Silence of the Lawns

My wife and I sat down in the backyard clutching two cans of perfectly frosted Hamm’s beer. For early June, the day was scorching hot. I had finished cutting our grass earlier and reached a good stopping point. All other yard chores would wait. We settled in for an evening of quiet inactivity and baseball on the radio.
No sooner had the cold sizzle of beer hit my throat, than our neighbor’s hired grasscutter fired up his supercharged ride’m lawnmower next door. The ballgame broadcast was swallowed beneath the roar along with all conversation between my wife and me. He waved a “hello” as he bounced in the seat along our property line and shrugged an apology for being so noisy late in the day.
Our neighbor came out. She flagged him down and the mower killed. As best we could discern from their exchange a backyard away, she wanted him to show up earlier in the day and provide a heads-up before he arrived. She also requested he not mow over some patches of wildflowers in the yard. But he argued for more of a golf-course manicure.
These landscaping differences somehow segued into debate regarding the use of fossil fuels versus sustainable energy. Though cordial, their volume escalated. When their political sparring came to an impasse, the grasscutter turned the key, shoved the mower into gear and grabbed his cell phone. From there behind the wheel, he dialed and began talking. My wife and I could barely hear each other and sat bepuzzled at how he could hear anyone while directly above the mower engine. I went to the fridge for more Hamm’s.
At that point in summer, we felt comfortable enough to sit and admire the sunset behind the haze from distant Canadian wildfires. Drought hadn’t become part of daily life. Fires hadn’t become a threat. Lawnmowers hadn’t gone quiet.
Other sounds echoed through the neighborhood as summer continued to cook. The thwack-thwack of an air-powered staplegun ricocheted off house siding from somewhere nearby. I tracked it down to a new garage being built two houses from our intersection. I moseyed to their backyard and was greeted with the aroma of fresh-cut two-by-fours aligned on an unblemished cement slab.
The following day, I wandered across the street to the neighbors who lived next door to the new garage. We stood beside each other, arms crossed in curiosity, and assessed the project progress. Our gathering turned into a committee meeting. With the shingles being hammered down right in front of us, we determined the garage was nearing completion. So, we made noises for a type of christening, kind of like a barn raising or a “frolic” as the Amish call them. The only differences between us and the Amish were that none of us had lifted a finger to help with garage construction and the neighborly celebration we schemed was more hijinks than reverence.
We devised a plan to round up items from neighborhood garages and pack them into the new garage before the owners could move their own stuff in. Anything that took up space would do: boats, old refrigerators, garbage cans, used toilets, leftover heating duct, dogsleds and especially lawnmowers. By then, nobody needed them anyway. As I walked home across our yards, I caught myself chuckling. I also heard the dead grass under my feet crunch like potato chips. When I stepped on a pine cone, it snapped like a walnut.
Our land of sky-blue waters is parched with thirst. Emaciated river and creek beds began showing their skeletons as the drought wore on. Water levels dropped, exposing boulders and logs normally hidden beneath running current. However, one neighbor viewed this as a moneymaking opportunity. He’d venture across jumbles of river rock and driftwood, collecting snagged fishing lures for resale.
Wilderness outfitters don’t come by cash so handily. Like farming, their income relies in part on weather. As the drought transformed the forest into tinder, new fires ignited haphazardly. Outfitting businesses re-routed guests out of harm’s way all to afford those visitors a pleasant escape from their everyday lives. At the same time, outfitters and their employees kept an eye on their own escape, one that would force them to pack up, evacuate their homes and pray they’d have an everyday life to return to. When the wilderness was shut off to travelers, so was outfitter revenue.
The individuals on the front lines of fighting these fires are the essence of “hero”—they know the dangers, but face them anyway. Surrounding communities have responded with overwhelming gratitude. They’ve donated so much food to firefighters that incident command centers no longer have indoor storage space. Overflow food has been stockpiled in the open, sparking a new problem—black bears looking for handouts. It’s not the bears’ fault for being hungry. The drought has decimated the berry crop in the forest and bears scrounge for food anywhere they can find it. But they’ve become nuisances at the command centers and crews have had to fend off bears in addition to fires.
Weeks have turned into months. Normally, I treasure the smell of a campfire, but frequent wildfire smoke has made breathing a conscious task. Some rural residents have already had to evacuate. So the possibility of abandoning our neighborhoods hovers like the smoke plumes to our north and south.
What I’d give to hear the sound of an aggravating lawnmower again.


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