The lawns wowed me daily, the green green grass and the sidewalks swept of leaves and the neighbors on the weekends in work gloves and shorts, foreheads sweating, weeding beneath the shrubs, tending roses, roses blooming still! Late August temperatures hovered in the high 90s, too high even for the east side of the Cascades—the hot-and-dry half of Washington state—and smoke choked the sky. Wildfires burned everywhere in the region and seemingly everywhere in the whole dry-tinder universe. But I hardly noticed. Thirty years I’d lived in the mountains, and now I’d landed in town, shell-shocked and out of place, but full of wonder. I woke each morning and walked a mile from my small house past more small houses then bigger houses and marveled the entire way at the lawn edge at the sidewalk, so straight and true, and how when you look closely at a cross section, you can see fresh green atop layers of exposed root.
At work, on the small college campus where I’d scored a short term gig: more lawn. The wide green square, lush and fresh and ever-mowed, remained empty in the heat except for a few intrepid near-naked students tossing Frisbees. The nakedness stunned me too, bodies wrinkle-free, sag-free, symmetrical, shockingly so. I told myself: Don’t stare! Instead I took off my shoes to feel the grass between my toes. I’d recently read a book that advocated touching skin to dirt as a way of nature-healing. I wondered if this counted. I wondered about herbicides, too. And I wondered about sidewalks and how the sections were made and pieced together—step on a crack, break your mother’s back—and why it’s so different from continuous asphalt, and how in both cases, always, weeds find their way to the surface.
I thought about weeds a lot. Back home in the mountains, the local organic gardener, Karl, claims he has no weed problem. He says at his place the water table is so high he doesn’t need to use overhead sprinklers and since the weeds have shallow roots, they never gain a foothold. I am skeptical. I want to believe it’s Karl’s work ethic, the way he spends all day every day stooped and barefoot, how he won’t sell wilted kale or basil gone to seed, no matter what. That’s the thing about weeds: their absence speaks to moral uprightness. A weed-free space means you’ve worked so hard, on your weekends, in your work gloves, barefoot among the lettuce heads, that you’ve achieved something like purity.
I went out to mow for the first time on yet another too-hot night. The yard of my tiny rental house had long since gone feral. I’d had to pay two months of rent to hold it, and the landlord gave up on watering and mowing in the interim. Now bare dirt sprouted spindly weeds. I harbored this unreasonable idea that the previous tenants were druggy. They’d lived in the basement and never paid for heat. When they left the landlord changed the locks and redid the floors. Probably they were college students, still learning how to care for things. Not screwed up. Just young. I’d behaved that way myself in college; we didn’t pay for heat in our house, either. We shivered instead and bought electric blankets and never did a lick of yard work. Someone without a clue, that’s who let this place go.
Or maybe no one did. One thing I know from working in the woods for many years and from starting and abandoning a half-dozen vegetable gardens is this: Weeds grow fast. They take over and pretty soon you’d never guess how recently things had been well-tended.
I’d hauled a Husqvarna push mower with me, the kind dads used in the suburbs back in the 70s. A friend back home had bought it for his teen-aged sons thinking they could use it to mow the expansive lawns at the rental cabins the family caretakes. No way. Even though my friend is a fitness fanatic, even though his sons are strapping and strong, they never touched the thing. They bought a riding mower and gave us this Husqvarna, and at home, on a tiny lawn that we barely water and rarely mow, it works fine. Here it was harder, and hotter, but not impossible. When I finished, the weeds remained dead and brown as ever, but at least they were tidy. The place looked lived-in, if not quite acceptable. It was better, by far, than doing nothing.
The next step, obviously, would be to water the lawn to life. I’d considered this before. It had been very nearly my first thought when I moved in, but my wife told me over the phone from afar, from our regular cabin-in-the-woods home where she will stay for the year while I am gone, that she recently learned if a lawn dies you can almost never water it back to life. How did neither of us know this? How did we get to middle age not knowing? Now that we did, it was startling.
Startling, too, how widespread queerness was in the college town. Not just the recognizable varieties: butch girls, girly men, but even the frat boys—blond and ruddy, clean shaven and indistinguishable from the boys in my high school who wore ties to school in the Reagan era—they, too, were gay or bisexual or pansexual or asexual or undecided. At least according to their creative writing submissions. Among colleagues everyone said partner or spouse. After years of resenting pronouns, now I ached for them. When a new male friend finally said boyfriend, I was elated. For my part, I practiced dispelling all ambiguity. Twenty three years we’d lived together before we were allowed to marry. Wife, I’d say now, at every opportunity. Wife wife wife wife wife.
