Peace and quiet in the woods, lawn care, and books

Quite a few readers agreed with my last post, about the woods and nature being calming. I have always felt that way. The simple sounds of the outdoors – the wind, the crickets, the gurgle of a stream – all are very peaceful and soothing to me. And to other folks too, it seems.

Why do you think nature is soothing? I have part of the answer, I think . . . the sights and sounds we find soothing all rise and fall very gradually. Wind rustling the trees is a smooth, gentle sound. We jump in alarm is a branch snaps with a sharp “crack” but the wind itself is peaceful because it rises and falls slowly.

The same is true of stream sounds, and even the gradual rising of the sun and moon outdoors. All are peaceful because they happen slowly and smoothly.

The sound of crickets is peaceful because it’s a constant drone. We’d be startled if the noise stopped suddenly.

Humans have evolved over tens of thousands of years alongside those sights, sounds, and smells. They are natural and comfortable to us. Sounds of metal, the clangs and bangs of our industrial world - those are not what we evolved with, and they are often unsettling.

That sounds reasonable, no? But why then is music soothing? It 's not something we evolved hearing. There is no natural sound like a guitar or a trumpet. That's an interesting question.

Why else might we find nature peaceful?

Moving away from peace and quiet, let us consider for a moment the dynamics of mechanized lawn care and the removal of dead leaves, a task many of us face every fall. . . .

The story of machine-based leaf removal starts with the small gas engine, the power plant that drives it all. One can say many things about these machines, but today’s salient fact is this: most small engines (and large ones too, for that matter) spin in a clockwise direction when viewed from the front or top.

When mounted on a riding lawn mower, the engine will therefore usually spin the mower blades in a clockwise direction, as seen from above. If the mower exhausts the cuttings on the side, it typically discharges to the right because clockwise spinning blades will exhaust clippings right and back or left and forward, and you don’t normally want your clippings sprayed forward.

So right and back is, like, one of the secret rules of lawnmower design. Count on an Aspergian to have knowledge like this close at hand.

Knowing this essential fact, we can develop a yard cleanup strategy. Read on to see how I made use of this essential fact of riding mowers.

On my property, my house is surrounded by lawn, which is in turn surrounded by woods. The job I face every October is the cleanup of almost two acres of leaf covered grass.

I used to clear my leaves by dragging a big gas powered vacuum around the lawn and collecting them in bags which I dumped in the woods. That kept the lawn looking good, but I ended up with piles in places where I heaped the leaves. The piles were unsightly, and the nutrient value of the leaves was lost to the woods. There had to be a better way, I thought.

This year, I began cutting the lawn by riding my mower in counterclockwise circles around the house. The result: cuttings are continually blown to the right, to be recut and tossed again as the tractor spirals out from the house. Whatever is left on the final pass is blown evenly into the woods.

By spiral cutting the leaves are chopped to invisibility and recycled into the lawn, and the remaining debris is blown off the edge on the last pass. There’s no raking or cleanup, and the nutrient value of the leaves finds its way into the lawn, not the woods. And there’s no longer a need for a vacuum.

Pretty slick, eh?

The same trick applies to cutting grass. A counterclockwise spiral cut will leave the least visible debris and recycle the maximum amount of clippings.

Some readers from the city will find that story completely nonsensical. There are significant differences between city dwellers and folks who live in the country. Consider, for example, this list of items that a middle age male would consider essential:

City dweller:
Cashmere overcoat and Gucci loafers
Mercedes S430
Platinum American Express card
One perfectly groomed Shih Tzu

Country dweller:
Carhart coveralls and good weatherproof boots
Ford F350 pickup
Remington pump shotgun
Four beagles under the porch

It’s pretty clear from those lists which males will find a use for the John Deere riding mower, and who will find my spiral cut advice useful. My apologies for boring the rest of you.

Before I go, I’ll share a list of books I read and enjoyed last week. Some of you may find the list amusing; others with similar books in their possession may see a marketing opportunity:

The Forgotten Five Hundred – a story about the dramatic rescue of downed American bomber crews from WWII Yugoslavia

The Earthmover Encyclopedia – an enthusiast’s guide to heavy equipment of the world

Gonzo – the life of Hunter S Thompson

Soul Catcher – a story about a fugitive slave catcher in the years before the war

And right now, I am reading:

America’s Fighting Admirals, a story of WWII leadership and strategy

And if you're in the Pioneer Valley . . . . come see me this Thursday at 7 at the Suffield Library. If you're in greater Boston, I'll be at Umass Lowell with my brother, Friday at 7:30.

The Lowell event is part of the Concord Festival of Authors, which is going on all week. The full schedule is here:

My brother and I will be at Comley-Lane Theater, Mahoney Hall, UMass Lowell. That's at 870 Broadyway.

If you're somewhere else, you'll just have to wait a bit. Check the schedule, over on the right.


Trish Ryan said…
I love your grass cutting strategy, even though we currently have no grass!

