Tag Archive | Lawn

Dollar Weed

IMG_5934 (800x533)My back lawn is filled with dollar weed (also known as Pennywort), and it is a problem.  The broad leaves fill whole patches of the yard.  The subterranean tendrils intertwine with roots of established plants I want to keep, stealing nutrients and water and making themselves difficult to remove.  I have tried to eradicate the dollar weed, and the unsightly disorder it represents, by pulling on the long, string-like roots.  In those moments of pulling, I am a superhero, but the satisfaction rarely lasts long, and the weed continues to grow.

I think the previous owner of my yard kept the dollar weed in check by spreading all manner of petrochemicals.  The neighbors have told us stories of his adventures with chemical weed killers.  It seems that, one time, he paid one of those awful “lawn services,” most likely True Green, which come and kill your weeds for you by spreading pellets and sprays of poison all over the watershed.  You know the ones:  they have to leave those little signs behind telling all of your neighbors that children and pets are no longer safe in your ecosystem.  Anyway, it seems he did not see dramatic results quickly enough, so a day or so after they left, he applied some other chemical he had purchased.  That night, it rained so much that the water collected in the low spots in the yard, and the petrochemicals pooled with it, killing large sections of the grass.  Ever since the bank and I purchased this yard a year or two later, I have been trying to atone for the sins of my predecessor.

When we first moved in, there were a couple of leaves of dollar weed here and there in the old flower beds of the back yard, but nothing much.  Within a couple of years, though, the weed started to spread.  At first, I asked some of the more seasoned gardeners in my community what to do.  They gave me a list of chemicals. I even purchased one, but after looking at my then-toddler, and considering the joy he felt when he got to run and play in the back yard, I could never bring myself to apply it.  Who wants to tell their little kid that he can’t go outside to play for a week because Daddy spread poison all over the place?

This season, though, the history of our back yard is catching up with us.  The centipede grass closer to the fence disappeared several years ago, but there were enough narrow-leafed weeds growing there that I could fake it with a good mow job.  By the end of this winter, though, nothing was growing for several feet around our small concrete patio.  My theory is that we are finally seeing the full effect of my predecessor’s chemical dependence.  If you spread fertilizer and weed killer, you will end up with a nice, even, weed-free lawn.  But if, at the same time, you meticulously rake your grass clippings and leaves into those brown bags you purchase at the big box stores, then put them on the curb to have the city haul them away, the nutrients which the grass uses from the soil will not be replenished.  Sure, you can replace those nutrients by spreading more petrochemical fertilizer; the bag of Scotts Weed-N-Feed says you are supposed to fertilize your lawn five times a year.  But your soil will die, and your lawn will never truly be healthy, and eventually, the grass will die, too.  The process will be hastened if you decide you value clean drinking water more than your weed-free, green lawn, and you stop the whole fertilizing program, as I did.

Without grass, the dollar weed spread.  I asked the internet what I could do to control it without petrochemicals, and I received some advice.  First, it told me, like all weeds, dollar weed will not grow much in a healthy lawn, that is, one with a type of grass well-adapted to the climate, supported by healthy soil, watered at the right depth and frequency, and never cut too short.  Dollar weed, in particular, grows in places where there is too much water, so less frequent, deeper watering is recommended.  Short of these ideal conditions, though, dollar weed can be killed with organic methods.  Some folks have found success by spraying white vinegar on the leaves, although I worry what that would do to the grass I want to encourage.  Other folks swear by the method of lightly spraying the broad leaves with water, then dusting them with baking soda.  One commenter described his parents, one with a spray bottle and the other with a fine strainer from the kitchen, sprinkling the deadly sodium bicarbonate a square foot at a time.  It sounded a bit fussy to me.  A third method is more systemic:  some have found success spreading white sugar at a rate of 1 five-pound bag for each 17′ x 17′ square.  The proponents of this method talk about how the sugar fixes the nitrates in the soil, robbing the weeds of that important nutrient.  They also caution that you have to water it in well immediately after application or you will be overrun with ants and other critters.  I must admit that I am dubious.

