September 11, 2008 – The trials and tribulations of battling plants, from the seat of a riding lawnmower.
By The Cerebral Aesthetic Vagabond
There’s a macabre comfort in knowing the manner of one’s death. Mine will not be a peaceful nighttime passing from this world to the next. Nor will it arrive with me and my bicycle being unexpectedly plastered across the front of an old Chrysler, which has traditionally been my expectation (since I dislike Chryslers; I’d much rather be done in by a Ford or Cheby). No, the circumstances of my death will find me screaming in terror like a little girl, one white-knuckled hand wrapped around the steering wheel of my riding lawnmower, the other hand with a death grip on the seat, and one leg frantically stomping on the brake pedal, futilely trying to stop the mower from careening down the hill and into the dense bushes and thorny trees below. My body will (hopefully) be discovered a few days later, impaled against a thorny tree trunk, my face fused in a terrified grimace. All I ask of those who find my body is that my lawnmower keys be buried with me.
I live in what could be called a jungle. And as one living in a jungle might expect, much of my time is spent sealing gaps in the house siding to keep the bugs out, evicting varmints from the walls, roof and basement of the house and waging constant war against the relentlessly encroaching plants. Sometimes I feel like I’m living in one of those science fiction movies in which some alien life form finds its way to Earth and spreads out of control until it envelops everything. The grass grows a foot a week during its peak growing season (I’d sure like to meet the “rocket scientist” who thought grass would make a nice ground cover!); two-foot tall weeds seemingly sprout overnight; eight-foot tall weeds grow in a matter of weeks; vines cover everything and grow at lightening speed; heck, the kudzu grows a foot a day and is creeping across the street even now, the only thing keeping it at bay is the occasional car that runs over it! When I moved into my house portions of the roof were covered with vines that were literally five inches thick and had to be cut with a chainsaw. My least favorite type of battle is one waged against the two-foot tall, juicy weeds. Prior to battling them I dress in long pants, long-sleeved shirt, hat and sunglasses because when I weed whack them poor suckers plant guts fill the air, covering me from head to toe in green juice and plant body parts.
In my “War on Plants” – which I’m winning – I’ve steadily escalated the arms race, building up an arsenal of gasoline-powered weapons: a chainsaw, a hedge trimmer, a push mower, a weed whacker, and finally, last summer, the ultimate weapon, a riding lawnmower. Everybody around here has these – they are almost essential, in lieu of a herd of hungry goats. I was a bit late to the party, resisting purchasing one of these weapons as long as possible. Finally Lowe’s had a 10% off sale and offered free delivery, so I broke down and bought one. That’s when my yard decided to shift its war strategy from a brute force one of man-against-plant to a battle of wits.
My other car is a riding lawnmower
My property doesn’t have one square foot of flat ground on it. Every patch of ground has a bump, a depression or a slant to it. Merely positioning a ladder against the house requires five minutes to level it. So cutting the grass is more like offroading than anything else, except that when one goes offroading they don’t have to hold on for dear life, lest they fall off and come face to face with two high speed blades whirling right underneath their feet! My second time out on the mower I got a little too close to one of the many treacherous slopes around my property. “No problem,” I naively thought, as I popped the mower into reverse and tried to back out of my predicament. To my horror, the lawnmower would not back out; the tires just spun and spun in the ever so slightly moist grass. Now I had a real predicament on my hands: I could not go forward because that would send me deeper down the slope and into the thorny bushes; I could not back out because the tires had no traction; so I tried turning, but it was to no avail. Every little movement inched me further down the slope and into the bushes.
Finally I had a stroke of “genius,” or maybe it was just desperation. I figured the mower weighed about 300 pounds and I weighed over 200, so that put us in roughly the same weight class. I could use brute force to pull that silly mower up the hill to where it could gain some traction. So I put it in gear to hold it in place, turned it off and dismounted. I got a firm grip on the back of the mower and popped it into neutral. Oh, the hubris! This has to be one of the dumbest things I ever sought to do. To this day I wonder, “What was I thinking?” All I can say on my behalf is that I at least had the good sense to let go of the mower when it lurched down the hill and into the bushes. Otherwise it would have dragged me right through the thorny hell with it until it came to rest against a tree trunk. My second act after letting go of the mower was to look around and make sure nobody bore witness to my act of stupidity, which was worthy of one of those video shows on television.
