Grass

Springtime at Yale.
Springtime at Yale. // Benji Goldsmith

Sometimes I think the square patch of grass between the two halves of Berkeley is mostly an in-between place where people exchange a few words here and there about their dogs. I was sitting there the other day, when one woman stopped another midlawn to reach down and scratch a disheveled, gray head.

“Is that a Yorkie?” she said to the dog.

“Yes.”

“I have a Yorkie too, but it’s a teacup. It’s smaller.”

“Oh.” There was a look of genuine interest in this small matter.

I stared at the creature she was petting. I thought to myself, I can’t imagine anything smaller. Their conversation lingered for another sentence or two before it floated into the air and was consumed by the cirrocumulus clouds overhead. The scene was hardly sublime. The grass was sparse, chunked out and smeared inconsistently with yellow streaks, leaving shadowy gashes of the dirt underneath. A girl in a white T-shirt rode her bicycle across it, bumping over the uneven turf, her wheels digging down to the roots. Cross Campus is, more often than not, in a state of disrepair.

In the springtime, most of Yale is abloom. This lawn is not. It isn’t allowed to be. People cross it in droves every day, bringing soccer balls and blankets and cleats and tables and signs to push down into the quick of the dirt. They do yoga in the mornings, and they carry their boxed chicken Caesar salads from Uncommon there at lunch, sprawling out with laptops, taking off their shoes, staring at the people billowing past in packs. The effect is magnetic. One person strolling across the lawn beckons dozens of others to abandon the pathway and forge full speed ahead, trampling the turf to mud. Then they move on: off and away.

* * *

Eric Uscinski, Yale’s director of facilities services, does not move on. He sits in his office on Whitney Avenue, dressed neatly in a shirt and tie, with a large map of Yale’s campuses tacked to the wall behind him, a reminder of his domain. He has arranged several stacks of papers on his desk. If his job deals in the mechanics of the flowerbed, then his desk is proof of his skill; he is a manicurist by instinct.

Eric’s daughter is a student at the School of Nursing, so he is invested in Yale in more ways than one. He has a warm voice, not too low, and in it, it’s easy to detect compassion and care, as if there are nights he falls asleep, dreaming of rolling fields of fescue, tilled and trimmed. Eric employs 65 year-round staff and four supervisors in order to maintain these rolling fields all over campus, from the central campus to the Yale golf course in Westville. When I asked Eric to talk about his job, he described it as an “ever-evolving process.” Perhaps this is the most obvious way to think about grass — evolving, changing, growing.

But even if lawn care, by essence, seems like a seasonal job, working on Yale lawns is what Eric calls a “12-month operation.” “This place never shuts down,” he said. In the summer, they’re always cutting and watering. In the spring and fall, they have projects: seeding, pruning and planting. And in the winter, they’re dealing with three and a half feet of snow. The process never ends; it only cycles.

There are roughly 26 weeks of mowing in the Northeast. These 26 weeks started two weeks ago, so until the end of September, Eric and his team will mow Yale lawns as often as twice a week. Yale seeds its lawns about four times each year with a Kentucky bluegrass blend. When I asked Eric about bluegrass, he stared blankly. As a Georgia boy, I was unfamiliar with bluegrass — at home, everyone uses Bermuda, except my parents who, for some reason, believe only in fescue. Apparently, even grass is a Mason-Dixon conflict. Bluegrass, known also as Poa pratensis, is common in Northeastern climates, as it tends to be hardier at moderate temperatures. The name comes from the characteristic blue flowers, which appear only when the grass grows to its natural height of 2 to 3 feet. But most of the bluegrass on Cross Campus isn’t growing at all. What little does gets smashed by passers-by, or if not, trimmed by the landscaping staff.

The Yale landscaping crew stores their army of mowers at a facility on Goffe Street, where they also manage campus recycling and an equipment repair shop. One of the supervisors there, Joe Signore, spoke with me briefly about fertilizing. To my surprise, Joe told me they actually fertilize very little, maybe once a year or so. It’s a hot topic, fertilizing, and like everyone else, the landscaping crew also worry about pesticides and herbicides and are very cautious about what they put down. Joe acknowledged, “our turf doesn’t look pristine,” and in place of overfertilizing, they try to seed it several times a year. He said, a little exasperatedly, “We’re constantly seeding. It’s continuous and people forget about that.”