But I am also unable to do much to remove the dollar weed because I am under the watchful eyes of my eight-year-old son.  When I look at the dollar weed, all I see is a wild, chaotic, messy problem, exacerbated by years of environmental harm and mismanagement.  But when he looks at the dollar weed, he can only think of one day last summer.  On that day, his friend came over to play at our house.  This particular play date had been anticipated for weeks; her family and ours both had complicated schedules involving travel, work, camps, and even sickness, so we had a hard time finding a time for the kids to play together.  Finally, though, the day had come.  And the moment his friend came through our living room, looked out the back door, and saw our back yard, she was entranced.  “Why can’t I have a yard like this?” she exclaimed.  “You have little lily pads all over the place!”

To me, the dollar weed was a problem; to her, it was magical.  It was there so that tiny frogs could hop from one safe place to another, never falling in to drown in the frightening swamp she imagined covering our yard.  It was there to serve as protection as fairies scrambled to keep their fragile wings dry in a rain storm.  It was there to offer safety and comfort for tiny mice, or baby insects, or other creatures whose eyes were drawn by their Disney animators to be big and innocent and vulnerable.  I suppose this was not the first time something like dollar weed had found its redemption in the imagination of a child.

So last month, I bought a few plugs of Bermuda grass, which is well-adapted to grow vigorously in my yard, and planted them about a foot from the patio with a scoop of composted cow manure to bless them on their journeys.  I have eagerly watched them as they have established themselves, then begun to send out their stolons to explore and colonize the great big world out there.  I wonder daily how much longer it will be before they reach the patio and I get to cut their ends with my power edger, encouraging them to spread wide as well as long.  But I know that they will have to wind their way under and around the dollar weed which permeates large sections of their new territory.  Because I have been told that the dollar weed will stay.

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Disdain and Tenacity

IMG_5355 (534x800)I like my lawn.  I like my lawn because it is not all grass.  There is an incredible variety of plants which live in my lawn alongside the centipede and Bermuda and St. Augustine grasses which have become all mixed up out there.  Some of those plants have broad leaves along trailing vines, like the dichondra and the dollar weed.  Some of the plants form florets of leaves around a center stem, like the dandelions.  Some of the plants even have fuzzy leaves; I am not even sure what those are called.  The occasional oak tree pokes it’s lobed leaves up in the middle of my lawn.  I even have one or two crepe myrtle bushes which have been trying for years to push themselves up into their towering shrub form from the midst of my lawn.  Each time I mow, I think I will finally discourage the poor things enough that they will just shrivel up and disappear.  But they don’t; they just spread broader and poke up more branches in their futile attempts at reaching their full potential.  Bless their hearts.

But even with all of their variety, taken together, the plants in my lawn serve the same function as the grass in any lawn in an average suburban neighborhood.  That is to say, those plants are supposed to serve no individual function at all.  They are not supposed to stand out in any way.  Instead, they are supposed to look like a uniform meadow of green.  Their role in the world is not so much to paint a picture but to create a mood.  Landscape designers will tell you that swaths of green are necessary to allow the eye to rest.  They provide peace and calm, order and structure, shape and form, so that the other elements of the landscape can shine.  They are like herbaceous background singers, offering their rhythmic hums and do-wops so that the diva-like soloists can strut their stuff on the front of the stage.  That, I believe, is why dandelions are so offensive.  They plant themselves in the middle of the lawn, and although they have a different texture than what surrounds them, they are not, on the whole, ugly.  But then they shove their uppity, yellow blossoms toward the sky, and it becomes obvious that they have forgotten their place in the world.  The nerve!

Contrast the role of those varied plants in the lawn with what is in my flower beds.  That is where you will find the real stars of the kingdom plantae.  I have plenty of springtime divas out there right now:  the brilliant pink calla lilies glow, the gerbera daisies strut their primary yellow- and red-colored stuff, the oriental lily hybrids attract attention to their blushing petals, and the caladiums I bought earlier this spring show off the dazzling variegation of their leaves.  Or even contrast the workhorses of the vegetable and herb gardens.  The tomatoes and peppers and strawberries and oregano are not as gorgeous as the callas, the lilies, the daisies, and the caladiums.  But the flavors they bring rival the glory of the ornamental superstars.

Each of those plants serves a positive function, and they are special because of that function.  The plants in my lawn serve a negative function:  they are not supposed to compete with the plants in the flower and vegetable beds for attention.  And that is all.

And so, imagine my surprise and shock a few weeks ago at what I saw in the middle of my lawn.  At the top of a lobed-leaf plant poking up from the middle of the lawn, about equidistant from the river birch which dominates the front yard and the flower bed which lines the front of the house, there was a tiny, white flower.  And I recognized that flower and the leaves that accompanied it at once:  it was a blackberry.  A wild blackberry was trying with all its little might to grow and bloom and produce fruit in the middle of the front lawn.