Looking at the dense bushes one would never know that a brand spanking new, bright red riding lawnmower was buried in there. After slicing myself to pieces cutting away a dozen thorny branches to gain access to the mower, I assessed the situation. I briefly considered tying a rope from the mower to my car and hauling it out of the bushes. But after recalling all those funny videos I had seen on television of people doing similar things, and picturing my car sliding down the hill and coming to rest next to the lawnmower, I wisely decided (where was this wisdom when I grabbed onto the back of the darn thing?) not to involve any more vehicles in this mess.
So I returned to the scene of my initial crime – Lowe’s – and bought a hand winch and a long rope. I attached the rope to a tree, a thorny one just like the one the mower was resting against, attached the winch to the rope and then the mower, tightened everything up and winched the mower about five feet up the slope. After repeating the sequence of untying the rope, attaching it to a new anchor, tightening everything up, and moving the mower five more feet (the winch only has about five feet of cable), about ten times, which took at least an hour, the entire duration of which I was enjoyed by the mosquitos as some kind of bipedal smörgåsbord, my beautiful new mower was finally on level enough ground for the tires to gain some traction. For the better part of a year, having learned a good lesson, I used the mower without further incident, although to this day one of the front tires has a slow leak, undoubtedly from its youthful encounter with a thorny tree trunk.
Unfortunately I became complacent, and a couple of months ago I was happily mowing along and carelessly cruised over an old tree stump. Well, the tires were slightly deflated and the mower was riding a bit lower than usual, and well, you can probably guess the rest.
Walnut tree stump, still valiantly trying to grow back two years after being cut down, poor thing
The mower came to an abrupt stop, blade, engine, everything. The engine restarted just fine, but the blades made a terrible grinding sound, as if one of the blades was bent. So I parked the mower in the garage for several weeks and went back to the old school, punishing routine of cutting the grass with the push mower.
Over the next few weeks I hemmed and hawed about whether to sell the darn mower or fix it. One day I impulsively stopped by a lawnmower repair shop in a nearby town and talked to the owner about fixing my mower. While I was there I saw another mower, well, actually it was more like half a mower with just one rear wheel. The lawnmower repair guy informed me that the discombobulated mower had unfortunately fallen off a trailer onto the highway, presumably at highway speed! (That’s exactly why you should forgo that last beer after finishing cutting the grass for the day: you’re liable to forget to put the tailgate up on the trailer!) Admiring the totally butch tire on the one remaining wheel of that poor mower, I asked the lawnmower guy if he could put that tire on my mower. He said the fubar mower was being parted out and that he could put its tires on mine. I didn’t see the other wheel, but I assumed the lawnmower guy understood I wanted two tires, not just the one! A few days later the lawnmower guy came and picked up my mower, replaced the bent blades, put the two new tractor-type tires on it, and returned it to me. I was really awed by his unusual promptness because so many people around here are so lackadaisical about getting things done.
Lawnmower with new tires, compared to original one
The tree stump incident was actually fortuitous because I also got my long dreamed of tractor tires out of the deal. So with my upgraded weapon system, I was finally ready to tackle the front slope which had bedeviled me for years. Prior to today I had to pay a guy who has a monster of a mower $45 a visit to cut the front slope. Now, with my new tires, I can do it myself, although that exposes me to the life-threatening peril which is the subject of this piece.
Looking up the slope, tiny lawnmower in the middle
Slope from the side, showing the angle; the thorny trees where the mower got stuck the first time appear straight ahead
The front slope, a mere third of the grass I have to cut, is a wicked challenge. The reason it looks so brown is that until just recently I was unable to cut it, so it had become covered with weeds literally seven feet high. The brown you see is chopped up, drying weeds! The photos don’t do the steepness of the slope justice either. Cutting it with the riding mower is a cross between offroading and sailing. When “tacking,” one has to shift their weight to the uphill side to avoid tipping over. I generally steer with one hand and hold onto the seat with the other to keep from falling out (I ought to install a seatbelt). When turning downhill, one had better be real handy with the brake pedal. The last thing you want is to pick up any sort of momentum because the brake is woefully inadequate to stop the speeding lawnmower. I know this because several times I’ve come close to losing control and plunging straight down the hill. It was only gentle application of the brake, combined with judicious turning toward the trees, praying the whole time that I wouldn’t tip over and would stop before hitting the trees, that saved me! But time is not on my side. Someday I’ll slip up and that will be all she wrote. I’ve ridden on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyland, and let me tell you, it’s nothing compared to this for sheer, hair-raising terror!
After cutting the slope this afternoon I had a rewarding encounter with a cute little toad. It reluctantly let me pick it up (as in, it was fleeing for its life) and it sat calmly in my hand. I actually had to nudge it off my hand and into the shady bushes.