My Dad tried to recruit me to mow when I was a teenager. I decided that our square lawn would be more interesting if I cut it in circles. I wasn't terribly precise in my efforts--there's a chance I was more worried about my tan--and so our lawn looked like it had been shorn with a weed-wacker. Dad hasn't asked me to mow since...
John, my husband loves his riding mower almost as much as you -- perhaps more. He also has a method for removing leaves with it.

As for the city vs. country essentials, my only point of contention is that those poor pups should be invited into the home. With all those bears roaming about? We had a coyote just before lunch, glad my little English bulldog wasn't out. That coyote would have had a bad day. The turkeys are even more ferocious!

Amy MacKinnon
Essential Amy said…
I have always found the sounds of urban life kind of relaxing. I lived in fort green, bklyn for a while and it was the best sleep I ever had. Something about the random gunshots and ambulances... (just kidding about that),I think it just kind of calms me down to hear background noise going on. I also cannot sleep without a noise machine.
I'm a city dweller by nature but recently moved to the Chicago suburbs at my husband's request. My husband grew up in Hong Kong---the most densely populated city on earth---and therefore feels entitled to a slower pace of life at this point. Having visited Hong Kong with him numerous times, I can understand why. The pace of Hong Kong is essentially New York City multiplied by a factor of eighty (if you can believe that!). Just spending a week or two there is EXHAUSTING, even for me, a seasoned city-dweller and world traveler. Although I enjoy visiting, I could never imagine living in a place so crowded and fast-paced. My husband told me at the end of my first trip with him to Hong Kong, "Now you know why I had to move away from here at age twenty. Had I stayed in Hong Kong, I would have been dead of a heart attack by thirty-five." I think he appreciates the soothing power of nature all the more because of where he grew up. And since he has some Aspergian traits, he's doubly sensitive to all the noise and crowds of a tightly-packed, crazy city. Us Westerners don't have much concept of the level of intensity of Asian cities, which are much larger, denser, and more polluted than Western cities. The fact my husband grew up in HK with all his Aspergian traits unscathed is remarkable to me.

Nature is soothing because it helps us get back in touch with our inner primal selves.
Polly Kahl said…
Before purchasing our mulching riding mowers, we also discovered the benefits of mowing in counterclockwise circles, going out from the house. It seemed awkward at first, since a clockwise movement came more naturally, but got the job done much more efficiently. Now our mulching mowers allow us to mow our 3.5 acres any ole way we please, and our grass is well nourished by the cuttings. We will not, however, be mowing a thirty-foot-across peace sign into our lawn, as my parents did in the early 1970s.

The sounds of nature are like music, especially early in the morning when all the birds are waking up. I don't understand having windows shut in the summertime, especially in homes where the TV is on all day long. Why would anyone choose to have those obnoxious noises in the background, when they could have what the earth has gifted us with?
julianop said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
julianop said…
If I cut my lawn in an increasing spiral I'd eventually choke it, and I only have a third of an acre! I suppose that must mean I leave it too long before I mow it!
Also, I am regretfully not bounded by woods. What I do instead is to clockwise-mow a ring around the outside to provide a buffer zone, then do the anti-clockwise spiral (counter-clockwise for you Americans) to the point where I get to the tree in the middle. I then do a drunk fighter-pilot, electron orbit elliptical pattern to get close to the tree because of the turning circle of the mower. It sure looks funny to watch me, but it works.

But I guess the real point of this post is to celebrate that only Asperger people would discuss this kind of stuff with such honest, unabashed interest!

Changing the subject completely: I listened to the archive of your radio interview on Wisconsin Public Radio today, John. I heard about it from a colleague who heard it driving in to our office in the Twin Cities from his home in Woodbury MN, just within the area of WPR. I swear: you, the male callers to the program, and I must be cut from the same cloth. As grown-up Asperger adults (I'm 51) we all have a similar story of dreadful misunderstanding and inappropriate/non-existent accommodation at school, in many ways a challenging childhood, and finally a learned ability to adapt, followed by a successful adult life. I wish all the obsessive mothers trying to "cure" their sons would give up and just do what you say - show understanding, patience and compassion, and a good example.
Please, in your next public engagements, help people to realize that the intelligence we have as Asperger folks is the most important asset we have, and that with simple patience and compassion during the early years, Asperger children will be perfectly well equipped to handle adult life. It's the emotional scars accumulated during a lonely or traumatic childhood that are the biggest impediments to any child's development - most certainly an autistic one.

Keep up the good work - spreading the message.
The Muse said…

What a funny description of mowing around a tree. "I then do a drunk fighter-pilot, electron orbit elliptical pattern to get close to the tree because of the turning circle of the mower." I do that too.
(That is, when I do mow the lawn.)

