Creative Tension in Leonardo da Vinci, or, Why I Love My Lawn!

Here in drought-stricken California, we’re being told to let our lawns die. The farmers and the fish need the water, it’s a precious resource, we’ve got to face reality, etc.

After a bone-dry December and January, I was acquiescing, though my lawns, front and back (quite modest-sized, I assure you!) were hunkered down in their winter dormancy and thus not showing any grievous withering face, no brittling yellows that would invite battalions of ever-hearty crab grass and dandelions to mass in preparation for their ultimate invasion and triumph.

Then in February, which effectively brings spring to this Mediterranean climate and would thus reveal the doleful demise of my lawns, the distant sound of cavalry grew suddenly prominent in the form of some nice drenching storms. Not enough to be drought-busters, the newspapers and TV news incessantly reminded us (subtext: “Don’t even think about watering your lawn again!”), but certainly enough to make the tall grasses run riot per usual across our fabled Sonoma County hills with their gamboling baby sheep and lazy, cuddy cows.

Within a matter of days, my lawns achieved that shimmering glistening green that got my mind toying uncontrollably with the different forms of “verdant”—verdancy! verdantly! unverdant! (like water officials want my lawns to be).

And I began to entertain the thought: Ta hell with it—I’m going to save my lawns!



“Art lives from constraints and dies from freedom,” said Leonardo da Vinci.

I came across that line late last night and was mulling it still this morning as I gazed at a bare kiss of misty rain wafting down to wet my back lawn for the second time in three days. Having been mown mid-week with my handy, ecology-and-exercise-friendly push mower, my lawn is in a sweet spot this morning, a “flow,” trim but bounteous, its nicely sculpted and ordered alignment holding fast while just past its margins, winter wheat soars and flails above an abundant poppy patch, which could be seen as another form of weed, I suppose, were it not for its surpassingly pretty face.

This dynamic tension between constraint and freedom that da Vinci cites is at the center of so many things, isn’t it? We want to sprawl, run riot, reproduce, flex, make a jungle, devil may care, have it our way, our way!, look out, world!

No boundaries.

To which I bring my mower.

And with even more pleasure: my edger.


Inner contentment can be fleeting and come in many forms, and I will allow it to remain something of a mystery why a freshly edged lawn can become, for at least a few hallowed moments, a highlight of spiritual renewal in the course of an otherwise pedestrian week.

Something about those clean lines seems to mesh with some ideal inner order, an internal geometry seeking outward validation. Weeds, dead grass, fallen leaves, a stray rolypoly bug and a shed camellia; one can’t see the tree for the forest when everything gets meshed and married up to share a common space.

Everything is there, which means nothing is there—or at least discernible—in particular.

And this deeply ordered lawn-loving inner fellow I seem to harbor desperately wants the particular, the cleanly defined, the dividing line that states in no unambiguous terms: Sidewalk here, then lawn, neatly trimmed.

Weeds, grass, leaves, bugs and camellias: be gone with you.

“Chaos was the law of nature; Order was the dream of man,” wrote Henry Adams.

Indeed, weeds grow and leaves fall and lightning strikes and tornados descend where they will, paying no heed to the good or harm they cause humans. The world can be a perfectly enchanting and friendly place—Oh, this spring morning with its now breaking sun, beckoning me!—except when it isn’t.

Chaos can bring destruction and death, yes, though we should note that the chaos of an overgrown yard with unkept lawns and unchecked leaves brings merely more life, all jumbled in an ever revivifying compost. The result of chaos may not be to our liking, but there is no denying its life force.

“In chaos, there is fertility,” noted Anaïs Nin, another interested observer of such matters.


I like fertility as much as the next person, and I even harbor, there jostling for space with my Inner Orderly One, a Wild Chthonic Rambler who would like nothing better than to grow my beard and hair long, rip off my shirt and put it on my head in the spring noonday sun, then summarily ignore my lawn, bounding instead over these rich verdant hills, scooping up a lamb and dutifully placing it down to be nuzzled by its mama, pledging my everlasting devotion to all that is free and frolicsome and shot through with whimsy.

While at home, my lawn glistens happily with its ordered lines, the weeds and leaves in abeyance.

For now.

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The incomparable Nina Simone, telling “How It Feels to Be Free”…

Rotating banner photos top of page courtesy of Elizabeth Haslam, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at:

Lawn photo by Andrew Hidas, from ground level on a fecund February day.

Sonoma County pasture photo courtesy of Nick Long, Santa Rosa, California, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at:

Lamb photo by zeus1642, Lausanne, Switzerland, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at:

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