“Hey, why don’t you get out there and mow the lawn?”

How many times had I heard that refrain?  Through all the days of my youth, it seemed.  My father would always laugh when he said it, knowing full well I would be doing no such thing.  Not that he would have trusted me with such a formidable machine as we possessed: Almost as big as a (small) automobile, it was fire-engine red and immaculately kept.  My father would no sooner have let me near it than he would have let me get my hands on his car, his checkbook, or the key to his liquor cabinet.

My father was devoted to his lawn—it was, for him, a symbol of everything he had worked for, everything he possessed and was proud of having achieved.  As smooth as green glass, it shone in the afternoon sun: clipped, glossy, and perfect.  As neatly manicured and predictable as the suburban lives we led—which is, of course, why I hated it.

“Dad, why do we need a lawn?  It’s not natural!”

My younger sister, whom I had indoctrinated to hate all things suburban, chimed in: “If I had a house it would just have wildflowers instead of a lawn.  Wildflowers in an open field.”

My father looked incredulously at us and laughed, albeit a bit uneasily.  “What are you talking about?  We need a lawn.  Everybody has a lawn.”

I exchanged knowing glances with my sister.  “Well, isn’t that a good reason not to have one?”

That it wasn’t a good reason at all is something I failed to understand at the time, and the puzzled look on my father’s face indicated that the conversation had gone as far as it was going to go.  We had reached the point of mutual incomprehension.

“If I had a house,” my sister persisted, “or, rather, when I have my own house, there will be no lawn: It’s going to be in the middle of a field, with flowers and tall grasses and strawberries.”

I looked at my sister approvingly.  She had learned her lessons well.  Strawberry fields forever . . .

Flash-forward 45 years: I woke just as the sun rose, pulled on my pants, and went outside to confront my Task, the one that had dogged me for weeks and frustrated my ceaseless efforts.  Buying this old house in the middle of a rural area in California’s wine country had been a leap in the dark, but a joyous one.  Finally, I had a house of my own: no more paying rent, no more kowtowing to the whims of an absentee landlord, whom I had to ask permission from if I wanted to paint the walls any color but white.  Total freedom on half an acre.

I’ve written about that half-acre before, but never about the Task it imposed on me from the beginning—and, yes, I’m talking about creating a lawn.  Because, you see, what my 15-year-old self had never managed to figure out is that the alternative isn’t a field of strawberries, or even wildflowers—it’s bare dirt, hardly an attractive option.  After all, you can’t walk on strawberries, and as for wildflowers—well, you can’t walk on them, either.

There was, of course, a lawn of sorts, but it was—is—extremely odd.  Aside from being pockmarked with ugly weeds, and browned by the California summer, it has  stripes.  Alternating bands of green and taupe waver in the afternoon heat, like some psychedelic poster from the 60’s or the introductory credits of The Twilight Zone.  A leach field ten feet below the surface—a series of underground pipes with holes in them connected to the septic system—crisscrosses the property, irrigating strips of lawn and leaving the rest near-dead.  Which doesn’t mean it has stopped growing—far from it.  You can tell it’s Saturday because the grass has reached a height of half a foot, and the dandelions are bowing their yellow heads in the wind, beckoning me, laughing at me: It’s time to mow the lawn again!

And so my Great Work was born: the creation of a New Kind of Lawn, the kind that not only needs less mowing but also stays green and weed-free without a constant diet of precious water—we’re on a well—and herbicides.

I approached the task with all the seriousness I had formerly reserved for such routine jobs as, say, writing a book or deciding on a career.  After all, I would have to live with the results on a daily basis for some time.  It was not a Task to be taken lightly.  After much research, I hit on a solution: clover!

Clover used to make up a good part of every lawn back in the days before herbicides.  My father’s lawn had a good supply of it, although constant cutting kept it from blooming much.  But herbicides wipe out broadleaf growth, and clover soon took on the status of a “weed,” to be rooted out ruthlessly, so that all that remains is a coating of what looks like fine green hair stretching off into the distance.  Yet clover provides much-needed nitrogen to the soil and enjoys a symbiotic relationship with the varieties of grass, with each encouraging the other, and one sprouting up when the other starts to droop.  Clover stays green without a lot of water, and you can walk on it if you plant the right kind.

This, then, is my task: the creation of a retro-lawn, the kind I grew up with and laid down on, looking up at the sky, wondering where I’d be in 50 years, and planning my escape from suburbia.  This morning I woke up, pulled on my pants, and immediately went outside to see how much the clover had grown overnight, noting with annoyance that it was time to mow the lawn again.

In the end, we all turn into our own fathers.