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The Zen of Weeding

An hour passes, then another. There is no world beyond this third of a suburban acre and the rhythm of pulling up crabgrass.

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By John Powers
Globe Staff / September 21, 2003

I am sitting cross-legged in the middle of my front lawn on a sunny Sunday afternoon, listening to Beethoven or somebody on my headphones and digging out crabgrass one blade at a time. I could have done it the easy way back in April by spewing a bagful of pre-emergent killer granules from my spreader, but what with rainy weekends and more pressing business, the season got away from me.

Now the only solution, except to let nature take its unruly course, is to get down and dirty. Sweat is dripping onto my glasses. A blister is rising on a couple of fingertips. My adductor (or maybe it's the abductor) muscles are cramping. Something has crawled up inside my shorts and bitten me on the back of my thigh.

And yet, I am blissfully content, locked in and Zenned out, having crossed the line beyond which drudgery becomes luxury, like the luxury a toddler has of eating a bowl of Cheerios one at a time and putting the world on hold.

Plucking hundreds of weeds individually is a tedious, almost mindless chore that is supposed to have gone out with the 19th century. Yet there is a profound simplicity and clarity and sensuality to it that I've come to find irresistible.

Weeding requires the one thing most endeavors don't allow us these days: time. Time to get down on our hands and knees and run our hands slowly and thoroughly through the grass and among the flowers and do one uncomplicated but productive thing a thousand times, week after week for the better half of a year.

An hour passes, then another. A large plastic trash bag is filled, then another. For once, there is no world beyond that which I can reach with my grimy hands.

A couple of months ago the weeds were dandelions, hundreds of them sprouting in the rototilled side yard that had been waiting . . . and waiting . . . for me to lay down a new lawn. I plucked the dandelions one at a time, too, taproot and all. I could have sprayed them, of course, but that would have meant giving up a rare chance to slow my metabolism down to plant level and inspect my surroundings in microscopic detail.

I've lived on this third of a suburban acre for nearly a quarter-century, and yet I've rarely taken the time to check out what's sharing it with me. Besides a vast assortment of insects that reside on my property (given the bug-to-human ratio, I appear to be residing on theirs), there's a bewildering variety of flora, most of which I couldn't identify until I set about uprooting them.

Getting down and dirty is a humbling experience, if only because it reminds me that life -- and nature -- goes on without me whether I do anything about it or not. The grass grows whether or not I'm around to care for it, and if I don't fill in the bare spots, something else will.

The seasons progress on their own schedule, and if I fall behind in my landscaping duties, the landscape moves on without me. Weeding gives me the satisfaction of bringing order, however momentary, to one small corner of the cosmos. With pruning shears in hand, I can even reshape that corner, trimming an overgrown bush, balancing a lopsided flowering tree. If I have time and vision and fertilizer enough, I can create my own backyard arboretum.

For now, though, the crabgrass and dandelions and the random fuzzies and spikies that sprout and spread here and there are as much as I care to deal with. I have the time and patience to unearth them one by one, but I do have my limits. A few hours of locking in and Zenning out is marvelously therapeutic.

But come October, I will not rake one leaf at a time. Nor, come February, will I shovel one flake at a time. There is, after all, only so much simplicity and clarity and sensuality that a man can stand.

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