Shawnee News Star for Sunday July 16th 2017 Becky Emerson Carlberg What would you do without your lawnmower? The grass-cutting industry has become quite advanced in their pursuit to remake nature into green carpets. Days long ago, chickens, geese, sheep, goats, cattle, horses and other livestock kept the grasses under control in the pastures, fields [...]
Shawnee News Star for Sunday July 16th 2017
Becky Emerson Carlberg
What would you do without your lawnmower? The grass-cutting industry has become quite advanced in their pursuit to remake nature into green carpets. Days long ago, chickens, geese, sheep, goats, cattle, horses and other livestock kept the grasses under control in the pastures, fields and pens where they lived. This was not without some fancy side-stepping if one walked from their house or barn. Inside the animal houses hung scythes used to cut the remaining grasses.
The scythe is an ancient mowing device dating from 500 BC. It took a thousand years to slowly cut a path to Europe. The sickle preceded the scythe, but one had to stoop over when using the long curved blade that had a short wooden handle. The scythe handle (called a snaith) is much longer with a bow shape and one or two pegs inserted for grasping. It too has a long curved blade, but the wielder can stand upright when using the tool. The Grim Reaper is often portrayed holding a scythe. This imaginative combo appeared in the middle ages as the scythe became popular and the Grim Reaper was thought to be a 'harvester of souls' literally and figuratively. Until machinery to cut grass was invented, the term mowing only referred to mowing with a scythe. It takes skill and the blade edge needs constant honing. If out in the field, a whetstone is usually carried. Scythes are still in operation in various countries and are even staging a comeback in the USA. They don't use gas, are quiet, provide good exercise and the grass gets cut. My father used a weed whacker. The cutting blade was a wide double-edged rectangular saw attached to a half moon shaped piece of metal mounted on a three foot handle.
Many years ago I was in Junior and Effie Smith's field of Johnson grass flailing at blades as tall as I with my dad's weed whacker. I stopped when I saw huge flames coming toward me. Seems like our neighbor Ricky, or was it Billy, had been hiding in their cardboard house hidden deep in the field and, probably doing something they shouldn't have been doing, started a fire. The whacker held high over my head, I ran to the road. The sound of sirens heralded the arrival of the fire truck. I watched as the fire roared toward Luddie Harrison's house. My dad would say not to worry, the fire fighters always saved the lot. Luckily, this time they saved Luddie's house. Didn't have to worry about that Johnson grass anymore!
Why are we so obsessed with cutting the grass? Historically, people did not have lawns. In the Southern US, the area around a house was often a dirt bed swept and lightly watered to keep down the dust. The ground barrier prevented animals and snakes from easily advancing to the home front. In England, cottage gardens were planted thickly with flowers and fruiting vines which controlled the grass issue. Stones and rocks formed paths for walking, horses, and wagons.
Let's thank Edwin Budding from Gloucestershire England for being the father of the lawnmower. His invention was granted a patent August 31st 1830. The rotating horizontal cylinders and reels were designed to cut grass on sports fields and large gardens; large areas. Made of wrought iron it was pushed from behind. Ten years later came the mower drawn by animals. Another 60 years and the steam powered mower appeared. Human pushed lawnmowers came on the scene in the USA the later part of the 1800's that were followed by gas powered mowers developed in 1914. Rotary mowers hit the market in the 1950's. Rotary mowers do not cleanly cut grass and the bruised ends wither and turn brown. We now have the riding lawnmower. These noisy tractors elevate the person above nature, and can chop with abandon over great distances.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in one hour a gas powered lawnmower produces the same volume of volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides that eleven cars do.. The available information is rather old because the EPA budget has been constantly cut, probably by a lawnmower. Catalytic converters could counter they hydrocarbon affect. Electric mowers would be another alternative.
Is constantly cutting grass worth the price of noise, air pollution, decreasing the natural diversity of wildlife or a visit to the hospital? Over 80,000 people visited the emergency room in 2015 for lawnmower injuries. Americans spend over 70 hours a year mowing their 'immaculately coiffed' landscapes (Michael Pollen's words.) Our lawns are the largest single (and) most irrigated crop in the country: over 63,000 square milesthe size of Texas!
Look at it this way: Acreages of sheared monotonous uniform, foreign grass are actually sterile green deserts surviving on odiferous chemical herbicides, fertilizers and water. Native plants are considered weeds. These artificially maintained green yards are everywhere. Many owners never venture out onto their prestigious grass except to water or mow it. Once or twice a week they waste precious water by having it pour over their non-native plants to encourage them to grow. The plants grow taller. They run outside, mount their zero-turn radius mowers powered by the product of dead plants to cut the living plants. Let's think about this.
When did it become our civic duty to maintain this insane standard of lawn care? It is in direct opposition to anything that happens in the natural environment other than the effects of fires and floods. Take a tip from Tinker Air Force Base. The Urban Greenway is currently undergoing a transformation from unwanted broadleaf plants to native grasses and wildflowers. The unwanted broadleaves choke out the native grasses, so grasses are first established, followed by wildflowers. They have an awful big backyard according to environmental biologist. Fifty new acres have been added where old housing used to stand. It will take time. Diversity is their goal.
Why can't the rest of us look upon our controlled Greenscapes with new eyes. Observe how nature does it without mowing. Selective mowing can complement natural gardens and enhance the beauty of the landscape. Become wildlife friendly and attract those pollinators. My septic laterals are now covered with native wildflowers. The seeds germinated in drought and the plants now have colorful blooms. We do mow. During the season we cut paths around the house and through our 5 acres. The rest of the landscape is mowed once a year in February. Yes, there are plenty of non-natives. We are working to establish a balance and hope no wildfires cross the paths.