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Swing blade, whack weeds

Forgoing a gardener and doing your own yardwork has its own rewards. But with a machete? Maybe not.

April 01, 2010|Hector Tobar

Back in the day, most of us in L.A. still cut our own lawns and weeded our own gardens.

Come springtime, we rolled out the mowers, cranked up the edgers, raked up the grass -- and at the end we inspected our yards and pronounced ourselves satisfied.

It was a ritual that celebrated California sunshine and our good fortune to live in a place where just about anyone can make things grow.

Then an army of cheap labor showed up and many of us started hiring companies with names like "Garcia Landscaping" to do these things for us. Our neighborhoods became buzzing assembly lines as squads of Spanish-speaking men with leaf blowers began moving speedily from one yard to the next.

Over the years I've paid a lot of money to these companies. Like a lot of Angelenos, I've grown older, comfortable and allergic to the rusting garden tools in my garage.

This spring I decided to buck this long-standing trend and do my own landscaping. Given the economy, and the general need to save a few dollars, I suspect I'm not alone. My guess is a lot of us are relearning the joys of the old L.A. ways of doing things.

The task at hand was a big one, however -- brush clearance, ordered by the city of Los Angeles.

I live on a hillside property in Mount Washington, a large portion of which is covered with the tall grass of the common wild oat, an invasive plant known to naturalists as avena fatua.

It's native to Eurasia, and I can picture Genghis Khan's horses munching on the stuff between gallops across the steppes. These days it's making L.A. hillsides green for a few weeks longer, until it dries up and becomes a fire hazard.

So I picked up my old electric weed cutter and marched over to conquer my own little patch of prairie. I watched the 3-foot-high blades sway gracefully in the breeze for a moment longer and then got to work.

For about five minutes the machine ate through the grass, until my nose caught the acrid smell of smoldering wires. My weed cutter was trying to tell me something: You can't leave me neglected in the garage for a decade and then expect me to be your slave.

I insisted. Sparks flew. The weed cutter produced a cloud of black smoke and then went silent. An entire hillside of wild oats still sashayed stubbornly in the breeze.

Determined not to surrender, I returned to my garage and discovered a rusty set of garden clippers. I hacked at the grass like a Lilliputian barber giving a haircut to a giant. After only a few minutes my aching middle-aged wrists could take no more. There had to be a better way.

I headed out to the local Home Depot. A group of day laborers were gathered outside, any of whom would have gladly cleared my brush for $100 or so. But I wasn't going to hire anyone. Instead, I was in search of a simple tool I've seen in the hands of gardeners in both Los Angeles and Mexico.

"Where can I find a machete?" I asked the employee at the front door.

He was a Latino guy, and a wit. "In Michoacán," he quipped, referring to that largely rural Mexican state to which many an L.A. family traces its roots. After he'd finished chuckling, he said: "Over there, on Aisle One."

The machete holds a special place in the Latin American imagination. It's the peasant's tool of choice, though the one for sale at Home Depot looked surprisingly modern, with a 22-inch, black-steel blade and an ergonomically designed rubber handle.

Total cost: about $15.

"A machete?" the security guard at the exit asked when he inspected my purchase. "That's gangster!"

Back at my hillside, my new machete whistled through the air and sent grass flying. Soon I began to draw stares from passing motorists.

A group of gardeners rolled by in a pickup truck. I wondered if they were judging my technique. Probably they just thought I looked the fool.

"Find any wild animals in there?" a guy in a convertible asked.

For the record, a machete is a very inefficient way to clear brush. I don't recommend it.

But once I'd started, I couldn't stop. I figured it was good exercise. And while I was out there hacking away, something interesting started to happen.

My neighbors started talking to me.

I heard a few tidbits of local gossip, including a story about two now-departed pit bulls and some news about the half-finished, bank-owned home on our block.

A reader on a walk commented on my most recent column. I was suddenly at one with the neighborhood's weekend rhythms -- the seniors taking long hikes, the joggers running up the hill.

Then a white patrol car and a van, both marked "Coroner," rolled by quietly. They spent an hour or so at a home farther up the hill, then came back down.

An LAPD cruiser stopped, and the officer inside rolled down his window. I wondered if he was going to cite me for using a machete inside city limits. But all he said was: "That doesn't look like much fun."

I asked him about the coroner's visit. "An elderly gentleman passed," he said.

If I hadn't been out here with this machete, I thought, I wouldn't have known that.

A man had died alone in my neighborhood, at about the same time that the couple across the street were strapping their two young children in the car for a weekend outing, their little boy pointing out a passing feral cat to his mother.

"Mommy! Kitty!"

Leaving the garden work to the professionals all those years kept my arms from getting sore, but it also subtracted from my knowledge of the place where I live.

Now I was a little more in tune with the cycles of life around me.

And that was, undeniably, a good thing.

When you put a little of your own sweat into your property, you place yourself more fully into your neighborhood.

It may even be possible to do so without being in pain for a week.

Next year, I'm going to lose the machete and buy a new weed cutter instead.

hector.tobar@latimes.com

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