Zen and the Art of Lawn Maintenance


i’ve been mowing lawns since i was a kid.

i believe it was passed down to me as a chore by my dad who figured that it was one of the few places in the house or yard where i could help the most whilst doing the least amount of damage.

Over the course of my childhood and adolescence, we lived in four different houses in the same basic geographic area (Santa Ana/North Tustin, CA) with four differently shaped yards. But the grass was the same sturdy, almost impenetrable turf that you knew was well-mowed when it could double as a practice putting green at Augusta National (which, of course, we never allowed any girls in the neighborhood to use for said purpose, in keeping with the spirit of that venerable club ;).

The lawnmower used was one of those BIG honkin’ red McClane machines that could plow through not only any strain of grass it confronted, but also level anything else in its path (like palm trees, Big Wheels, and probably even our old Plymouth Duster if i ever had the nerve to try). The engine on this thing could have powered a Mack truck. When i would initiate each mowing session, i might as well have yelled out, ‘AND NOW, LET THE WILD RUMPUS START!’ And there was such a surge of adrenaline pulsing through me afterwards, i could have climbed on top of the monstrous and mean machine and screamed, ‘I’M THE KING OF THE WORLD!’ (and foreshadowed a trend 20 years ahead of its time ;).

Lawn Mower

not my mower, but close enough.

At that time in my life, since the shape of the lawns was pretty much symmetrical and level, and the houses themselves were fairly new, i didn’t have to consider nuances like maneuvering around and over possible obstacles and things hidden in old, dark undergrowth. It was basically plowing back and forth over a lawn that didn’t stand a chance of staying overgrown.

Certainly not ‘rocket science’.

Absolutely not ‘quantum physics’.

Definitely not ‘art’.

I didn’t need to KNOW the lawn.

I just needed to MOW the lawn.

Fast-forward 30 years from Santa Ana, CA to Missoula, MT. After years of rentals, we finally bought our first house (a really cool little place in an historic part of town on two city lots).

Meaning for the first time in over 20 years, i had a lawn to mow.

But this was NOT my father’s lawn. NOT a ‘putting green’ needing a trim.

It was a ‘selective naturalist’s’ obstacle course, a mosaic of moss sprawled over a lumpy, bumpy landscape with hidden rocks, stones and stumps.

But it was lovely in all its diversity and complexity and maturity, and i welcomed the chance to trim and ‘tame’ it a bit.

i ‘celebrated’ by going out and buying a brand new lawnmower…a semi-tricked out Toro with ‘all-terrain’ wheels and even ‘4-wheel drive’ (DTS surround sound system sold separately). i filled it with gas and oil, fired it up, and bounded into my new agricultural adventure (suburbanite version).

Lawn Mower

not my mower, but close enough.

Ten minutes into said ‘adventure’, i was cursing not only all former owners of my 90-year-old house, but also the idiots who invented lawns back in the Middle Ages, and even the inventor of the lawnmower itself (Edwin Beard Budding, who i looked up after my little ‘lawn party’ just so i could put a name to my curses).

Edwin Bear Budding. Zen and the Art of Lawn Maintenance.

curse you, blurry photo of Edwin Beard Budding

The ‘power of plow’ method i had learned in my youth was literally not ‘cutting’ it here in this overgrown jungle of undergrowth. I kept ‘powering’ over rocks lurking beneath the surface and ‘plowing’ into stumps of trees and plants long since leveled. And while these continual collisions and crashes made sounds that should have warned me of imminent danger and destruction, i paid them little heed.

After all, i had the MONSTROUS and MEAN MACHINE of MOWING.

I was the ONE who was in CONTROL of the WILD RUMPUS.

I was the ‘KING OF THE WORLD’!

Until i felt and heard a BIG THUMP. and BANG. and POP.

And the indestructible, indomitable instrument of lawn laceration gasped and gurgled…and STOPPED.

I lifted up the mower to see what wreckage had been caused underneath. The titanium-plated, tungsten steel blade designed to bear weights in excess of 3 mega tons and forces of up to 28 g’s was bent roughly into the shape of bow-tie pasta.

bottom of a lawnmower

not my mower, but close enough.

My immediate thought was that i could return the mower to Lowe’s while it was still under ‘warranty’ and at least get a replacement blade. Wrong. It seems that the ‘protection plan’ i bought didn’t cover me from being an IDIOT and trying to plow over well-axed, still well-rooted hunks of wood imbedded securely in the earth. And because i now lived in a great town out in the middle of nowhere, it would take about 2-3 months to even get parts to fix the damn thing.

