"Sleeping in the Forest"

Lawns—terrible and wonderfully familiar

It can’t have been true that ice cream trucks were always rounding the corner, but that’s what I remember: The smell of cut grass piling up on hot sidewalks; the feeling of those nubby green shavings stuck to my legs; the sensation of sweat beading on my nose, like translucent little freckles; the tinny sound of the trucks approaching, inviting us to peel ourselves up off the grass and wander out to the curb, exchanging a heat-rumpled bill for a cone that melted faster than we could eat it. Suburban Detroit, in the humid summer, was a place where kids were always loafing on lawns—sometimes scampering through sprinklers, sometimes fleeing them. The ice cream truck’s clanging competed with the drone of lawnmowers, roaring a few houses over or a couple streets away. Both sounds felt innate. It was impossible to imagine the landscape without them. 

As a child, I splayed out on grass all the time; as an adult, I almost never do, and I recognize that manicured lawns have a lot working against them. They beg to be aerated—punched, a few inches deep, until little plugs are yanked out and strewn on the surface to loosen compacted soil. They demand to be fertilized, and assaulted with all sorts of artillery that hobbles unwelcome weeds. Lawns are fickle, prone to crisping, and they’re greedy with their thirst. Anyone hoping to invite pollinators to drop in would be better served by nurturing native plants; anyone concerned about water usage (particularly in a future with more ferocious droughts) ought to think about xeriscaping, instead. 

I have no interest in being the steward of a lawn; I think they’re largely indefensible. Lately, though, I’ve enjoyed being a guest on them. In a summer when so much of my daily routine feels unfamiliar or entirely upended, I have found myself craving that feeling of limbs against earth. I’ve spent many recent evenings in Prospect Park, in the section known as the Long Meadow. It’s as much lawn as it is meadow, one big patch of grass rising and falling up and down little humps. I flop down and read or watch the sky, and as the sun slinks toward the horizon I often notice that I’m threading my fingers through the grass on either side of my blanket. I weave the blades in between my thumbs and forefingers, sometimes even absentmindedly braiding the pieces together. Ice cream trucks are now stationed at the entrances to the park—one has been tagged with spray paint shouting “ACAB” (“all cops are bastards”)—and vendors push carts around the meadow, tinkling little bells and scooping gloopy heaps of vanilla or sherbet or whatever flavor corresponds to bright blue. The grass and the sounds aren’t quite the same as the ones I grew up with, but they’re similar enough to feel like catching up, a little awkwardly, with an old friend.

This week’s poem, “Sleeping in the Forest,” by Mary Oliver, reminds me of that feeling of a reunion that’s tender and a little clumsy, or even slightly prickly—of stumbling into a place that feels familiar and intimate, even if not entirely peaceful. 

Thanks for listening. This week, I’d love to hear about landscapes that remind you of home, or are bringing you some small comfort.



P.S. A few nice links:

I have been savoring handwritten letters sailing into my mailbox. I try to pluck them nearly the instant they arrive, and then carry them around until I can set aside a chunk of time to dive in. Sometimes I take them to the park and read them at dusk, when families amble by and birds start to appear in silhouette. Sometimes I read them in the chair next to my bed, because then it feels like the whole world shrinks to nothing but the pages. The second-best thing I read this week is something about mail: Dwight Garner’s New York Times essay about treasured notes like these ones—the joyousness, the romance, the pleasure of them all. Garner winningly quotes the literary critic Lionel Trilling, admitting to his future wife, Diana, in 1928, “Often I want to make a big literary gesture to you, a superb piling up of the best and truest words I know.” I hope you find yourself composing and receiving superb piles of words—but if “superb” feels like a tall order, maybe you could hurry off a little note to a moping grouper, instead.

Talk to you next week. Good luck out there.

[Image: Sancho McCann/CC by 2.0]