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Why 'No-Mow May'?

Prioritizing bees and butterflies might seem small, but it’s real.

Key points

  • Violence at home, war abroad, storms all around—it can be a challenge not to lose heart.
  • Sometimes a thoughtful metaphor can help us face painful, unpalatable truths.

May 21, 2022

Outside the windows it’s gloomy; a hazy gray fog hangs over everything. Already anxiety seeps into the seams of the day as the forecast is for deadly heat, approaching 100 here, over 90 for half the country. The war in Ukraine continues, and Russia persists despite losses, leaving behind absolute destruction whatever the technical outcome turns out to be. It becomes more clear each day that our country is deeply divided, and violence appears to be spreading. What can I do to keep my heart safe and not lose it? Where is the joy? What about the flowers?

I checked the weather report again: 94 is the new forecast high, no longer 99 as predicted. The street looks wet but without puddles. I wonder whether that means it rained in the night or it’s just condensation of the dew on the pavement, because the humidity is so high. It'll be muggy for sure—August in May. I want to approach this day in a way that offers hope, that gives comfort, that summons a feeling of connection with my own goodness, confident that there is a way to make things better. I imagine that faith gives this confidence: trust in God to have a plan that will take care of the world, take care of me and those I love. But if I don’t have that faith, if I’m limited to trust in mundane humanity, and I’m watching ugly aspects of that humanity multiply in disturbing patterns from the past, where do I find hope? What about the flowers?

Long ago, my wise mentor Dan Miller showed us that sometimes a thoughtful metaphor can make it possible to face painful, unpalatable truth. I’m searching for a metaphor that acknowledges the danger yet offers comfort and sows seeds for action.

Whenever I feel stuck—writing a story, avoiding a chore, struggling for understanding—and the weather allows, I take myself outdoors for a tour of our small yard. I can see what’s changed since my last trip around, sometimes only a few hours before. I look for what’s grown and what hasn’t; often, especially in spring, I’m astonished.

Annita Sawyer
Among the weeds...
Source: Annita Sawyer

Today the air feels heavy on my skin, but sun has dried the fog. In the side yard close to the house I stand deep in the midst of all sorts of weeds furiously expanding their boundaries, showing off their flowers, way outdoing the few odd patches of grass which now reach up to my knees. They’re competing with one another for every square inch of rich river-bottom soil in my small yard.

Ordinarily, I’d have mowed this area weeks ago, as soon as the grass began to grow. I learned early that whatever the vegetation might be, if it’s sort of green and freshly mowed it looks like a nice grass lawn, at least briefly, and gives an impression of order. Why is it that I still haven’t taken care of the yard? Because this year I joined "No-Mow May"! Along with many of my neighbors—a broad assortment of insect-smitten hippies—I will not mow my lawn this May. We want to give pollinators extra time with all sorts of wonderful plants and their flowers, which would otherwise not be available, a mowers' blades beheading them before they bloom or the bees arrive.

Are weeds and the side yard the metaphor I need?

What do I have to say about the yard and the pollinators? Milkweed we planted from the meadow is for the butterflies. I wonder how it will look as the summer progresses. Last year the few stalks that appeared grew so tall they spilled over; I had to tie them up to the fence so they didn’t block the walk. They were rather unsightly by then. I guess we’ll see—it’s an adventure. Will agrees with me to turn the side yard into a wild pollinator garden. We’ll find flowers and bushes to populate it and make sure there’s a path through that’s easy to walk, but we won’t worry about maintaining grass or mowing. We agree that we’ll mow the back. There’s another week to the month, so perhaps next weekend I’ll mow there.

Annita Sawyer
A new lily of the valley shoot
Source: Annita Sawyer

I delight in each new lily of the valley shoot, hardly larger than a blade of grass, but round, with a little bump at the top. Near the roses of Sharon, there’s a fast-spreading weed that I’ve always yanked out—I never before saw it full grown. Now it’s covered with lovely tiny white flowers at the tips of dozens of stems spreading out from the center. The irises I divided and transplanted into every corner of the yard last fall are showing blooms. Many have at least three stalks; most stalks carry four elaborate flowers up their stems.

I learned about No-Mow May in a neighborhood email encouraging us to participate. I’ve since learned it’s a serious movement across the country. Simple inertia set me up: first the lawn mower needed a tune-up, but even after the delay I didn’t want to use my outdoor time to mow, which gave me a head start on No Mow. Now I’m a true believer.

It’s a small action, but it’s real. It brings the community together. It addresses climate change and increases awareness of life’s cycles; it celebrates beauty and life. We move closer and closer to honoring and integrating Indigenous wisdom regarding our connection with the earth and with all living things. We are here together, whatever our political or religious philosophy—whatever we believe: we and the bees and the blue jays and the woodchucks and the trees and the flowers. The bees sting and make honey, and woodchucks eat our beans and our flowers. Trees give us fruit and shade from the sun, and they activate allergies. We humans love, and hate, and torment one another, and always strive to do better.

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