I agree that John's book has served a greater purpose in society by bringing about tolerance and understanding to all people on the autism spectrum, not just Asperger's syndrome. His distinctive voice is able to reach a multitude of people from all socio-economic backgrounds. By shining light on this topic and writing about his own hardships, this awareness will serve the greater good by bringing patience and compassion to all children that are perceived as being "misfits".
Sandra Cormier said…
My old neighbour Bob used to tell me not to cut my grass that way because I'd be cutting it twice. But that's the point! It makes great natural mulch.

No riding mower for me, alas... but my sister has one and I haven't tried it yet.

Trish, that's a classic way to avoid chores. Do them wrong enough times and they stop asking. Fortunately, I caught on to that trick and my son still has to do the dishes, even if they end up crusty.
Anonymous said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said…
I was kind of shocked to read this..

"City dweller:
Cashmere overcoat and Gucci loafers
Mercedes S430
Platinum American Express card
One perfectly groomed Shih Tzu"

..because most people who identify themselves as city dwellers are not wealthy enough to afford upper class items like that.

That's like saying NYC = the Upper East Side.
Anonymous said…
But anyway, if there are city folk who find you boring, Mr. Robison, they are completely lost.
Donna said…
I just finished reading your book, given to me by my mother-in-law. Though my 17-year-old son has had the diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome for many years, we have never had much luck explaining it to educators, friends, and even family. And somtimes even we have doubted that our son's behavior was due to an inborn tendency, rather than being a willful action on his part. Your book was enlightening, and gave us hope that our son will be a happy, productive adult. The emotional scars from incessant bullying for the last six years are our main concern. This verbal abuse by classmates and even some adults has continued even in his junior year of high school, and even though our son is now 185 pounds and 6'3", and a black belt (people aren't very wise!). But finally, administrators and others are beginning to understand my son's quirks, and are putting an end to the bullying. He is happier than ever before, his grades are improving (he is brilliant, but an underachiever, as he sees no need to apply himself to the less useful school subjects - but ask him anything about anatomy, and he can probably beat out the best doctor!), and our family is finally feeling more peace than ever before. For parents of Aspergians (I like that word), hold on. Be patient, love unconditionally, teach social skills without shaming, and lift up the incredible gifts that your children have. As for the grass-cutting, that is my son't job, so I should allow him to post on that one!
timbosmamasan said…
I'm surprised no one commented on this - wanted to say thank you for sharing your reading list and hope you will continue to blog your weekly book feasts. I have just reserved 2 of the books listed and while I'm not Aspergian, DH and DS (age 12) are both 'Asperger's Lite'...hoping to read one of the books with DS who, although he is quite bright, is not a big fan of reading. I think it is the ADHD part of his picture - reading often requires sitting...=)...BUT he does like history so maybe I will have some luck...actually, we are reading YOUR book which DS the Non-reader ASKS to read - see the influence you are having? It reaches faaaaar and wiiiiiiiide..........
John, have you read "My Father's Secret War"? It has some similarities to the book about my father. I really liked it.

By the way- I was at the University of Washington bookstore in Seattle this weekend and saw your book. I bought it of course, after I rearranged the books so that yours was at the top of every pile. I wanted to say, "I know him. Hey, I know him." OK so we don't really know each other but I feel like we do since I've followed your progress on AW, plus you've always been so encouraging to me. So anyway- I suggested to the salesgirl that they should really have you come and speak. Still no plans for coming out to the Pacific Northwest huh? Darn.

Oh and I'm LOVING the book. It reminds me so much of students I have worked with over the years. But mostly it is confirmation that we are all different and that is ok. You made me laugh when you talked about trying to make friends by petting them. And you made me cry when I read that no teachers ever knew what was happening to you at home. I'm so glad you persevered to become who you are!

Karen (Lavinia)
Wendy Roberts said…
I have to disagree with the sound of crickets being peaceful. It's not. We have a White's Tree Frog and buy a lot of crickets for him to eat. If a chirper gets loose nobody sleeps a wink for days. Maybe the fact that the sound is inside the house is what causes the lack of sleep. Come to think of it, the same sound while camping isn't a problem lol.
ORION said…
For me the country = the ocean.
At night the water laps against the hull.
When I have to travel I miss the rocking and the wave sounds.
Benigna Bide said…
My eight year old son has just been diagnosed with Aspergers two days ago.

I just read your book, found your website and wanted to thank you for sharing your life experience.
Aprilynne Pike said…
*Laugh* I just sat down and read this whole thing to my husband. It's a brilliant idea, but I'm telling you, only an Aspergian would sit and think abut it long enough to come up with it . . . and then blog about it so we can all be amused!!:)
Unknown said…
Thanks for the list of reading-- I encourage you to do that, as I am always up for a suggestion of a good read. I have to applaud your reverse lawn mowing strategy as I have been doing the same simply because I was too lazy to clean up the trimmings. However, the light bulb moment came with the leaf mulching/clean up! That had NOT occurred to me! THANKS FOR THAT TIP

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