As I look across the lawn, he’s right. I’m not noticing an excess of seeding. If anything, I’m noticing a deficiency. Sometimes, there’s more dirt than grass. But this deficiency isn’t on Joe; it isn’t on Eric. If anything, they’re more concerned than the rest of us about the appearance of the lawn. “There’s an expectation that lawn area should look like a show place,” Eric said. It doesn’t. He knows. I asked Joe if he ever gets frustrated with students who overuse the grass. “Naturally you do,” he told me, “however, we all just look at it as job security. If we didn’t have to keep cleaning up the grass, then we wouldn’t have jobs.”

* * *

Last Wednesday, I sat on Cross Campus for six hours reading through my 70-page senior essay. It took six hours because, as a senior, I finally know people, and a few stopped and sat for a while. It was a welcome distraction from proofing. We spread out. I had a towel and a large bag of kettle corn — everyone was eating — and we spilled small kernels across the dirt (if only they had been grass seeds instead of corn.) Other people were around us, napping in the sun, talking about the pending end of the year, handing out flyers for the Yale Quidditch team.

In the few short weeks between midterms and finals, when the weather finally warms up, Yale takes some time to renew its sense of community. That’s why we were there, remembering what it means to be 20-something and in college. Sitting down in the quad, if only for a few hours, before returning to the next paper. Part of something slightly more freeing than the inside of Sterling. I even noticed one guy had brought his entire bedroom out there: a desk, a lamp and a dorm bed, all set up in the middle of the lawn.

But when I notice all those people out there on the lawn, splayed out on the grass or running across it, I wonder if Eric, Joe and the lawn maintenance team are not a little discouraged. Six hours into my essay, when I pulled up my blanket to leave and shook off the kernel crumbs, the grass looked tired, as if it had just suffered an afternoon of abuse. It had. I was one of the many people who had willingly disregarded the sidewalks and forged ahead.

Cross Campus is unique. It’s a meeting place, a nexus, where people from all parts of campus come together mostly in passing, on their way from one place to the next. We’re lucky to be able to set foot on the grass. No one tells us it’s forbidden; it’s our lawn. And even if it’s never quite beautiful, it’s ours. And while most people brush past it, some stop and stare. Some sit with a blanket for several hours and take it in.

After spending some time there myself, I have come to understand this less-than-perfect grass invites two kinds of souls: those who are going places and those who are watching people going places. The world flies by, and while some people sit on blankets and watch as others head off in dozens of different directions, like pool balls shot out from their opening triangle, others head for the corner pocket: speedy, determined, goal-bound. Take, for example, one man in a black-and-white striped shirt with a wide-brimmed hat and a linen blazer slung over his arm who is strolling quickly down the path, his canvas bag swinging in time with his step. He doesn’t pause. He’s really going somewhere; he’s gone. Sometimes, the events of this patch of grass fall into the forgotten past almost before they even occur. Then, there I am, sitting for hours, watching dozens of people brush past. Some of them don’t even look up. Most people are not so careful. They stop to say hello, but never really to talk, never really to linger. This patch of lawn is well-acquainted with breathless, five-second conversations, as everyone dashes from one place to another.

Eric and the lawn team have the incredible task of making something beautiful that really isn’t meant to be beautiful at all. It’s meant to be trampled. Ruined. In my final days at Yale, sitting on this imperfect lawn has become something of a ritual. It’s a way of clinging, if only superficially, to the heart of Yale. The truth is if Cross Campus really were beautiful, Yale wouldn’t be on the go. It wouldn’t be running from one building to the next, from one rehearsal to another, from Beinecke Plaza to Old Campus, from everything to everything else.

Spending time on that lawn, I’ve learned about Yale, the way people walk, the things they say in passing. But most importantly, I’ve found that if you stop on Cross Campus. And sit. And wait. Even in that unbeautiful grass, beautiful things are possible. I remember one time this fall there was a full moon. I was walking home from a concert, and I collapsed there and stared at the sky. The brightness of the moon rounded out the rough edges of the blackness, giving it the particularly cavernous look infinity might have if it could be contained. I could make out only two stars. That was enough. There was no wind, as I laid there for an indeterminate amount of time.

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