Truth is, I had an ulterior motive for mowing. I thought it might be an easy way to meet neighbors, and it worked. The next-door neighbor at the house with a Virgin Mary statue tucked amid a dozen rose bushes introduced herself and as she drove away told her teenage daughter to do the same. I was sweeping the sidewalk by then, as people do, and the daughter said hello and in the awkward silence where there’s not much more to say, she offered to help. I wondered: What kind of kid offers to help sweep the sidewalk? Not me.
As a kid I had allergy attacks. My parents gave me the task of mowing the lawn for my allowance, but I shirked out of it, sneezing, wheezing. I shirked the dishes too. I shirked a lot, and am not proud, but I kept my bedroom neat as a pin, always. My sister, with whom I shared a room, made a godawful mess. But the rule was we couldn’t go out to play ever until the room was clean. I howled: It’s not my mess! It wasn’t, but I cleaned it anyway, week after week, and resented it hard. Later when we finally got separate bedrooms, the truth became clear: one room tidy, the other a nightmare. Mom apologized. She said she really hadn’t known. The sweet triumph of vindication has stayed with me all these years. Not my mess!
Ever since the election, I’ve been feeling much the same way. News commentators try to parse the politics fairly, to hold me responsible equally, me and others who share my beliefs, and I have grown sick of it. It’s not us! I want to howl. Not our mess!
A few days after I mowed, I rode my bike downtown to a rally in support of DACA and the so-called Dreamers, the children of immigrants. It’s not our mess, I thought. But somehow we’d have to clean it up. I spent one summer in college working for a nonprofit at the Mexican border. Each morning we crossed into Tijuana with American teenagers, volunteered in orphanages or community gardens, then returned in the evening for communal meals and lectures on the complexity of international politics and the ugly simplicity of injustice. The job, the whole situation, felt messy and fraught, but I’d believed in what we were doing, believed in the bending arc of history. Now, so many years later, the fraughtness felt more fraught, the mess so much messier. I stood alone on the street corner, a long way from home, thinking about weeds and greed, capitalism and globalism, and how fertilizer is literally killing us in ways we don’t even know. The metaphors exhausted me. The heat exhausted me.
A teacher from the college passed with a sign. I told her I should have brought one—I hadn’t even thought to make one—and she explained hers was all-purpose. She used the same poster board protest after protest with new slogans taped atop the old. Police roved, neither congenial nor menacing. One handled the crosswalk assuring protestors could move from one side of the street to the other, assuring cars could pass through the intersection. Some drivers honked and waved, but a few roared through fast. One Toyota pickup on impossibly large monster tires accelerated hard on green, gunning it, and I caught the eye of the driver, a young blond woman, her face twisted with disdain as though she, too, was thinking, in an opposite kind of way: Not our mess!
Organizers in orange bandannas herded the crowd to one edge of the sidewalk to leave room for pedestrian traffic. A long strand of triangle red and blue flags flapped in the wind, like the ones at used car lots or, eerily, like prayer flags. Eerie because the sky was still obscured by smoke. The eclipse was not long ago, but this was more dramatic, the sun more hazy, the ashtray stink strong. Most people at the rally wore dust masks. Soon I realized the organizers were passing them out from boxes. I figured I’d take my chances. I was once required to attend respirator training at which they taught us that wearing them wrongly can do more damage than going without. I suspect most people wear them wrongly, so why bother? Try to stay safe and you just make things worse. I tried not to think of that, too, as metaphor.
A pastor in a colorful stole stood at a portable microphone. We could barely hear him. It’s not just Dreamers! he cried. Dreamers are well-behaved, rule followers, too perfect, too pure. Those who slipped under barbed wire or swam a dirty river or trekked through the desert, they matter too. No human is illegal, we chanted. No human is illegal! The man beside me wore a red ball cap that said: Resign Motherfucker. The hat made people do a double take. And laugh. His wife held a beagle and a sign that asked: What if they were Russians? If the Dreamers were Russians, she meant, the president would welcome them. Sadly, she was probably right. There were young Latinos too, but without signs, milling in a group, as teenagers do. More people arrived, hundreds, and we crowded Main Street, leaned against storefronts, listened to speeches and chanted some more, until it was time to go.
