Gardening has a genteel image, especially among people who don’t garden. I avoid gardening whenever possible, since it involves dirt, sweat, insect bites and bending over.
There are gardening activities that I find hard to avoid, however: pulling weeds, cutting hedges and mowing the lawn. Mainly mowing the lawn. Most of our neighbors are in an unspoken competition to have lawns that look like putting greens. Our next door neighbor mows his lawn every day or two. He’s definitely got a nice-looking lawn. Very flat and very green.
As I was mowing the lawn today, amid the sunshine and high humidity (trying to avoid a confrontation with the lawn police), it occurred to me that cutting the grass is a lot like warfare. The plants, mostly grass, but various other forms of plant life too (especially on our lawn), are trying to claim territory, either horizontally or vertically. We grant them the right to spread out horizontally, for the most part, but draw the line some inches above the ground. Cross that line and you will be mowed down, just like World War I soldiers poking their heads up out of their trenches or scrambling across no man’s land.
We don’t use bullets in this war. We use blades. Most of us have made the transition to mechanized warfare (I’ve got an aging red Toro). Those of us who don’t want to get our hands dirty hire mercenaries (many from other countries). Some of us use chemical weapons. There is even a nuclear option (concrete, sand, ivy, etc.).
It’s true that when we mow the lawn, we aren’t trying to kill our grass — we just want to limit its growth (although we don’t mind killing interlopers like dandelions). We love our grass. We want it to prosper. Some of us even nurture it. So the war metaphor only goes so far.
But in the heat of battle, marching along, cutting the tops off thousands of living things, remembering past battles, knowing that this force of nature won’t give up, it will counterattack again and again, this labor certainly feels like the “Moral Equivalent of War”.
To quote William James from his essay of that name, written in 1906:
“If now — and this is my idea — there were, instead of military conscription, a conscription of the whole youthful population to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against Nature, the injustice would tend to be evened out, and numerous other goods to the commonwealth would remain blind as the luxurious classes now are blind, to man’s relations to the globe he lives on, and to the permanently sour and hard foundations of his higher life. To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clotheswashing, and windowwashing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youths be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas. They would have paid their blood-tax, done their own part in the immemorial human warfare against nature; they would tread the earth more proudly, the women [!] would value them more highly, they would be better fathers [!] and teachers of the following generation.”
And lawns would be quite neat.