I took some time to admire the little thing.  Its disdain for the overall function of the lawn that surrounded it, along with its sheer tenacity, earned my respect.  It didn’t care where it was planted.  It didn’t care about the horror its presence would cause the landscape designers; it didn’t care whether my eye had an opportunity to rest between gazes at the prettier things coming up in my yard.  It didn’t care that the rules say the fruit-bearing flora belongs in the back yard.  It had no interest in suburban propriety.  Its one mission in life was to fight for the right to bear its fruit, and by God, it was going to fight hard.  It had even armed itself with a score or more of spikes up and down its three-inch stem, daring someone, anyone, to tell it that it couldn’t do what it was destined to do, right in the spot where it found itself.

There are any number of metaphors that could be drawn from this little berry bramble asserting its right to do its thing wherever it grew.  I think of my son, whose intelligence and uniquely beautiful personality I can see, but who sometimes gets lost as necessary order is imposed on the jumble of dozens of kindergarten students who are made to sit still at their tables and stand straight in line and listen to the teacher and avoid distracting their neighbors.  I think of activists and artists and other saints in many times and places who have stood up not only for their own right to show their unique beauty and skill in the world, but who have organized and taught others to stand up and stand out, too.  I think of the narratives of my Christian faith, which give example after example of times when God has unexpectedly lifted ordinary people out of their ordinary circumstances to mediate extraordinary blessing to God’s people and the whole of God’s creation.

Any of those thoughts could lead me to lessons potentially learned from this little, wild blackberry which dared to bloom in the middle of my lawn  But I am not sure a lesson is what is needed here.  For now, I think I am ready to simply appreciate that a disdain for order and tenacity of purpose are not exceptional in this world; in fact, they are very natural.

I like my lawn because it is not all grass.

Leaves

IMG_3269 (800x533)I don’t rake leaves.  Sometime between Halloween and Christmas each year, everyone else in my neighborhood hauls out their lawn rake, or, God help us all, their leaf blowers; carefully makes their piles of fallen leaves; then stuffs them in those expensive brown paper sacks which you buy at the big box stores to temporarily contain whatever yard waste you want the city to haul away.  Those bags seem useless to me.  I understand why the city needs homeowners to use them:  plastic bags cannot go through the chippers which process the yard waste into mulch.  I am glad our city uses yard waste the way they do.  But I haven’t purchased those paper bags for a couple of years now because the only yard waste I leave for the city to use is big enough that it can simply be stacked by the curb.  Everything else just stays where it is, because I don’t rake leaves.

Instead, I mulch them.  Each year, usually sometime after everyone else has taken the time and effort to interrupt the cycles of nature with the lawn rake or those God-awful leaf blowers, I go after my own leaves.  I pick up a few which have landed on the driveway and mix them in with the vegetable scraps in my compost bin.  This year, I pulled a few out from under the camellia bushes in front of the porch; I have had a miserable time with white flies on those camellias lately, and I read somewhere that cleaning up the ground underneath can help keep the pests away.  But I did not bag those leaves from under the camellias; instead, I carelessly pushed them across the sidewalk and onto the lawn.  Then, I hauled out the mower and ran it back and forth over the lawn, chopping the leaves and whatever small sticks are mixed up in them to little bits.

The result is not as pretty as my neighbors’ lawns, if by “pretty” you mean even and uniform and green.  But there is little about my lawn that is even, uniform, or consistently green.  In some places, the leaves had fallen thicker than others, so naturally, there are some places where the brown, chopped-up remains of leaves are still partially covering the grass.  In other places, the grass and weeds which make up my lawn have not fared well with the change of seasons, so there are just empty patches of dirt with some leaf pieces strewn about.  Those are the places I hope the leaves will congregate; I assume that the grass is weak in those areas because the dirt is poor and most needy of what the leaves can do for it.

