Whether or not one is supposed to, I’ve always admired Jay Gatsby, the eponymous hero of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. Yet I never fully understand the character until I come to the scene in which he arranges to have his neighbor’s yard mown, lest the visiting Daisy Buchanan lay eyes upon an unkempt blade of grass. The gesture is meant to reveal Gatsby’s insecurity and materialism, as well as the working-class striving that prevents his ever truly joining the aristocracy. But I sympathize with the man. The lawn next door is a disgrace and ruins the prospect of Gatsby’s flawless green. My only criticism is that he ought to have put on an old T-shirt and done the job himself.
Working in the yard is a fast-declining national tradition. According to a 2016 Harris poll, the share of lawn-owning Americans who mow their own grass stands at an appalling 50 percent, a reality that reflects both the increased wealth of U.S. homeowners (holders of real property have done extraordinarily well since the Great Recession) and the fact that American men are less inclined than ever to view their yard’s appearance as a near-sacred matter for which they alone are responsible. Behind both explanations lie broader cultural forces. Just as the first is an expression of the outsourcing mindset captured in George W. Bush’s phrase “jobs Americans won’t do,” so the second is indivisible from the shifting social expectations that govern the behavior of the sexes. Not so long ago, in an era of ranch houses built by beach-storming veterans, an adult male would have sooner clipped his lawn with a pair of scissors than with a few scrawls in his wife’s checkbook. Today, the sight of a man cutting his own grass feels more than a little regressive — a vision of masculinity that smacks of churchgoing and Trump-voting. Shouldn’t that fellow be inside practicing his yoga?
Of course, it isn’t only the gender-neutralists who jeer at the man attending to his property. The economists have concerns, too, and, as usual, they have a point. From a purely financial perspective, doing one’s own yardwork ignores well-established theories about opportunity cost and comparative advantage. Just as the United States should focus on soybean production and import its avocados, such thinking goes, so its citizens should leave the lawn-mowing to the professional landscapers lest they misappropriate a billable hour.
Indeed, the answer is obvious if the question is going to be discussed in economic terms alone. I save $200 a month by caring for my own lawn but could easily earn more than that figure were I to use my yardwork hours to teach an extra class or write a bit more second-rate political commentary. What I would lose in the bargain, however, is the moral satisfaction of creating order out of chaos, bringing the land up to my own standards, and performing a task that remains — how else to put this? — proper to a man. If the last of those sentiments makes me something of a lawn-care chauvinist, well, I can live with that.
Because I am also, truth be told, a cloverphobe, an anti-dandelion bigot, and an unreconstructed fescue supremacist. To put it another way, my philosophy of yardwork renders me susceptible to many fashionable insults, not just “sexist.” That the sillier charges on the list haven’t yet occurred to progressives indicates nothing more than a temporary failure of imagination. Such invectives are coming (I say this as a man who was once accused, in graduate school, of “racism” against certain breeds of dog), and I might as well laugh them off now while I’m still in a good mood.
What the Left has noticed is that lawn care of the kind I practice is, in an important sense, unnatural. Because I prefer grass to weeds (and have erected a big, beautiful wall of chemicals to enforce that preference), I am told that my yard is a “monochromatic mat” (Scientific American), “nature purged of sex or death” (Salon), and an “artificially enhanced monoculture” (Harvard Magazine). But that is exactly the point. If the secret heart of the Left yearns for a planet that is rid of mankind altogether — and it does, as anyone familiar with the human-extinction porn of programs such as the History Channel’s Life after People can attest — then the conservative desire is for nature harnessed by man as well as preserved in its wild state. The city vista and the untrammeled landscape. The cultivated garden in addition to the unbroken forest. Our bustling, civilized earth as well as the stark, poetical moon. “Even the moon,” G. K. Chesterton reminds us, “is only poetical because there is a man in the moon.”
For many on the right, the project of lawn care has its origins in the Book of Genesis and fulfills, however humbly, an important biblical mandate. My friend Sean Davis at the Federalist describes his yardwork as a form of “exercising dominion,” and my own pleasure in the activity has a tang of the spiritual. To domesticate one’s patch of ground is to participate in a kind of restoration — weeds being, as everyone knows, a consequence of the Fall (“Thorns and thistles [the ground] shall bring forth for you”). To do the work with one’s own hands is to claim a personal stake in the matter: to accept one’s share of an obligation and link oneself to a chain that is millennia old. It is, in its modest way, an act of obedience. “I keep up my yard,” the religious man says, “because at this time and in this generation it has been given me to do so.”
Yet even the atheist can find significance in the maintenance of his lawn. Such labor is democratic, uniting the magistrate and the mechanic in common toil. It sharpens the mind by dispelling “the most dangerous of all forms of ignorance” — Chesterton again — the “ignorance of work.” Lawn care revives in part the knowledge of the land that Americans lost upon leaving their farms for the city. And if all that isn’t enough, it drives to distraction progressives for whom orderedness and self-reliance are dangers to be resisted, ridiculed, and ultimately banned.
Finally, the work I do in my yard renders the land more fully mine than I could otherwise hope to make it. Mowing and edging, weeding and watering, I learn every groove and furrow, mark each blemish, and comprehend more completely the rhythms of the seasons as they play out beneath my small stretch of sky. In this sense, yardwork is the spiritual antithesis of the property tax. While the latter is a moral evil, reminding me that I can never, in the last resort, truly own anything, the former reinforces my claim and confers dignity besides. Finishing my mowing, I am again the master of the place. Like Gatsby — but to a greater extent than that inveterate delegator — I can be recognized by “the secure position of [my] feet upon the lawn.”
If, as Laura Ingalls Wilder once wrote, the nation’s farmers took an untamed wilderness and “made it America,” today’s homeowners have the opportunity to safeguard that effort. May they always do so, one morning’s work, one whirl of the blade, at a time.