Was it better than doing nothing? Hard to say.
These days everything I’ve ever believed in feels under attack: nature, civil rights, gay rights, women’s rights, education, healthcare, common courtesy, reasonableness, and reason itself. In winter I’d taken a long walk with an editor friend. We followed a trail among downed logs green with moss thick as shag carpet and into patches of old snow speckled with needles. I told her I’d seen a tweet: I think I put too much stock in nuance.
That’s my problem, I said.
She turned to me. Nuance, she said, is all you’ve got.
I didn’t want it to be true.
After the rally, I biked home slowly amid the green lawns. The sun loomed an ominous orb, too orange and too round. My bike had begun shifting gears for no apparent reason, slipping infuriatingly up and down the sprocket, a sickening clatter, and so, too, my perspective. A perfect lawn doesn’t mean anything. You can pay someone to do the work for you. You can buy poison. You can buy a house in a sweet green lawn neighborhood, blocks from where the sidewalks stop at the avenue with the Dollar Store, the oil change place that gives a discount to active service members, and miles from where weeds do real damage.
Back home in the woods, after wildfires, invasive weeds take root and choke out native plants and threaten to wreak havoc on ecosystems. Cheat grass, for example, arrived some 20 years ago, and it’s been creeping up the mountainsides spewing seeds ever since. Land managers spray for it. Our friend in charge of natural resources got her herbicide applicator’s license. She hired a horse packer to haul water in 50-gallon plastic barrels to mix with the poison and spot spray plants, trying to draw a red line: Here’s where the weeds stop. I wonder if the packer ridiculed it. I suspect he did. The effort can seem so futile.
Talking about weeds and immigrants at the same time is problematic, I know. There’s a decades-long debate about the dangerously interchangeable adjectives—invasive, non-native, alien—and what their use suggests about the need for purity, the impulse to exclude, the crusade to eradicate. But plants and people are not the same, and comparing them is over-simplifying, and over-simplification can over-complicate things. It’s not hard in a garden, or for that matter, in a democracy, to see what’s causing the real trouble. But even when we try to eradicate racism, misogyny, poverty, injustice, here they come, creeping back, insidious as ever.
When my wife and I had a garden, we battled purslane, an insidious succulent ground-spreader. We put down weed fabric or newspaper with grass clippings but we couldn’t stop purslane from spreading. We gave in and tilled it under, so it rooted more fiercely and broadly, and in no time the so-called battle was lost. You can eat it, neighbors told us. It’s a delicacy in France, they said, like dandelions or stinging nettles. Weeds are in the eye of the beholder.
Like we didn’t already know that. We hated purslane all the same.
The backyard at my little house was even worse than the front, the weeds too tall to tackle with the Husqvarna. When my wife visited she went after them with a pair of hand nippers. On her knees, she rolled back the stems the way cool long-haired girls used to do, brushing their hair head upside down in the locker room in high school. Once the green faced away from her and only white chlorophyll-free stems showed against the dirt, she clipped them clean at the source. Her skin reacted. She didn’t used to have allergies like I do, but now she does. It’s as though our bodies have reached some kind of breaking point. She took Benadryl with wine while she cooked and conked out early, and after she left, grass began to sprout and thrive in the autumn light.
If we lived here permanently, if we owned the house, or maybe if we’d started out in town all those years ago, we probably would’ve torn out the lawn and planted vegetables in raised beds or native drought-resistant plants. Lawns are so bourgeois, a symbol of staidness, water-wasting, I knew, so I felt guilty for how much I loved the edges, the straight and narrow, the uniformity, the conformity, all things I shunned when I set out for the wilderness—more flight than fight—and now that I’d landed back, I had apparently softened, grown conservative, gotten married, gotten a full-time job. All things I’d never have imagined when I was young and even medium-young.
Before Thanksgiving, the grass went dormant. Icy fog hung heavy. A friend knitted me a wool hat, and I needed it bad. The Muslim ban became a refugee ban. The protests slowed to a near stop. For the first time in my life, I considered not listening to the news. It had always struck me as a copout to say such a thing, the worst kind of shirking, but I couldn’t take it anymore, how the headlines harped on who belongs, who doesn’t, who gets heard, who gets silenced: workers losing the right to class-action lawsuits, children disappearing from government homes. Had it always been this bad? Had it ever?