Enter Peg, our dear, feisty, 81 year-old neighbor who had at one time built an entire log cabin from the ground up…by HERSELF. She knows machines as intimately and intricately as i know episodes of ‘Arrested Development’. In fact, she had found an old, dilapidated mower in the alley behind her house, and through her Dr. Frankensteinian wizardry had brought it back to life and function. She brought it by, showed me the ins and outs of the thing, as well as some insights to consider regarding the uniquenesses of my yard, gave me a wink and a smile (and plenty of jokes about my mechanical ineptitude), and i was off to mow once again.

Until i got to the maple trees in the front yard. And instead of maneuvering around one of the exposed roots, i tried to hop over it. And ended up on top of it.

Which resulted in Mangled Mower Blade No. 2.

More like slightly bent fettuccini this time.

And another call to Peg.

And another rolling of her eyes.

And another hand-me-down mower from another neighbor.

And being put on ‘mowing restriction’ by my wife.

The ‘WILD RUMPUS’ was over.

I was demoted from being ‘KING OF THE WORLD’.

The shame and humiliation cut deep. In fact, it was the only thing that was ‘cutting’ anything in my life that point.

Praying to the lawn mower god.

not my mower, OR me, but close enough.

In my imposed exile from the still untamed jungle of my backyard, i sifted through the broken pieces of machinery and ego to see what went wrong.

And my old, unspoken approach to mowing reappeared like a nightmare haunting my waking hours.

‘I didn’t need to KNOW the lawn. I just needed to MOW the lawn.’

And a tiny shaft of light, no wider than a blade of Bermuda, pierced the darkness of my cell of shame and embarrassment.

Those strange bumps and lumps in the landscape were actually part of its character. And perhaps what i had failed to recognize while i was simply trying to plow my way through them was that i needed to appreciate the land for what it is, and nurture it and nuance my way around those lumps and bumps in order to truly care for the whole space in its created cusps and chasms, corners and contours. I needed to learn new ways of approaching such a singularly shaped terrain so that it could more fully flourish in the ways it was made to do so.

In the face of a lawn that was unique, undefinable, and seemingly untamable, i hadn’t take the time needed to get to know the lay of the land and the ways in which it is a special work of ‘art’. I hadn’t realized that taking care of a space like this was a work of ‘art’ in and of itself.

Still not ‘rocket science’.

Nor ‘quantum physics’.

But definitely ‘art’.

We now have three lawn mowers in our shed. ONE of them works (thanks to Peg). Another she is attempting to fix. The third, original, fancy-schmancy one sits gathering dust in the dark corner, still with the bow-tie pasta blade.

But i sense in the silliness and strangeness of my odyssey with my lawn and the mowers with which i have sought to ‘tame’ it, there’s a larger life lesson buried in the midst of it all, like one of those damn, subterranean boulders in my yard waiting for me to crash upon it yet again.

In order to best care for my backyard…

i don’t just need to MOW it.

i need to KNOW it.

And in order for me to best engage with all the unique, undefinable, untamable and unmistakably strange and sacred experiences that appear on my life’s journey – the ones that have ushered in the strongest times of community or greatest moments of enmity…the instances that have given me so much and those that have left me in most dire need…the circumstances i’ve attempted to plow over in frustration and fear, impatience and insolence – perhaps i’d do better to start by taking the time to appreciate these experiences for what they are, and even to receive them for the gifts they bear in this world and my life, however perplexing and painful it might be to receive them.

Maybe it’s time to allow someone else to ‘let the WILD RUMPUSES’ go on and serve as the ‘KING OF THE WORLD’.

Maybe i don’t need to MOW down these perilous, precocious and precious gifts as a way to control and ‘tame’ them on my way to whatever lies ahead in my journey.

Maybe i just need to pause, breathe, and take the time to truly KNOW them.

And to remember to acknowledge and celebrate them as the works of ‘art’ that they truly are.

And to engage in the ‘art’ of nurturing and caring about them as such.

My yard certainly doesn’t look ‘perfect’ now.

But it is certainly much better ‘known’.

And ‘loved’.

My House. Zen and the Art of Lawn Maintenance.

my house, and part of my imperfect, lovely and loved lawn.



To see more of Brian’s writing, check out the Brian Marsh main page here at Make it Missoula. And for even more, check out his personal blog, Apocalypso Now.


i’m a wanderer and a wonderer. a percussive and paradoxical pastor who exists happily (and hope-full-y) at the intersection of doubt and faith. journeying with my unique and special family (my wife, Kirsten, and sons, Ian and Trevor) whilst temporarily splitting my time between two unique and beautiful places (Missoula, Montana and Ukiah, California). restless and lazy, usually amazed, always in process, i’m continually surprised and usually delighted at discovering the extraordinary in the ordinary, the ‘sacred’ in the ‘secular’, the shafts of light that sneak into the shrouds of darkness. i drum decently, surf poorly, love multicultural food, music, and community, and living in the ‘Zoo.


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