Planting St. Augustine Grass by Ramsey Mathews


Before enlightenment chop wood carry water.
After enlightenment chop wood carry water.
~ Zen Kōan 


My father’s mother churned the deep litter
with her bare hands. Her gnarled knuckles pounded
the earth or shooed away clay pebbles as she expertly
swooshed gnats with a puff of air out the side
of her mouth. Her humming of hymns haltered
with the occasional fuck!—five seconds between
f and k—when bitten by a fire ant. Her Southern drawl
translated the four-letter curse into a lengthy abysmal revelation
yet Granny Carrie seemed immune to the sting never
breaking rhythm with her hands. Underneath her eclectic
frazzled straw hat she planted bare-root seedlings
& seeds in crooked furrows like her scrawled cursive.
Witnessed by the surgical sun she nurtured strawberries
radishes squash rutabagas onions turnips butterbeans peas
& the scent of daisies in this confounded retentive dirt.
Granny Carrie’s honest work made the art
of truck farming look so easy
& loving as she blessed the roots praised the soil hosed seedlings
& served strawberries lightly sprinkled with sugar
& heavy cream. Summer afternoons we salted ice
& hand-churned strawberry ice cream on the porch
& cooled our heat. The fruits of her humble harvest
nurtured our hunger for food & hunger for family. 

I’m confident no one ever nurtured St. Augustine grass to honor God. 

Summer donned her blistering cape
& banished all clouds west.
In those days I never doubted my father’s intentions.
I would build the ark for this man
with a fifth-grade education
who whistled while he worked.
From dawn until noon on a cloudless Georgia July day
two months before we gathered pecans
my father plotted to transform a sprawling
peninsula of unshaded weeds into a lush grass plot
which meant more for me to mow.
Pace yourself he often said.
A lesson I never learned.
Hubris washed over my shoulders like a thunderstorm.
He preferred manual tools—hoe ax drill shovel
maul pick handsaw steel wedge wheelbarrow
swing blade. I convinced him to buy
a gas-powered mower & retire the push mower.
He bought my mother a washer & dryer.
At eighteen I left
that unair-conditioned house & never looked back.
I was the fourth & last generation to live there
among two acres of Cape Fear
Candy & Stuart hard shell & soft shell pecan trees
a sprawling tin-roofed two-story farmhouse
with a comfortable porch on three sides
a retired outhouse repainted yearly with white
& bright green lead paint & the horse barn
empty of horses for decades.
I misspoke. I do look back. Yes I am homesick. 

Is there really a difference between hope and loss?
I buried my first dog Butch out past the fence
under a fig tree in the shaded forgiving
fallow earth of the pecan orchard
where I buried dozens of almost-dead snakes
Butch laid at my feet as offerings over the years.

             On the first day
I wrest wrench snatch
the churlish weeds as if
they are my enemies
in the same manner
I wrestle my ego.
Work work work work work!
Pace yourself.
We swing sling blades
to shorten the wig
of weeds then hack
the shallow roots with a hoe. My father tells me that right over there
he helped his father bury
their last horse.
Were we reclaiming his history
or enlarging the yard?
I shave-chop the thin weed roots
& try not to disturb the departed.
A dozen male cicada stragglers cry
in loneliness. The female cicadas are dead.
Juvenile June bugs start their own incessant cacophony.

My father & I turn this altar of red clay
sandy loam & pebbles all morning.
Until you churn it by hand for hours
all dirt seems similar
knowing when to chop harder to coax
what the earth clinched
learning to spot soft soil as respite.
I find a worn Buffalo nickel no date
& two arrowheads but the learned instincts of dirt
& the soil’s spoils come at the cost of callouses
on my whisper soft palms so I reluctantly
don the gloves my father offered at sunup.

At day’s end a farmer dumps two tons
of topsoil next to our plot. Earthworms ooze
from the dirt like rubbery ribbed rusty grain silos
like blind & mute hermits full of wisdom
arriving from the wilderness.
Don’t name them because they aren’t trained pets.
Why do the worms flee the cool pitch-black
protective caverns smelling of horse shit
& centuries-old fecund peat to die in the sun.
We cover the topsoil with burlap
to guard against overnight rain. 

My bed was the bed my grandfather died in twenty years before
& that night I slept well & snored to the crickets. 

Digging deeper my great-grandfather
a Union Army lieutenant
said to hell with the cold weather
& sold his Retirement Home
for Union Veterans in Arlington South Dakota
& bought these ten acres now two
in enemy territory from the nonprofit
American Tribune Soldiers Colony Company.
His body lies segregated
from Confederate soldiers in the local cemetery.
Not the family’s choice.
Must we always forgive others their trespasses?
I did not yet value the cost nor wisdom
of a grandmother’s patience
nor the farmer’s tolerance for drought.
I still don’t understand intolerance toward suffering.

           On the second day
I rake the earth with the rigid tines
of a short-tooth rake.
We uncover the topsoil
& the hermit earthworms come forth
eaters of the world sliding blindly
from their caves.

Today is hotter than yesterday.
Still no clouds.
Leaving roots intact
my father skillfully removes
mature runners of St. Augustine
from the established yard
& offers me the sprigs to tentacle
across this emerging oasis.
I’m tasked with piercing
the tamped topsoil with a trowel
weaving roots into the cut
& bundling the contender
with a protective overcoat of mulch.

I shed my sweat-soaked tee shirt by eight
& invite the lustful sun to deepen
my July tan knowing at day’s end
I will escape this pantomime
to skinny dip with the neighbor boys
in our top-secret shaded creek. 

I turn the water sprinkler low & arch the mist over our labor.  

If my grandmother were still alive
she might pretend to sweep the porch
while watching her son & grandson work
or rock in her favorite chair
& wave her cardboard Primitive Baptist fan at gnats
or nap with the orange tabby across her feet
& dried snuff caked to her right cheek.                                                                                 to be cont.

Ramsey Mathews was born in rural Georgia where he worked in tobacco fields and played high school football until leaving for Georgia Tech. He wanted to be an astronaut, but Calculus fractured that dream. While working in film and TV in Los Angeles, he did stand-in and stunt work for Patrick Swayze and Ron Perlman among others. Ramsey earned an MFA in Poetry from Cal State University, Long Beach, and a PhD from Florida State University. Follow him on Instagram @ramseymathews and Twitter @dramapoet.