Another startling fact: Many of the invasive weeds at home have been controlled. Miraculously. Twenty years ago spotted knapweed covered the airstrip, the widest wide-open space in the mountain valley. Land managers would pay kids a buck a bag in bakery credit to pull it and stuff it in black plastic garbage bags. Kids pulled. One older couple pulled nearly full-time. Still the knapweed spread. The task seemed impossible. Finally, they installed sprinklers to allow the grass to outcompete the weeds. And another local couple has gridded the valley floor in their free time for all the years since. These neighbors are methodical, tenacious, vigilant, effective. Sometimes I think: If we just get to work, we can solve this shit.
Eventually spring arrived, too slow as always in the Northwest. For two weeks in March I misplaced my wool hat and shivered in the too-weak sun. I watched and waited for the trees to bud, and when they did—dogwoods, cherry, currants, plums—I felt overwhelmed, over-stimulated. The grass grew thick and wet, an otherworldly green speckled with dandelions, yellow bright. I tried to mow with the hand mower, but it was no use. I’d befriended the other next door neighbor by taking care of her cats when she traveled, and in exchange she lent me her electric mower. It worked much better. The edges still dangled out into the sidewalk, spindly long, like leg hair you miss shaving, a frayed fringe at the bottom of an old curtain.
Meanwhile, the neighbor across the street resumed a routine I’d forgotten: blowing leaves every Sunday afternoon whether there were leaves or not. He stayed at it for an hour or more. He must’ve been in some kind of trance. I tried to read, but it was no use. I went to the library or my office instead, and entered at the place where I dump my coffee dregs on the beauty bark by the door. The groundskeepers caught me once and were unamused. You don’t mess with the beauty bark on a campus where even the grounds crew is all-white and faculty hold fierce debates over whether to consider ideological diversity when hiring, whether in other words to balance well-meaning whites with those who are less so.
I’d been charmed in the fall by people tidying their yards endlessly. But no more. Now the noise, near continuous in the evening, rankled. The soft light, the dog walkers and joggers, babies in strollers: still charming. The leaf blowers: not so much. The magnolia on the corner dropped slimy pink leaves the size of a child’s hand to be smudged and smeared underfoot. At school, while I was teaching class one day outside on the lawn, some frat boys set up a slip-and-slide. They played loud music, bad music, and sprayed plastic sheeting with a garden hose. They sprinted and slid chest-first down the chute and hooted with self-satisfaction. The job had been for a year, and it was time to head home: to my wife, to my cabin in the woods, to solitude and spaciousness. I should have been ready to leave, but I wasn’t quite.
It wasn’t just the lawns that had seduced me, but the orderliness of small town life: the mailbox at the door, and garbage cans on the curb, and everyday kindnesses, too—drivers waiting for pedestrians, swimmers moving aside to let me flip turn, the way people hold the door for you anywhere, everywhere, or on a day when you’re most lonely, catch your gaze as you pass on the sidewalk and give a little half-nod as if to say: Chin up. One word experts suggest for re-thinking weeds is newcomers. For months, I’d been a newcomer—a wide-eyed, middle-aged queer woman with patched Carthartts, smudged reading glasses, and a desperate kind of hope—and I’d been welcomed, and the welcome itself made me unbearably grateful.
Just before I left, I learned the Mother Mary neighbors had nicknamed me “the environmental neighbor.” I heard it from their oldest son who hopped the fence to help my cat neighbor with a project and I brought them pizza slices for a snack. When I asked about the nickname, he shrugged. He said it was because I rode my bike everywhere. More likely, I figured, it was because of the lawn care. The lack thereof.
I mowed for the last time with the car packed and coffee brewing. I took hand nippers to the edge, pulled the dandelions at the roots, and then I walked the sidewalk toward campus one last time, counting the cracks, sad for what I’d miss even before it was gone. I returned to admire my handiwork. The lawn was weedy, still, but green; the edge crooked, but clean. Not perfect, but on balance, not too bad. I felt a tiny wave of pride. (I can conform! I can belong! I can!)
Still, if this were real life, I’d tear it out. I swear I would.
Nuance be damned.
Read Ana Maria Spagna’s Letter to America and her essay “Winter Flood,” appearing in Terrain.org.
Header photo by Free-Photos, courtesy Pixabay.