Perfect Lawns and Dandelion Wine

DandelionsKCPost-MAKTheir very different personalities crossed my path just as the annual divide between dandelions as beauty or bane was in full bloom— and  unbidden came a mental image associating one of them with dandelion wine.

Next day as I walked to work paying particular attention, I noted just how stark are the differences in treatment of dandelions. First came a line of lawns radiating deep emerald green perfection. Then just as the eye got used to this as the norm came a ragged blanket of dandelions gone to seed, the line between barbaric chaos and the treated lawn beside it razor sharp.

After that came an unpredictable jumble. Sometimes back to emerald. Sometimes lawns whose owners clearly tolerated dandelions yet had recently mowed them into submission. Sometimes profusions of untidy stalks, heads gone old and gray and wild, gold mostly missing, mixed with unkempt grass and weeds. I haven’t done the demographic studies yet, but I do suspect they would show correlations between dandelion vistas and socio-economic variables.

Then to the personalities. One is more driven, restlessly surveying the horizon for the next opportunity, focused on achieving results, assessing outcomes, revising methods whenever the feedback loop calls for it. Here Big Data is today’s exciting new tool. The numbers are crunched, they point in promising directions, and in fact there is proof in the pudding: often amazing feats are indeed achieved and call for admiration.

The other is more laid back, not exactly somnolent but not driven, either. There may be hints, in more of a heart-softening than problematic form, of brushes with depression. Here data and numbers aren’t irrelevant but are one or two, maybe even three, levels down. First come people. People in all their beyond-statistics quirks, in their sufferings, their ragged edges, their lives sometimes golden but often in dandelion-esque fashion, beautiful today, gone to seed tomorrow.

Next came the progression toward dandelion wine. After spending time with the first personality, I did feel admiration. I also felt unsettled; does the grass really need to be that flawless? Might it be okay to let a few dandelions sneak into even well-manicured lawns— and personalities—to give us their annual saffron carpets, evanescent yet so lovely during their brief flowering? We’re learning that apples or tomatoes modified for beauty and long shelf-life lose their taste; the ones that bless your tongue are the heirloom varieties, blemished,  spots and lumps and oddities dancing with their tastes. Are people maybe sometimes like that too?

After being with the second personality, I realized life felt slower, gentler, calmer. The frenzy had faded. Outcomes mattered less and the tenderness of each passing minute mattered more.

Later that evening, in the afterglow, arrived the image of dandelion wine, which comes from Ray Bradbury’s 1957 novel of that title set in Green Town, Illinois, and of the summer in which Douglas Spaulding, age 12, experiences through dandelions and all that goes with them the very wine of life.

As Bradbury put it in a 1975 introduction, “Dandelion Wine is nothing if it is not the boy-hid-in-the-man playing on the green grass of other Augusts in the midst of starting to grow up, grow old, and sense darkness waiting under the trees to seed the blood.”

And as part of telling of that boy growing up and old, Bradbury reports in one chapter, “The Lawns of Summer,” on this special grass, which I imagine creating perfect emerald lawns like the ones I walked by except for one more miracle: it grows to just the right height, then stops. Bill, Grandpa’s boarder, excitedly reports that he’ll plant the new grass and soon enough mowing will be done forever.

But Grandpa has this crazed notion that mowing grass and even pulling weeds can nurture the soul, can be, as he puts it, “a way of life.” The sound of lawn mowers and the smell of cut grass are gifts of being alive he wants never to lose. Not to mention that “a mess of dandelion greens is good eating once in a while” and that the bees will vanish as the high-tech grass kills off dandelions and clover.

He gets through to Bill. When Grandpa wakes from that afternoon’s nap, he hears the mower going again even though Bill had just cut the lawn that morning while anticipating the day the magic grass would put an end to all that. When Grandpa questions Bill, wondering if the sun has addled him, Bill just joyfully grins through a spray of green.

Michael A. King is dean at Eastern Mennonite Seminary and a vice-president at Eastern Mennonite University; columnist, “Unseen Hands,” for Mennonite World Review;  blogger and editor, Kingsview & Co; and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC.

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