Clippings: There’s no place like the home lawn
A friend was recently in town for a visit. He’d just returned from 20 months with the Peace Corps on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia. Before that he’d been a student at Middlebury College. And before that, he’d grown up in Kansas. Now the trees in St. Lucia don’t have a season for shedding leaves. College students are not required to do lawn care. And Kansas doesn’t have many trees — just prairies, yellow brick roads, and ’70s rock bands.
Not surprisingly, therefore, our guest had no experience raking. And so, being the gracious host I am, in an effort to broaden his horizons I allowed him to help me rake my lawn. As we worked, I shared with him some of my own childhood experiences raking.
My first experiences in the outdoors came raking my father’s yard — “The Lawn,” as we would eventually come to know it. I lived in a rural town with a population of 800. Our house was one of two on a dead end road. Our 1-acre lot was tiny by the town’s standards, but it was surrounded by hundreds of acres of woods. When we first moved there, The Lawn was still small.
Every autumn my father put his three sons in charge of raking. He’d get us started not long after the first fall of leaves, so that by the time we finished one pass it would already be covered again. The purpose of this, I surmise, was to enable us to appreciate that, no sooner had my mother finished cleaning our house, we’d come through and dirty it up again. In any case, by the end of November we’d have raked The Lawn at least six times.
That wouldn’t have been too bad. The Lawn wasn’t big, and there were three of us to do the work. Every year, however, my father’s definition of The Lawn expanded. The first couple years, it was just where he had planted grass on the little slope in front of the house, leading down to the dirt road. Before long, though, The Lawn had grown to include the meadow with its old apple orchard on south side of the house. I guess having a big lawn was the status symbol by which my father’s family measured success, and the size of one’s lawn was not determined by how much manicured grass they planted, but by how much they raked.
And so, within a couple years, The Lawn we were told to rake soon also began to creep steadily north and west into the woods. At first, it happened in small increments. The edge of the trees was, after all, an ill-defined concept. But once that imaginary boundary had been crossed, there was no turning back. Soon The Lawn went five trees back. Then 10 trees back. No matter that no grass actually grew there.
I knew we were in big trouble when a 30-acre parcel of woods came up for sale behind our house. My father snatched it up at once, presumably to add it to The Lawn. By the time I was a teenager, the annual raking had become a major event. We knew when the dreaded first day had come. Our mother would wake us at 4 a.m. with notice that breakfast was on the table. It would be the heartiest breakfast of the year, but we ate in somber silence, staring out the window and wondering how long until the sunrise melted the frost. Then we’d grab our cold lunches, backpacks, thermoses of hot chocolate, survival gear, water bottles, tents, sleeping bags, and, of course, the rakes, and we’d head off into the woods.
The first few days we’d still be within shouting distance of the house, and getting lost wasn’t an issue. But starting around the fourth or fifth day, our raking would have brought us to more remote parts of The Lawn, and we’d have to trust our knowledge of the local trails. I use the term “local” in the loosest sense.
By the time I was 13, the northern edge of The Lawn was often in a different weather system. We’d head out with compasses and maps. My dad had carefully labeled the maps to show where, in various regions of The Lawn, the piles of leaves were to go. And he’d throw in a few helpful words of instruction. “Don’t forget that 15-acre patch of red oak up on the south ridge. They’re dropping a load of leaves this year.”
Fortunately, he’d also marked the state boundaries. Still, when I was 14 my mother started throwing our passports in our packs — ”just in case,” she said.
Anyway, one day when I was 15 — deep in the woods of a neighboring town, raking the northern patch of The Lawn — I made a decision that if ever I survived the ordeal, and grew up not only to have a family and house of my own, I would never put my kids through the same experience I had suffered. Now, sure enough, I have a house and three sons of my own. And, though I live in the woods of Vermont, where leaves drop every year, I’ve held true to my word.
Sure, we have a bit of a yard we rake in the fall. But I don’t send my boys heading out into the deep woods to rake with a compass and map. In this modern high-tech age, I’ve purchased GPS units.