I’ve been paraphrasing Hazel Motes a lot lately. He’s the tortured protagonist of Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood. Founder of the Church of Jesus Without Christ, he preaches a gospel suitable to modern man: “Nobody with a good car needs to be justified.”
After a couple of decades of delegating mowing to my sons, I’ve taken it over myself. When our six boys were young, we supplied them with character-building push mowers. Now that they’re grown and gone, I’ve purchased a cushy riding mower. My character’s set, for good or ill.
That’s where Hazel Motes comes in. I tell friends: Nobody with a riding lawnmower needs to be justified. My 42-inch Sears Craftsman gives me all the salvation I can handle.
My wife and I recently purchased a home just outside of Gardendale, Alabama, near Birmingham. To get there, we drive through a subdivision and down a road that narrows and roughens and leads to our few acres, a patch of green skirted by dank Alabama forest. Beyond our place, there’s a police firing range and dirt bike trails snaking through the woods, and our road dead-ends at a cemetery—“Just like life,” says my twelve-year-old daughter. I’m doing more yard work than I’ve done in decades. I intend to die in this house—not soon enough for my detractors—and I want the place to look tidy.
For fifteen years, we lived in a house in Idaho that we called “Peniel Hall,” named for the place where Jacob wrestled with God face-to-face. My wife has dubbed the new house “Bethelim,” Hebrew for “house of palms.” We don’t have palms, but the name still works. Elim was the first oasis Israel reached after they left Egypt, where twelve springs fed seventy palm trees, a beautiful glimpse of the mission of the twelve tribes among the seventy nations. Elim was a little Eden, refreshment in the wilderness, a taste of the promised land—which is what we hope Bethelim will be to family, friends, and strangers.
In an effort to press their faith into the crannies of ordinary life, Puritans of old and new England wrote books on everyday activities with titles like Husbandry Spiritualized and Navigation Spiritualized, Trading Spiritualized and Weaving Spiritualized. Out in the yard, I go all Puritan and spin allegories of lawn care.
All flesh is grass, Isaiah said; it springs up in a moment only to wither in the noonday sun. I help the sun by chopping down the grass before it reaches full height. Rumbling down the hill on my mower, I’m the grim reaper, for the fire ants too, whose nests explode into clouds of red dust when the mower blades hit them. I don’t regret it: Fire ants are six-legged thorns and thistles and deserve to be obliterated. But it does instigate musings on mortality.
When I’m not mowing, I’m picking up twigs and branches that fall from the tall old oaks near the house every time the wind stirs. Trees provoke thoughts of immortality. Last week, I pulled some deadwood from an apricot tree and discovered green leaves and a few apricots on one of the withered branches. A tree is never completely alive, but, once rooted, it’s all but indestructible. “Tear apart everything aboveground—everything,” writes Hope Jahren in her mid-career memoir, Lab Girl, “and most plants can still grow rebelliously back from just one intact root. More than once. More than twice.”
Trees are born in hope. Only 5 percent of seeds germinate, and only 5 percent of those survive the first year. “A seed knows how to wait,” Jahren observes. Cherry pits can lie on the ground for a century before taking the risky plunge into dirt. When scientists dated a seed recovered from a peat bog in China, they discovered it was two thousand years old. They cracked the seed and it sprouted.
We’re fortunate plants are so resilient, since they alone know how to turn soil, water, and sunlight into food for the world. Jahren notes, “All the sugar you have ever eaten was first made within a leaf.” Without the magic of leaves, everything dies. Yes, plants are resilient—and pious. Every year, Jahren writes, “trees lay all of their earthly treasures on the soil, where moth and rust immediately corrupt.” “The righteous man is like a tree,” says the Psalmist, because he knows where his treasure is. Because he knows that if he sheds his glory, it will grow back lusher than ever.
My lawnmower won’t save me, but it does help me spend my off hours thinking of trees of life and gopher-wood arks, terebinths and cedars of Lebanon, the staff of Moses and the wood of the cross, of grass and grain and chaff, of death and eternal life.