What Will The Neighbors Think?
Posted by Cassondra Murray May 8 2013, 5:06 am
This time of year–springtime in Kentucky–the grass is getting tall.
When I was a little girl I spent a lot of time walking through the fields on my daddy’s farm. In reality I was only a few hundred yards from the country road, but there were not many houses nearby. I had good parents who loved me more than life itself, but I bet modern social workers would be apoplectic if they found out how small I was when I went running alone through those fields.
I was out of sight of the house, but I never went so far that I couldn’t hear my mama holler from the back door that supper was ready. I knew better than to go too far.
On Daddy’s farm the pastures were surrounded on three sides by woods, so most of the farm was made up of meadows–tall grass spread across rolling hills.
I was little for my age, so in May the grass had seed heads, and was every bit as tall as I was. I spent lazy evenings wading through that high fescue in the rich, golden light that spread across the fields before the sun went down. In a good year the grass was so thick that if you weren’t careful, you’d tangle your feet in it and trip.
In a bad year–one without rain–it was thin and sparse.
But for today we will focus on the good years.
Daddy usually made good hay, but even in a good year it was never perfect. There were always weeds.
And in a good year, for a little girl, those weeds mixed in with the fescue made things better. There were daisies nodding in the sun, and Passionflower blooms hugging the ground. Soft-as-silk foxtail seed heads at the edges of the field danced with the slightest breeze, tiny yellow and blue flowers peeked out of the shortest grass, and the tall, tan stalks of broom sage dotted the hillsides and added texture to the whole arrangement.
Bees buzzed from bloom to bloom and red wing blackbirds perched on stalks of last year’s milkweed, singing to me as I passed by. Doves hooo-OOOO’d and quail called out “Bob-WHITE?” from the edge of the woods at the top of the hill.
I loved the farm, and I loved the grass when it was tall. I also loved the smell of fresh-cut hay that would follow in early June, when the grass was cut. But in the springtime, I was an explorer, blazing new trails through the grassy meadows, finding the small treasures nobody else would see because they never took the time to look.
Back then, there was not necessarily a fence, but there was a definite, distinct line between “the field” and “the yard.”
Daddy mowed the fields twice a year with the tractor and a mowing machine. He mowed the yard twice a week with a push mower.
The field was wild and wooly. The yard was nice and short. It was genteel. It was neat.
It was a measure of the responsible person in residence on that property.
You could always tell when something was wrong in a neighbor’s life because all of a sudden their yard would be all grown up and unkempt. Other neighbors might step in to mow the grass and help keep up the besieged neighbor’s property during a time of distress.
Some unfortunate houses had yards that were hardly ever mowed. The bushes were never trimmed and the weeds grew waist high in front of the door.
Those people had problems and everybody knew it.
Sometimes those houses were rentals. Other times the people were just so poor that they could barely afford to buy food. Forget power equipment and the gas to run it.
Or let’s just get down to the ugly reality. Sometimes they were drug addicts or stayed passed-out drunk all day and night. Often, the kids from those houses got on the bus in dirty, torn clothes, with dirt smeared on their faces and no money for lunch.
We didn’t know about clinical depression then. Kentucky country folk are about as compassionate as any people on earth, but those old timers didn’t generally make a lot of excuses for anybody who wouldn’t try and sometimes that was the case. The bottom line was that if the yard and the house looked like hell all the time, it was usually a sign that something was wrong, and the neighbors didn’t have any big words to label it.
Those people’s lives were just not working.
By strict financial standards my family would have been counted among the poor, but growing up on a farm meant I had plenty to eat. My folks made sure my face was washed and my clothes were clean.
And our yard? Our yard was always neat.
Flash forward past high school and college to the year 2000.
That’s when Steve and I bought this 160-year-old house and started a restoration project. We got ourselves a mortgage, threw every dime we had at this money pit of an old house, and moved in when the house was a shell. We had a yard that was a whopping acre-and-a half, and the only power equipment we owned was a chainsaw and…drum roll please…a push mower. A small one.
In case any of you have never mowed a yard, let me simplify by saying….that’s not enough equipment for a yard that size.
For the first two years we lived here, we mowed one small section of the yard each week. We couldn’t keep up.
Our yard looked like a redneck agricultural experiment gone bad, complete with old appliances, two toilets, and three bathtubs (hey, two of them were clawfoot tubs—that’s classy) alongside the lumber, stacks of bricks and piles of pipe and siding lying in the overgrown yard.
One summer we went away for a week to a Search & Rescue conference and left Steve’s dad with a key and instructions to feed the animals.
Our house sits about a hundred yards from the road, up on a gentle slope.