I see no reason to rake leaves.  In a wild meadow, the leaves would fall from the trees and remain wherever they land.  They would turn brown, they would get wet in the rain and dry in the sun, and they would be trampled, nibbled, rearranged into nests, and otherwise manipulated by the local wildlife.  But eventually, they would break down, rot, and become a part of the soil.  And what a valuable part of the soil they would be!  They would return to the dirt the nutrients used by the trees, and those nutrients would make a fertile place for grasses, wildflowers, and even more trees to sprout.  They would trickle into the clay and break it apart, or, more likely on our coastal plain, they would trickle into the sand and hold it together.  They would encourage little critters to linger in that meadow a while, so that their droppings and other remains could infuse the ground with microbes, bringing otherwise-dead dirt to life in a way that is essential to support other life.

My lawn is no meadow, but it lives on the same principles.  Leaves are precious, and they belong in the dirt, not sitting on the curb in a paper bag from the big box store.  In fact, I have been tempted more than once to help myself to the bags my neighbors leave out for the city to pick up, just to get more leaves for my own lawn; my sense of suburban propriety and the potential humiliation to my family are all that has prevented me from engaging in this kind of radical redistribution of organic wealth.

As I was running the lawn mower back and forth across my leaf-cluttered lawn a couple of weeks ago, I got to thinking about the leaves.  They started the year early; around here, the first leaves start poking out of their buds sometime in March.  The leaves on our River Birch usually come out first, and that tree is tall enough that I cannot watch the process up-close.  But when the leaves on our adolescent oak tree start unfolding, they are at eye level.  They start by exposing only their pointed edges.  Those edges are a soft, dusty pink color, and they are small and lacy and delicate.  Soon, though, the green comes out behind the edges, equally soft and dusty and light at first, then turning to the verdant emerald one expects of oak leaves.  Usually the oak finishes unfurling its entire canopy before the small, non-native maple that the previous homeowner stuck in the ground near the curb starts to swell in the buds.  That tree has never done well; besides the fact that, as they say, it ain’t from around here, I think it was planted too high in the ground with too many roots exposed.  Each year, when the leaves do not come out before mid-May, we wonder if that tree has finally died, only to be reminded that it is simply slow to develop.  I suppose there is nothing wrong with that.

As I was lost in my nostalgic reminiscences of the early life of the leaves which lay that day in the path of my lawn mower, I got to thinking about faith.  Most of us can remember something about when our faith was like those spring leaves.  For me, that time was when I was in high school and college.  I remember a particular late-night hike up a ridge in the woods of Northern California with some other faithful young people.  At the top, we could see about every star God ever put in the sky.  We sat up there for some time talking about big matters of faith:  where we came from, where we are heading, what we are supposed to do in the mean time, why the stars were spread out before us like that, and just how big is the God who put them there.   When I was young, those ideas were new and fresh; they emerged from their buds with pointed edges in colors and textures that were not quite what I expected, but which were more profoundly beautiful than any ideas I had run across before.  Those ideas made my faith come alive and sustained it for several years.

Most people have times in their lives when their faith is like those spring leaves.  The problem is that many people expect their faith to remain that way.  They want it to always be new and exciting and wondrous and beautiful.  But faith doesn’t remain in springtime forever.  The ideas we encounter early grow and expand and change, but eventually, they reach their greatest size and shape and color.  And the feelings that come with those ideas change over time, too:  we get used to them, we take them for granted, we move on to other concerns that require our best energy and thought.  We have new experiences which make us realize that those ideas and feelings of our youth just don’t captivate us with their beauty any more.  In those times, our faith is not necessarily unimportant; it may sustain us for a while, maybe even for a long season, like the leaves sustain the tree through the long, hot summer.  But there is no longer anything remarkable about it; we may realize at some point that our faith has become simply the way we breathe.

And then things change again.  Sometimes, when the days start to get shorter, our faith may start to turn a little different color, or we may find  spots on it,  or it might dry out at the edges.  The base of the stem that holds it to us might weaken a little bit.  Eventually, storms come; a strong, biting, nasty wind might shake us to the roots, or a light breeze might sweep by on just the right kind of day.  But we notice that our faith just isn’t in the same place anymore.  It might have fallen to the ground, a shriveled, dried-out, lifeless shell which only sort of holds the shape of its once-sustaining form.  Whatever happened, we notice that its color and texture and beauty and vigor are all gone.

