June 6, 2005

I don’t enjoy mowing, and because I use a push mower, a reel mower, I have to mow often, before the grass gets too long. One rainy weekend and I’m in trouble. So I decided to cut my work in half by reframing expectations and renaming the backyard “the meadow.” I mowed two paths to allow easy access to the garden shed and the compost bin, mowed a border to frame my creation, and let the rest go to seed. In order to make it look “on purpose,” I chose to plant tall ornamental grasses at key points, to mark the spots where the paths met and ended, and to set an example for the rest of the grass.

To plant, one must dig, and that is when I hit coal. Great black chunks of coal, and lots of ashes as well. Everywhere I dug. I thought I knew whom to thank, but they were already dead. For many years, our lot, a portion of the old Austin farm, was an open field behind two large houses. I imagine that whenever the occupants had to haul ashes from the fireplaces or coal furnaces, they brought them to the field out back. And spread them around to avoid unsightly slag heaps. At one time, the house closest to ours was occupied by nuns, and I had a winter vision of a hooded woman in black, crossing the yard with a bucket just before dawn, crunching through the snow, breath steaming, stopping, swinging back for momentum and heaving out a dark plume of ash sprinkled with clinkers, then scuttling back into the convent.

Nature gradually reclaimed the coal and ashes, and they lay at rest beneath a thin layer of topsoil under our back lawn. Until I chose to plant ornamental grasses. With every downward thrust of the shovel, coal. I felt like John Henry. I also turned up clam shells and the occasional soup bone. Our postal person passed through while I was digging, and said, “Are you sure those are animal bones? This could be CSI Skaneateles.”

I thought again of the furnace, the nuns, the soup. I’m not digging any deeper.


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