There are worse things than mowing in second gear.
Our North Country farm incudes about four acres of yard (I won’t call it lawn because it’s closer to cow pasture than greensward) that has to be mowed each week. Plus two-tenths of a mile of driveway from the farmyard to the hayfields, the perimeter of the hilltop garden, and the hiking paths around the woods, all of which require twice-monthly mowing.
There are also patches of Canada thistle, burdock, and nettle in the hayfields that need spot mowing two or three times each summer. Brushy woodland edges and paths become choked with thickets of wild raspberry, gooseberry, prickly ash, and buckthorn that must be cut down in the spring with a bush hog attachment.
The little Toro lawnmower can handle what we call the “house yards,” but most of this mowing is done with a DR Mower, a walk-behind tractor unit that is a lawnmower on steroids apparently designed by an engineer whose military service time was spent driving an M-60 tank. The DR is a powerful self-propelled 13-hp mowing machine that drags me along while it pulverizes everything in its path. I have considered buying a small farm tractor with a belly mower, but my beautiful blonde wife tells me that I would sooner or later roll it onto myself while chugging along one of our steep hillsides, and she is undoubtedly right.
A considerable amount of my April-September chore time is spent trudging behind the DR so it is fortunate that I like to mow. After almost 20 years of teamwork the mower and I have become adept at negotiating every idiosyncratic topographical feature of the farm, skirting the edges of bluffs and sheer banks of water courses, plunging into and climbing out of brush-tangled ravines, roaring over stretches of level grassland. I know, ahead of crisis time, when to shift the differential into limited-slip setting so that both drive wheels are powering us up steep or slippery ground, when to hit the knob that disengages the mowing deck before it digs into the moguls of gopher mounds, when to jam the gear selector into reverse to avoid a terrifying dash down a wooded slope.
Once upon a time a special part of the fun was shifting into third gear, or sometimes fourth, to race across long, smooth sections of brome and bluegrass and goldenrod, doubling my walking pace while the tank-like mower slashed through hapless botanical regiments, a green stream of soggy hay silage gushing from the deck’s discharge chute. Those were the days.
Then came the summers when the fourth-gear mowing was reduced to third gear, and the third-gear mowing to second. The past two years I have been content, thank you, to mow some parts and parcels of the farm in first gear. Not because the DR Mower has become aged and weary (despite scrapes and dings and dents and thousands of hours of engine time, it seems as robust as it was in its first years) but because my legs and back are becoming aged and weary. Strength and stamina have dwindled stealthily away with my hearing and eyesight and several other bodily blessings of youth that we all once took for granted and now lament.
There are days when I feel maudlin about this slide away from the peak outdoor work years (is this how Joe DiMaggio felt when “he couldn’t be Joe DiMaggio anymore”?), but for the most part I accept the transition to a different phase of life and am thankful for every hour I am still out there mowing to shape this tiny piece or the North Country to be our woods-and-grasslands home and a wildlife sanctuary island in the devastated landscape of industrial agriculture. I stop and shut down the mower to watch (although I cannot much hear their frantic chirping anymore) the bobolinks and redwing blackbirds that flutter around me in mock attack to protect their nests in the grass, some only a few yards from the strips I am mowing to prevent the prickly ash and wild raspberry and buckthorn from invading the hayfields and ruining the ground nesting habitat we have created for prairie songbird species. This place teams with life. It is unlikely we will expand our conservation efforts on the farm, but there is contentment in maintaining what we have worked so determinedly to save.
I restart the engine, shift into second gear, and go on my slow and steady way. Yesterday is gone and tomorrow is uncertain, but on this day, this perfect summer day, it is a joy to be out mowing.
More stories about life in the North Country are published in my five collections of essays and two novels, all available through Amazon.com at Jerry Johnson Author Page