The backyard is starting to green up. In the next week or two, I’ll have to start cutting the grass again. I’m not one of those men who complains about cutting the grass. Truth is, I rather enjoy it. It’s a ritual. Spring comes, the grass grows, and on Saturday mornings, I make the grass about one-third shorter. This goes on until about Thanksgiving.
I can count on the grass, and the grass can count on me. It’s been that way for a good long while now.
Back home in South Carolina, we Jowerses had more than grass to cut, because we lived next to a swamp. If you walked about 50 feet west of our house, you’d come to a creek full of crawfish and mudpuppies. If you jumped the creek, you’d land in a bog that would suck you in about ankle-deep. That’s what we called the swamp. It was about 50 feet wide, then the ground started sloping up again, into the Carters’ yard next door. Scrub oak, magnolia trees, and tulip poplars liked to grow in the swamp. So did briars, groundhogs, and water moccasins about as big around as a baseball bat. For those of you who don’t know, a water moccasin is a poisonous snake that’s not a bit scared of people. If you walk up close to one, it won’t slink off, it’ll jump up and bite you just for the pure joy of it.
My parents, Jabo and Susie, tried to make something out of the swamp. Every spring, they’d go out there with sling blades, bush axes, and machetes, and just start hacking. They’d sweat up their shirts in the first five minutes. Then they’d start mopping sweat with towels. Then they’d sweat up the towels. They’d take a break, drink iced tea, and go back to hacking.
I never heard them say what they were trying to do with the swamp. I thinkand I’m just guessing herethat they had dreams of hacking the vines and brush to death, and making the swamp mowable.
One summer, Susie was hacking away under an oak tree when a water moccasin dropped right down on her shoulder, then half-slithered and half-fell down her body and off her leg. It didn’t bite. Still, Susie said it took 20 years off her life.
After the snake, Susie left the swamp alone.
The next spring, Jabo bought a tractora tractor with a Bush Hog, ready to shred any woody thing less than three inches thick. He built a steel bridge across the creek and drove the tractor into the swamp.
Before he could unleash the fury of the Bush Hog, the tractor sank, right up to the axle. Jabo tried to drive it out, but it just sat there, smoking and throwing up house-high roostertails of mud.
Every day, the tractor sank about an inch. Clearly, Jabo had to do something soon, or his tractor was going to disappear into the muddy gateway to hell that he’d created. So one night, Jabo brought home a big yellow winch, about the size of a washing machine. He said he found it at the side of the road, which was his way of saying, “If you think about it for just a minute, everything’s at the side of the road. Do you want me to just come right out and say I stole it?”
Jabo pointed the business end of the yellow winch at the swamp. He lashed the winch to our big chinaberry tree, using half-inch steel cable. Then Jabo called my brother, Geames. Jabo had invested 20 years into making Geames preternaturally strong, partly by making him cut down a swamp tree every day, and partly by making him move a pile of bricks from one corner of our yard to another corner. Soon, Geames figured out that if he threw a few bricks into the swamp every day, the pile would shrink down to nothing. Way before the tractor was sunk, the bricks were long gone.
Understand, there wasn’t any motor on Jabo’s stolen yellow winch. There was just Geames, hard-muscled, hardheaded, and meaner than all the swamp snakes put together. Geames cranked, the tractor bucked, and the mud fought to keep the tractor. Geames beat the mud, though, and won the tractor back.
The next summer, Jabo built a dam and flooded the swamp. It made a nice little black-water pond. You couldn’t wade in it, though. It had leeches.
Not too many years later, Geames was dead from a gunfight, and Jabo and Susie were dead from heart attacks. When I was 17, I took over the Jowers property and the grass-cutting duties. I just cut up to the edge of the creek and let the swamp be.
Since I’ve lived in Nashville, I’ve never had to cut anything bigger than a quarter-acre lotthe usual mix of fescue, Bermuda grass, crabgrass, clover, and wild violets. I used to fight the clover and violets, but I decided to let them be.
This spring, a year-and-a-half after my quintuple bypassI’m fine, thanks for wonderingI’m just happy to show up for another year of grass cutting. Happy to sweat, happy to rake, happy to have garter snakes instead of water moccasins, and just big-grinning-clown-happy to hold up my end of the deal with the grass.