As you may know, I’ve moved to Iowa. Gail, my wife of 32 years, might refer to me as “Circuitous Root,” as we started in Oklahoma, then moved to Kansas, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., back to Missouri and now, 11 years later, I’m a reporter at WHO Radio in Des Moines and writing this weekly column.
The “Hawkeye State” has always had an attraction for me, as my grandfather was born in West Union, Iowa, in 1859. We don’t know why he left the fertile black soil and wound up in Oklahoma, but maybe the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, as I have kept moving toward the next opportunity during my adult life.
Iowa is a beautiful state, if your favorite color is green. The black soil and normally abundant rainfall combine to grow a lot of vegetation each year. And the moderately long winter season keeps the organic matter locked up for five months, thereby enhancing the nutrients available each spring.
The people here have one obvious characteristic that seems inherent in their beings and transferred from northern European ancestry: responsibility. When you combine this characteristic, the climate and the lush vegetation, you create a phenomenon called “mowing.”
Yes, Iowans mow everything that doesn’t run off. The lawns and the roadsides are cut short as soon as the first green shoots appear. The state is reported to have the largest number of lawnmower-automobile accidents and the highest per capita ownership of riding lawnmowers in the country.
For an Okie, this is a challenge. I grew up in a family that didn’t own a lawnmower during my early childhood. We had a “yard” but not a “lawn,” now that I think about it. My father would bring the sickle bar mower around in late spring and cut the weeds as the chickens, dogs and guinea fowl ran ahead of the clatter. We built the fence up close to the back of the house, so the cows could graze, and we had a barn lot and a garden that bordered on the north side. My mother had a place where she pitched out the dishwater and other scraps so the assorted yard animals could pick over the refuse, and we had a couple of burn barrels to dispose of other items. That was a “yard” by our standards.
Prosperity overtook us in the early 60s and dad bought a new push mower with a Briggs and Stratton engine. He struck off an area in front of the house and mowed it a couple of times before he turned the task over to me. I was an industrious 12 year-old and decided to mow the side yard, as well. A few minutes later, I saw this angry man coming out of the house with my mother running interference. They stopped coming toward me and turned to the window, on the north side of the house, where a piece of wire had punched a hole in the screen and glass—about 4 feet above dad’s chair. I had hit some of the ubiquitous baling wire and thrown it at a high rate of speed through the window and the glass showered down on his bald head as he sat reading the paper.
Since I was doing the job that was assigned to me, with no intent to injure, maim or damage property, I got off the hook on that one, but it showed us the danger of a side discharge mower in a farm yard.
Through the years, we mowed the grass sporadically but never fertilized or watered it. The economics just didn’t warrant the investment and the social negatives of having a thin brownish patch just weren’t that great. The people who visited us had about the same kind of place and we had no designs on upward mobility.
At the Alpha Gamma Rho Fraternity House in Stillwater, I was exposed to my first real lawn and the agronomy majors acted like it was their laboratory. It was fertilized and mown often, in the fall and spring, and was defined by a sweeping concrete walkway, another thing we were short of on the farm.
Upon marrying and moving to a platted housing area, I saw the need to maintain my turf in many ways and never received a complaint from the homeowners association for not keeping the grass and shrubbery in check.
I still had this vision of rural life where I could enjoy nature and blend it with a small area of formal plantings. Not in Iowa! It’s all mowed! If the house sits a quarter mile back from the road, the driveway is not proper unless the grass is an inch high all the way from the right-of-way to the house.
It apparently is a whole “Midwest thing” as I recall being a reporter in the early 1980s and covering a visit to the farm of U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, John Block, by ministers of agriculture from around the world. As we drove down the 10-mile stretch, from the Interstate highway to his farm, I noticed that each farmstead had their yard neatly mown and the roadside clipped for a hundred yards either side. I commented to an Illinois reporter that this was a fine gesture, for them to give special care in honor of the distinguished guests who would be traveling the road in the next few days. He looked at me with a strange expression (“You’re an Okie, aren’t you?”) and said that this was the way these farms always looked.
I forgot that experience until the grass broke dormancy in March and the lawnmowers started to chase any sprig tall enough to chop. This week we will move into a house on an acre of land and my wife’s concern is that we get the grass in quickly and a suitable lawnmower to allow coverage of the entire area.
Again, I pause and look at what prosperity has brought us. We’ve transitioned from a culture that had no time to tend anything but fields and livestock to a society that judges us by the texture and color of our landscape. From rural people who made no expenditure that was not justified to one that spends thousands of dollars so we can possess a machine of the right size and color to trim every inch of our domain.
So, if you are driving down an Iowa highway this year, be on the lookout for lawn tractors pulling up on the shoulder and out into traffic. I’ll be the guy with the goggles and the crash helmet.