We have a choice to make when our faith gets to that point.  We can just rake it up and stuff it in a bag and stick it by the curb as something useless and lifeless.  That may seem like the only choice if we believe that good faith, real faith, strong faith, God-given faith is always supposed to be like those vital, beautiful, unfolding spring leaves.  But I regularly look at my faith and see that it no longer has the vitality it had on top of that ridge in Northern California years ago, and when I notice that it is dry and lifeless, I try to make another choice.  I try to see that dried-up shell of my springtime faith as simply a part of the world working the way God made it to work.  And I leave that dried-up faith where it is for a while.  When I have the energy, I sometimes even chop it up into smaller pieces so that it is more easily comprehended and absorbed and made useful by the microbes in the dirt around it.  With some patience and with some effort, I know I will watch the remains of my former faith become something new which makes the place where I am more fertile.  That former faith will feed all manner of life around me in different and perhaps surprising ways.  Eventually, I will witness as it becomes no longer a shell of dried-up death, but a part of life again, with its own new delicacy and color, its own newly-surprising process of unfolding, its own new beauty and vigor that may or may not look just like it looked before.

Faith has cycles, just like those leaves in my front yard have cycles.  Sometimes it excites us, sometimes it sustains us, sometimes it even seems to shrivel up and fall when the wind comes up.  Therefore, what sense is there in raking up our faith, stuffing it in lifeless bags, and leaving at the curb?  Why would you throw away faith because it no longer looks like it did way back in the spring?

I don’t rake the leaves in my yard; instead, I let them feed new life.

Righteous Anger

The local flora and fauna, at the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge. Photo (c) Eric Beene, 2012

Last week, I was out mowing the lawn on the side of my house.  Well, I say I was mowing the lawn; what is growing there could hardly be described as a lawn.  There is grass there, but it has been all but taken over by an unidentified variety of weeds, stray bedding plants from the neighbor’s yard, volunteer canna and crepe myrtle offspring, ferns that have crept under the fence from my own back yard, and whatever that vine is which likes to attach itself to the brick on the side of the house.  Although I yank it off the wall whenever I see it, that vine has an unsettling ability to grow high enough to reach my attic within a few days.  Between the vine creeping up the wall, the towering cannas, the remains of a long-since-rotted split rail fence, and the mess of overgrown weeds, my side yard ceases to look like a convenient passageway to the only gate in the back fence.  Instead, it is reminiscent of some horrible scene in which creatures supposedly extinct since the comet hit may lumber out, teeth bared, at any moment.  And it is only about 8 feet wide.

To mitigate against dinosaur attacks, I mow the side yard regularly, and last week, it was time.  As I was mowing, a panel truck drove up the street and parked in front of my neighbor’s house.  It was proudly painted on the side, “TruGreen Lawn Care.”  I had seen these trucks before. The uniformed driver hopped out, opened one of the side panels on the truck, pulled out a long, red, industrial-strength rubber hose, turned on some loud equipment embedded in the truck, and began walking back and forth on my neighbor’s lawn.  He pointed the hose at the ground, and out of the nozzle came some kind of crystallized pellets of unknown chemicals.  I am guessing those chemicals are designed to make sure that nothing but Bermuda grass grows wherever it is applied.

I felt anger arise inside me as I saw that truck pull up and the chemicals applied to my neighbor’s yard.  As I pushed my mower up and back along the side of my house, I began to fantasize about my encounter with the driver of the chemical truck.  He would approach me with a big, friendly smile, extending his hand.  In his hand would be a glossy, four-colored brochure with a cover photo of an unnaturally smiling family in front of an unnaturally large home with an unnaturally green lawn around it.  He would say to me, “your neighbor uses our services to control the weeds in her lawn; would you be interested in knowing how we can help you?”  In my mind, I worked and worked on what I would say next, and I settled on this, spoken quietly, calmly, but firmly:  “If it was up to me, chemicals like the ones you are spreading would be banned from the face of the earth.  But since it is not up to me, just suffice it to say that it would be over my rotting corpse that you will ever be allowed to spray that crap on my lawn.”  It would be powerful, it would be articulate, and it would make the statement that needed to be made.

In the interest of civility, there was a piece of me that was glad when the driver never approached me.  He simply finished spreading his poison, reeled in his hose, plucked one of those little caution signs in my neighbor’s front yard, got in his panel truck, and began to drive up the street.  Then, he stopped again, directly in front of the house on the other side of mine, and began his toxic routine of spreading chemicals all over their yard, too.

