Thursday, November 10, 2016

Mulch Ado About Nothing!

One good thing is that you can clearly see your carbon footprint in the pattern of uncovered grass.  Another is that you can just as clearly see the organic good being done by looking more closely within that footmark at the tiny flecks of fall foliage suspended on the blades of green.
It’s the perfect visual for the ecological conundrum that I semi-seriously fret about every autumn – is it okay to pollute in order to be organic?
Back in college I studied the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, a proponent of Utilitarianism – the ethical theory that an action is morally right if and only if it is productive of the most happiness for the greatest number of persons. 
Fun digression – Bentham’s fully dressed skeleton (padded out with hay) and topped with a wax head is on display, sitting upright in a wooden cabinet at the end of the South Cloisters in the main building of University College in London, England.  The clothes are Bentham’s and he requested that his body be preserved this way in the will that he made shortly before his death on June 6, 1832.  Legend has it that this “auto-icon”, as the dead theorist dubbed it, attends meetings of the College Council and is listed in the minutes as present but not voting.  However the university’s website avers that this story is a myth. 

In any event, back when his cranium was real and still functioning Bentham created a “Hedonic Calculus” to be used in determining the rightness or wrongness of an action.  In its simplest form this mathematical exercise calls for totaling up all the pleasure and all the pain caused by an action and only doing those things where the scales weight more heavily on the pleasure side.  In other words – an ethical cost/benefit analysis.
Calculating the extent of the atmospheric damage is actually pretty straightforward; Footprint =  (amount of gas used) x (17.7 pounds of carbon per gallon) It takes about 60 minutes to mulch my entire lawn.  1 hour of mowing using 0.5 gallons of gas = 11 gallon about 9 pounds of carbon per mulching session.  That seems like a reasonably small number to me for 2 or 3 mulch-athons.
As for the effect on the lawn – it’s all good.  According to the Mother Nature Network (  “Micro-organisms that live in the soil beak down organic material such as leaves. Worms get in on the action, too. The roots of some grasses such as fescue can grow slowly in the fall and a mild winter and the decaying action of mulched leaves left on the yard will provide these roots with nutrients. Mulched leaves will biodegrade and disappear from the lawn by spring. The same type of activity with micro-organisms and worms that is happening in the lawn area is also happening in landscape and vegetable beds.”
This negates, or at least lowers, the need for chemicals.  If you don’t agree that’s a good thing then you probably bailed out of this essay a few paragraphs ago.
 So Bentham’s Calculus says – mulch.
But there is one catch.  Again,, “If the leaves are so thick that they make mowing difficult, you may need to add the bag attachment or even rake them.”
 I choose the latter approach.
 I enjoy mulching.  It’s lawn mowing, which I enjoy, with the added cathartic effect of immediately seeing the result of your work.  Raking provides the same therapeutic sense of accomplishment but without the noise and with more upper body exercise.  And I can do it at 8:00 am without disturbing my neighbors.
 On a recent Tuesday morning with the temperature in the mid-forties and the early sun barely warming my back, I set myself the task of re-raking my lawn in anticipation of a scheduled pickup sometime in the next few days.  Over the preceding weekend I had spent about two hours getting my first set of leaves onto my snow-shelves from which my town vacuums them up with a device resembling Sesame Street’s Snuffleupagus and then turns them into piles of publicly available mulch.  During a windy Monday part of that fallen foliage had been blown back into my yard, along with some from my neighbor’s, and another set dropping from my oak and maple trees.

In forty-five wonderful minutes I had completed my task – in the middle of which I actually stopped for a moment and thought, “Gardening just doesn’t get any better than this!”  And Snuffy cometh and taketh away that very afternoon.  How good a day is that?
The town will collect one more time this year, but I suspect from now on I will be mulching.  I’ve done it once and expect to do it maybe two more times.
Unless that is the spirit of Jeremy Bentham overcomes me and I decide instead to take some of my old gardening clothes and pad them out with the remaining leaves to create my own auto-icon.  Unlike the philosopher however I would display my self-image in an erect posture, striding purposefully and proudly behind my faded-red Toro mulching mower.
And that, according to the Calculus, might even provide me with as much happiness as writing about it.


Bram said...

Ha! Just listened to this, where Bentham's auto-icon plays a key part.

Rebecca Story said...

Thanks great blog ppost