The effort was a good and noble one, but there comes a time when one must gaze out solemnly and in sad but sober voice utter, “The hell with it.”
That epiphany came to me this spring, last week in fact. And I took action.
For years, ever since the glorious arrival and foul-smelling departure of the 17-year cicadas, I’ve let my yard do pretty much what it wants. My motivation was the danger to firefliesfrom light pollution and mowing. Their illuminated courtship is hindered by other flashing lights, especially the constant flickering of televisions, and by short grass, which interferes with their privacy or something.
I do not do a lot of light polluting, but if letting the grass grow tall helps ensure the survival of this most harmless, entertaining, and, yes, romantic of insects, I stood (actually, sat) ready to do my part.
It’s not that I’ve become opposed to harmlessness, entertainment and romance. It’s that this spring the damn grass has like to killed me.
We’ve had a nice, wet spring (following an uneventful winter, thank goodness), and after each shower the sunshine has brought a fresh cloud of pollen. During the early tree pollen weeks, I was coughing and sneezing and snorting, but it’s recently, when the grass pollen has been in full bloom – literally – that I’ve wondered if my little piece of woods is still capable of sustaining human life. Breathing across the tongue makes it feel as if the air is filled with fine sand.
Sorry, fireflies, but the tall grass must get transformed into short grass. There are some nearby clearings in wooded areas that might be to your liking, and I wish you well.
The pollen proliferation presented a pile of problems: lawn equipment that hadn’t been fired up since 2016. That was followed by a pleasanter realization: I really like some of my lawn equipment.
A normal lawn mower is not happy in tall grass. It leaves it raggedy, it clogs, and if the grass is even slightly damp it renders clumps of what look like worm guts or grass that has passed through a horse. I have a nice mower. It is very useful for those times when the lawn doesn’t much need mowing.
For other times, such as now, I’m far more pleased with my giant, wheeled weed whacker. When I got mine several years ago, I ordered one from The Temple of Retail Doom. It arrived on the big brown truck a couple days later, broken. I returned it for another, which arrived missing parts. I returned it, too, and was happy to find that I could get a better one locally for less.
The one I got was a Swisher product, made in Missouri. It is the standard version, not self-propelled or anything. It uses 18-inch lengths of very thick, sharp-edged string which I got on a big roll for a few dollars and cut as needed. It was designed for business, and business is what it means.
My one complaint with it years ago was that it was a real pain to start. But I’ve found the secret: leave it on the back porch, covered, for a few years. When you pull it out, it fires right up. I do not know why, but them’s the facts.
Using the Swisher is a real workout, but a lot of people (some of whom will take their cars for the three-block trip to the gym) pay money for workouts that don’t accomplish any useful work. Go figure.
It is the most satisfying mower I’ve ever used. It doesn’t matter how tall or wet the grass, weeds, and so on are, because unlike a mower with a blade it doesn’t suck the trimmings into the machine. It just drops ’em where they stood, like the guy in a movie who has a surprised expression until he realizes his head is no longer associated with his body.
The evil alliance of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, pooping birds, and invasive thorny oriental flowers have made sure that an unmowed lawn will soon be covered in multiflora roses. It is a delight to see that bright orange string lop down even fairly big multiflora plants. I love this thing!
(The few machines that do as well are ones equipped with sickle bars, such as the ancient and frightening Gravely, one of which sits in my barn, though without a sickle bar. The Gravely was invented in Pomeroy, Ohio, and as a child I learned much from it, though what I learned was all in the area of profanity as my father tried to get ours started. I wrote about my 1968 Gravely in this space a dozen years ago and received a nastygram, from a Gravely fanboy in Cleveland, so gloriously vitriolic that it’s still being passed around.)
The only yard machine that I love as much as the Swisher (let me note that I’m not including garden machines here) is what I’ve come to call my chainsaw-on-a-stick. This is a tool so cool that if ever there is robot jousting, the robots will use these instead of lances.
It started life as an ordinary (well, four-stroke, but otherwise ordinary) hand-held Troy Bilt weed whacker. I removed its string swinger and replaced it with an extension that terminates in an eight-inch chainsaw. Like the Swisher it had not been used for several years, and like the Swisher for some reason it started right up this spring, better than it had ever started before.
With the business end of the thing four or five feet from the me end, it is just right for a lot of tasks that would be unpleasant with a regular saw or loppers or something else. It’s perfect for those botanical miscreants that are just a little too big for the string-flinging Swisher. A sapling a couple inches in diameter? No problem, and you don’t even need to bend over. A grove of new and awful autumn olives? Ten seconds’ work per tree.
A big multiflora bush that has its main stem way back inside? Ha! It’s no match for the chainsaw on a stick!
I probably shouldn’t be celebrating as much as I am, knowing that it will make things slightly less convenient for the fireflies, but if they have a complaint, they need to take it up with the grass. It’s the grass pollen that spoiled the fun.
And created the fun. I’m having a high old time with these excellent tools of destruction.
Editor’s note: Dennis E. Powell’s column appears on Mondays. You can reach him at email@example.com.