I was surprised, though, at the level of the righteous anger that welled up inside of me.  It is a kind of righteous anger that I see a lot of these days, both in myself and in other people, particularly in a year when we are electing a president.  I think it is similar to the righteous anger that drives many people to post things on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and other social media that take the tone like I was prepared to take with that truck driver if my fantasy had worked itself out in reality.

I was convinced that my approach is the right approach, and I could not see how anyone could disagree.  How could the friendly people who live on both sides of me buy into the mythology that I long ago dismissed:  that the only acceptable lawns are free of weeds, and that the only way to make them free of weeds is to spray mysterious chemicals on them?  How could they not understand, like I do, that we live only about two blocks from a marsh and river?  That marsh and river is filled with a delicately and complexly balanced set of insects, fish, water fowl, reptiles, and countless other species, all protected and fed by grasses which would either be prematurely killed or unnaturally accelerated by the very chemicals which would seep into the ground from their lawns!  How could the man driving the truck get out of bed in the morning and go to work knowing what he does to the ecosystem we live in every day?  Sure, it’s a job, and I am sure he is glad to have it, but couldn’t he use his training to do something more healthy and helpful than making suburban lawns greener than they really should be?

A textbook I read in college on conflict management said that anger is not a primary emotion.  Anger is a secondary emotion, and it is usually associated with a primary reaction of fear or frustration.  I recognized my frustration.  As I said to the truck driver in my fantasy, it is not up to me to decide what chemicals can and cannot be spread on my neighbors’ lawns.  That lack of power is frustrating.  And that lack of power leaves me to stew in my fears for the ground water, the flora and fauna which make their home in the marsh and river up the street, and the whole ecosystem which sustains our lives.

The problem with that frustration and fear is that I am a person of faith.  Fundamental to my faith is the conviction that, although I am not in charge of the world, what is in charge of the world is good.  In fact, some in the Christian tradition would say that what is in charge of the world is goodness itself.  Therefore, if I take my faith seriously, I do not have to be afraid.  I can trust that, at the end of it all, the chemicals my neighbors pay the company this man works for to spread on their lawns will not ruin the whole of creation.  Don’t get me wrong; I am not called by my faith to be passive.  My tradition also reminds me to take personal and collective sin seriously, to understand the interconnectedness of all people, and to work as hard as I can to steward the natural world as well as human relationships well.  Frustration, fear, and the anger which results are gifts which call me to act.  But the reality is that I could not stop the man from spreading the chemicals the other morning, and my faith tells me that my anger does not have to make me bitter or uncivil, because, although I am not in charge, God is, and at the end of it all, everything will be good, just like it was in the beginning.

And I realize that perhaps that faith is what I need to approach the other forms of righteous anger which will arise in me between now and the first Tuesday in November and beyond.  Although I cannot for the life of me understand why anyone would support the other candidate, the fact is that my candidate may not win the election.  Although I cannot for the life of me understand how anyone could believe the vitriol  which is posted on social media by people all along the red-blue spectrum, there may be some truth in most of it.  Although I cannot for the life of me understand why people will act with such little consideration for civility in political debates, the convictions those people hold are as passionately felt as my own convictions.  And at the end of it all, my faith tells me to calm down, and while I do my part as a citizen and a child of God, to trust the God who is in charge, and to cling to the hope that, at the end of it all, everything will be good, just like it was in the beginning.

I finished mowing the small patch of weeds in my side yard, wondering how many of those weeds would be destroyed by the chemicals which were spread only a few feet away.  And moved on to the larger complex of grass and weeds which constitute the lawn in my back yard.  Back there, I was able to admire the beauty of the flowers, herbs, vegetables, bushes, and trees surrounding my lawn, knowing that those beautiful things can only grow where they are because I choose not to spread similar chemicals on the ground in which they grow.

My Lawn

In my church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), congregations are organized into presbyteries, for mutual support and accountability.  Historically, presbyteries have organized geographically.  For instance, the congregation I serve is a member of Savannah Presbytery, which includes all of the PC(USA) congregations within certain geographic boundaries in Southeast Georgia.

This summer, our church’s national General Assembly is considering a proposal to allow congregations to experiment by forming new presbyteries which cross those geographical boundaries.  These presbyteries could include congregations which decide to constitute a presbytery because of what they have in common.  The impetus for the proposed change came from people who identify as conservative; they want to be able to associate with other congregations who share their perspective on theological and social issues.

