? From where do they arrive in my yard? Are they misplaced flowers, lilies flown in from the woods or nearby yards? Or are they perennial, lying dormant in the soil until that moment in July when their seed pods quiver and hum and stalks push upward with the quiet persistence of prayer?

I do not know. I do not really need to know, though I have considered planting several stalks in a pot to see if they would bloom. This year, I found another gathering of them under an elm tree in the front yard. It's the crazy grass, I yelled to my husband, cleaning in the garage. He came to look, but he's unconverted; they looked like weeds to him, nestled among the other weeds in that patch of bare earth beneath the tree, that used to be a garden.

To me, they are the image of grasses' complexity. How to understand their mystery? They grow up on schedule, their internal mechanisms as true as clock guts. They mingle with the plain and the ugly, assert their place briefly in the scheme of things. They persist for their time, then disappear, only to make their entrance again, on cue. I believe that even if I didn't pull them, they would die out before September, part of their identity this fleeting presence.

My pleasure is never keener than when I am in my yard, admiring, the most reverential attitude I can imagine. I have come to understand many things about the ways of grasses. That knowledge has enabled me to treat my lawn with its infinite variety like the organism it is, caring for it, assisting it, trying not to inhibit it. But like any family, at the center of things lies an enigma, a mystery. I'd rather not crack that mystery. The return of the crazy grass brings me closer to the earth from which we all come, it causes me to bend down, to kneel down, to take my time, to observe. Sometimes, I swear I can feel a pulse there, in the earth, and when I touch it, I join in the praise that arises from this mystery, not from any certainty.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Tough, Part 3

What sinews enwrap the mind? What muscular disciplines foster mental persistence in the face of life's regular resistances? If I had to pick one, I'd say my mind was tougher than my body. Countless times, watching or playing sports, I have said out loud, "It's a mental game." Over the decades, I have faced deep loss without losing my capacity to continue a daily beat. I have never broken down. I would like to swear that I never will.

And yet, I don't think of myself as tough, physically or mentally. Or, to be accurate: I don't think of myself as tough as; by comparison, I lose the battle, every time. It's not a competition, I suppose, but I grew up trailing an older sister who set the standard for toughness. Nearing 50, I concede that in every way, she is tougher than I am.

Academically, perhaps, I have the advantage. At least that is what I meant when I wrote earlier that she had every advantage except one. I was book-smarter, or I thrived more in that environment, insofar as grades are concerned. I graduated with Honors, went to college, then to grad school. Twice. She graduated high school with middling grades, then enrolled in a veterinary technician program which she never finished.

The challenges that academics provide me, however, are ones I know I can meet. I work hard and study, write well, complete assignments on time, thrive in the soup of immersion and inquiry, analysis and argument; there is no real question of whether I can do it. I know I can do it; I chose the discipline of English precisely because I knew I would not be immobilized, as I was by Trigonometry, which baffled me so much I never took Physics. But I am not anyone's star student. No one has ever mistaken what I do for brilliance; I make no claims for genius, since I'm really more a plodder, a work horse, a good but not great brain.

My sister, on the other hand, showed more persistence in her high school years than I have shown, ever. Trig also tripped her up but she took Physics, meeting the challenge by going in early to tutor with the teacher, until finally he told her that she had tried as hard as she could. It would not make her pass the course. She should not feel bad--on the contrary, she had done everything she could, against the odds. She could withdraw confident that she had done her best.

There's the advantage, the mental toughness, the head-down pursuit of what seems impossible. What I lacked--still lack. If I thought teaching, writing, all the classes I took to get there were impossible, I would have done something else.

And so it is with physical toughness as well. Both my sister and I stay in shape by walking, running, biking, playing sports--whatever we can do to keep fit. Even though she is inches shorter than me, and has asthma and allergies that affect her breathing, I think she's a better athlete. She remains in better shape because she's simply tougher and more persistent than me. Nothing postpones her workouts, which begin most days around 4:00 am. When her children were in high school, she got up and lifted weights in the unheated garage and then rode an exercise bike. On weekends, she walks with her husband or runs by herself. She works full time and takes care of a cabin, landscaping, painting, sandblasting. Focused effort.

As I age, my workouts are postponed by weather, injuries, tiredness, scheduling. I allow them to be postponed, I should say. My schedule of alternating days has remained more or less intact, but often now I let two days lapse between workouts. This summer, I have been plagued by a foot injury; it has literally hobbled me. But don't I allow myself to be hobbled? I have not searched very hard for an alternative. I have not sought out a place to swim or biked more than twice a week. I have not dusted off the weight machine nor consistently performed the ritual of ice, ibuprofen, incline.

Though I am sidetracked this summer, in truth this has been coming for some time. Since 2006 I have been trying to get back in shape. It has become my mantra. My journey has been uphill, toward an imagined summit where equilibrium, a schedule, a routine, gets reinserted as the centerpiece of my life.

The reason I have not been successful, the reason I am still trying to get in shape, is a combination of physical and mental. Yes, my muscle tone has deteriorated somewhat; middle age plays a role, too, as weight settles on me and keeps me anchored, close to the earth, difficult to move. But the real truth is that my mental toughness has deteriorated. It was never equal to my sister's, or anyone's who trains for a marathon, for instance, or works out every day. Now, because I worry that I can't do it, I let myself off the hook with excuses like lack of sleep or a hectic day or the belief that I'm in pretty good shape for someone my age or the belief that I can't work out in the morning. My physical toughness rarely gets tested or challenged these days. My brain prevents it. Real fear deters me--real doubt about my physical abilities, which are harnessed to a mental engine that begins to sputter and stall.

If it were only as easy as a mental tune up. If only the spark plugs of confidence and persistence and daring could be replaced. If only I could return to my childhood, when I followed my sister's lead everywhere, heedless of my own fears, anxious only to be there behind her, to trail the wake of her great strength and courage, fueled by endless reserves of devotion.