Sod Goals

just one more reason autumn makes me happy

Mike Paulus, illustrated by Serena Wagner

I spent seven summers working for a local landscape and excavation company. They start you out laying sod. My first day on the job, I walked up to my boss – standing there in his work boots, surrounded by a sea of freshly tilled black dirt spread around a new condo development – and in less than five minutes I was stumbling around the yard, heaving rolls of sod from a neatly stacked palette, my scrawny arms aching, my fingers losing their grip.

I was just a teenager and it was my first summer job. And it was awful.

Day after day, week after week, roll after roll of heavy, precisely cut grass and dirt. Unfurled, the sod rolls were two feet wide by five feet long. You laid them end to end in long strips, staggering each row by half a piece. You set them down on the ground – “don’t just drop them” – lining up the loose end nice and tight to the other pieces, then quickly and carefully you rolled them out – “don’t just kick them out.” You had to be careful to not walk across the smooth dirt readied for the sod. You were supposed to tread lightly. But fast.

Most of the sod I laid went down around recently built homes in residential neighborhoods where at least one old retired guy would stroll over to grin at me and declare, “Green side up!” As if I’d never heard that before. As if I hadn’t heard that on my first day and what felt like every day since.

With a sharp, serrated blade, you’d cut the sod to flow around flower beds, sidewalks, and trees – sawing through the tightly tangled roots. It felt like slicing up a cable-knit sweater with a steak knife. But I didn’t do that on my first day. That was next-level work.

There is no experience necessary when laying sod and very few rules. Eventually that first summer, I learned the whole process – from grading the yard to prepping the black dirt to raking it smooth with huge aluminum lawn rakes. The pre-sod work requires some  amount of skill.

But laying sod is something you can learn in minutes. It requires sweat. And a lot of bending over. And in my case, it required getting very, very dirty as I wasn’t strong enough to hold the rolls out from my shirt and pants as I carried them across the lawn.

Most of the sod I laid went down around recently built homes in residential neighborhoods where at least one old retired guy would stroll over to grin at me and declare, “Green side up!” As if I’d never heard that before. As if I hadn’t heard that on my first day and what felt like every day since.

After a few humid months of lugging around gobs of earth – in various states of weariness, boredom, and teenaged emotional despair – those old retired guys weren’t particularly amusing. I’ll just put this out there for the general public: if you see someone laying sod, you can safely assume they’ve heard that joke. Think it if you want, but don’t say it out loud.

At first, it was kind of weird to handle something alive and growing as if it were a sheet of wrapping paper or carpet or tinfoil. However, any meditations on mankind’s need to bend the natural world to his own will so he can have natty little patches of Kentucky Bluegrass next to his concrete driveway were quickly replaced with mutterings about the damn humidity. And the bugs. And the chatty retirees.

Sometimes the sod had been cut while the dirt was still wet and sometimes the pallet had sat in the rain before you could roll it out. That extra water made the sod (roughly) 800 times heavier. And slimy. And floppy. And impossible to grip. I had to cradle it against my chest like a remarkably hefty, extremely grimy baby – who smelled like hot, wet, mildewy vegetation.

Eventually I moved on to more complex landscaping work that required actual skill – like wheelbarrowing around piles of rocks – but when you spend that much time outside, sweating, swearing, and lusting for some air conditioning, you get pretty sick of the Wisconsin summer. Autumn was my breath of fresh, cool air. I could throw my work boots into the garage for the year. I could finally get the dirt washed off my callused hands. I’d get to do something different all day.

I know some people like that work. I know some people don’t have much of a choice in what kind of job they can find. And I know that, for many, that kind of labor doesn’t stop in September. So if anything, laying sod showed me how lucky I am. And every autumn, when the winds change, I try to remember that.

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