This proposal has me thinking a lot about my lawn.  I think the majority of the square footage in my front yard is still covered by centipede grass.  But I also have a significant and growing patch of Bermuda grass and even some small, shady places where some of the more delicate St. Augustine grass took root long before I moved into this place.  As you look closer at my lawn, you see a lot of other stuff, too:  some dichondra; some dandelions; a few sandburs, which have been the object of some graphic language as I walked barefoot this spring; and a bunch of other, unidentified greenery.  A few places, especially where it is shady and you can see the thick tree roots, there is plain dirt where nothing will grow.  A week or so after I mow, my lawn has all manner of spikes sticking up, flowers budding, and broad-leafed vines trying to creep all over the place.

It’s the kind of lawn that probably makes some of my neighbors crazy.  A few people on my street have lawns that are all uniform.  Most of those lawns are made of the strong, thick-bladed bermuda grass, but whatever the variety, there are certainly no “weeds” growing in those lawns.  As the blades of grass get longer, the whole thing is still uniform in height.  There is no dirt exposed to the potentially critical eye of someone who might stop by long enough to, perhaps, let his dog pee on the perfectionist’s mailbox.

I do not refuse to keep a monoculture lawn because I am lazy.  If I wanted to, I could get my lawn to look like the uniform ones on my street.  I keep my lawn the way it is by choice.  I have made that choice because I think it is healthier for my lawn, for myself and my family, and for the ecosystem I am a part of.

Suburban streets like mine were developed to fulfill a vision of houses dotting an otherwise peaceful, open meadow at regular intervals.  But what I realized a long time ago is that meadows are always made up of a whole bunch of different plants.  Nowhere in nature is there an open, green meadow which is uniform in species, much less in height.  Sometimes the plants in a meadow complement each other, with one species providing extra minerals for the soil or a certain amount of shade which helps the other plants around it.  Other times, some plants try to push all the other plants out of their way.  Sometimes new species find their way in.  But eventually, everything settles out so that the meadow can flourish together with all of its variety.

So why should my lawn be any different?  Why should I work against what is natural and healthy to create a uniform height, color, and texture in my front yard?  The person who owned this little piece of land before me tried.  Soon after we moved in, my neighbor looked at a big brown spot in my front yard with a chuckle.  He told me about the time that the previous owner had one of those nationally franchised lawn services come out and spray all kinds of chemicals on the lawn to get rid of the weeds.  But he didn’t think the lawn service did an adequate job, so he bought his own weed killer and applied it to the lawn the next day.  That night, it rained enough to make puddles in the lawn, and within a few days, the lowest spots began to turn brown and die.  I have been trying to coax something, anything, to live in those low spots ever since.

Meadows are not monocultures, and churches are not uniform, either.  Some people have a hard time when all the members of a church do not agree on the answers to questions that are significant to some members of that church.  But I don’t.  I think that it is only natural that there are different people, with a whole bunch of different views, in any community.  I have never been a part of any congregation that can speak with one voice on significant issues; when pressed to make a decision, some people always disagree with the majority, and those people have to decide whether they will quietly submit to the will of the others or withdraw from that congregation.  This is not good or bad; it is just the way churches are.

So why fight against the nature of the church?  I worry that any attempt to create uniformity might be toxic:  some people in the congregations which associate only with other congregations with a particular perspective on theological or social issues will be less likely to find a place in their church.  Whether the congregations shrink or thrive in a monoculture presbytery, over time, maintaining that appearance of agreement will take a lot of work, use a lot of resources, and may still fail because nature has a way of throwing weeds into the mix despite our best efforts to suppress them.

There is something healthy about taking whatever happens to grow in certain geographic bounds and doing what we can with it.  It is not uniform in any way.  The neighbors don’t always understand it, and they might even be aggravated by it.  We might curse at the burrs that come up in it and poke our bare feet now and then.  But accepting variety means that we don’t have to fight so hard against what is natural, and we might discover ways of living together that are healthier for the church, for ourselves, for our sisters and brothers, and for the ecosystem around us.

Jesus spoke about the farmer who woke up one morning and found that a whole bunch of weeds had grown up among his carefully tended wheat.  Everyone thought that he should pull the weeds right then and there.  But he said no.  He realized that, like it or not, the weeds were intertwined with the wheat, and pulling the one would harm the other.  So he let it go until someone could sort it out at the end of it all.  And Jesus said that the kingdom of God is just like that farmer.