We came home after the conference, slowed down to turn into the driveway, and Steve said, “OMG!” and started laughing. I lifted my head and looked at the yard. Steve’s dad had used our push mower to mow a ginormous smiley face into the thigh-high fescue in the sloping front yard.
Even so, everybody knew we had just moved in “not too long ago” and we were working on the house. That was our excuse.
Flash forward to now.
We’re still working on the house, but now I own a 26 horsepower riding mower with a 54” deck. I can mow an acre and a half in about two hours.
I have a top-of-the-line string trimmer, a tiller, and a high-end push mower plus we still have my trusty workhorse chainsaw. In one long, hard summer day a week, given decent weather, by golly I can beat nature back and make my yard look like a golf course.
Can is the operative word here.
My dad’s yard was never a mess. Never. Neither was my grandfather’s. Somewhere in my upbringing I developed the ingrained belief that people ought to keep their houses and yards neat, and if they don’t, something’s wrong.
Honestly, what my neighbors think of me has never been particularly high on my list of things to worry about, but I do try to be considerate.
I don’t play my music loud. I don’t run the string trimmer at five in the morning on a Sunday. I don’t have wild parties or leave stacks of beer bottles on the lawn. The police do not make regular stops here—at least not with their lights flashing. I try not to bother people.
But for a few years, an idea has been relentlessly present in the back of my mind.
I first saw this idea implemented when I was in graduate school for horticulture, and it pinged something deep inside me. Since then it’s been calling to me and I haven’t been able to let it go. I’ve wanted to try it, but I’ve been afraid. Because of that whole “nice people keep their yards neat” thing.
This year I gave into the idea. Two weeks ago I mowed my yard for the first time this year.
But I didn’t mow all of it.
In the back yard, right smack in the middle, I left a meadow.
Yes, a meadow. Complete with tall grass and the requisite weeds.
That’s part of my meadow in the picture on the right. It’s small. Only about 50 feet long by 25 feet deep, but it takes up a big chunk of my back yard, and the grass, now, is almost up to my hips. It’s chock full of daisies and Snow-On-The Mountain and a few wildflowers and a whole bunch of weeds. Bumblebees bumble through it. Rabbits jump and play in the high grass, and in the morning the dew shimmers on the tall stems as they nod in the gentle breeze.
And since the day I mowed and left my meadow, a thought has been relentlessly niggling at me.
What will the neighbors think?
I know the “you should keep your yard neat” idea is still strong because one time a few years back…this was after I had purchased all that nice outdoor power equipment…a neighbor noticed my yard was taller than normal.
I’d actually let it grow up because there were two rabbit nests in the front yard, and I was waiting for the baby bunnies to leave the nest and be okay before I mowed. But he didn’t know that, and without so much as a by-your-leave, he brought his trailer over, unloaded his big zero-turn mower and proceeded to mow my lawn.
It was a nice gesture. He thought he was helping us.
I had to run out and stop him before he got to the rabbit nests. But the message was clear…just like when I was little.
If you don’t take care of your yard, something is wrong with you.
There is farmland all around me. I could crawl under the fence and walk in the field behind my house if I wanted. There’s broom sage back there. And a pond.
But it’s not mine.
That stuff across the fence is not my meadow.
As I type this, I sit at my kitchen table where I work and write, and this picture, below, is the view I see. I look out the window at the tall grass and my soul feels such deep peace.
I mowed all the way around it, and if you look at the pictures, you can see that there are areas of groomed yard surrounding it. There are definite edges—the point where I mow meets the point where I don’t. The yard meets the field. All in my little acre and a half.
I’m hoping that, come summer, lightning bugs will find refuge in the tall grass. When the rainy weather is past, I hope to sit around the fire pit and hear crickets and frogs chirping in my meadow.
I hope garden spiders string webs between the strands of fescue.
And I really, really hope the neighbors don’t call the DEA.
What about you, Bandits and Buddies?
Do you have a yard?
Do you keep it neat, or do you let it get wooly?
If you normally keep it neat, have you ever let it grow up for any reason?
In your area, is a messy yard a signal that something’s wrong?
Do the neighbors pitch in to help with the yard if someone falls on hard times?
Do you own any outdoor power equipment?
If so, how long does it take you to mow, trim, and edge?
If you own fields, do you have fences or do you just “stop mowing” to define your lawn?
Or do you live in an area where you don’t have to mow at all?
Have you ever considered letting part of your yard turn wild–into your region’s equivalent of a “meadow”?
Posted in Cassondra Murray, Cassondra's blogs, Childhood, country life, expectations, farms, fields, grass, lawns, meadows, nature, old folks