Does the Constitution protect our busted lawnmowers, too?

By JASON JACOBY, Baker City Herald August 29, 2008 02:29 pm

Summer broke the other day and I went out walking in the damp dusk, sort of a lonely wake for the beloved season.

The wind had swung around to the northwest and it blew brisk and heavy with the sharp sweet scent of mint almost ready for the harvest. A versatile crop, mint — its oil adds the tang to both the chewing gum which attacks our teeth and to the fluoride-laced paste which defends our enamel against all manner of enemies.

In the field by the junior high a dozen or so kids, elementary age by the look of them, scurried about, clad in helmets and full pads. The shoulder pads, in particular, gave them ungainly and odd proportions — the broad upper body of a mature weightlifter attached to the skinny and short legs of the pre-adolescent.

Anyway it was pleasant to walk past and hear the inimitable clap of plastic pieces colliding.

Football, it seems to me, announces the imminence of autumn at least as reliably as the calendar.

The calendar insists, of course, that summer will persist almost a month more. And I didn’t intend, by that “summer broke” crack, to provoke a debate about celestial matters.

Weather which at least feels to the skin like summer will return, and the mild traces of its presence might well linger til the brink of Halloween.

What I meant, though, is that we come every year to a junction, a distinct point of division at which summer begins its retreat. That moment, at least by my reckoning, most often arrives in August.

In any case the coal-colored clouds that cloaked the Elkhorns on Monday evening put on a pretty convincing performance as the harbingers of fall.

As I walked, swerving occasionally to bypass a puddle, I looked with an unusually discerning eye at the homes I passed. I paid particular attention to the yards.

What got me to thinking about yards, and what they look like, is campaign the city recently announced, an effort to enforce more aggressively the ordinances which are supposed to discourage people, to put it bluntly, from turning their properties into trash dumps.

I’m very nearly overwhelmed by ambivalence on this topic.

On the one hand, there are the people who acquire things with impressive facility but who are considerably less adept at disposing of anything more durable than toilet paper.

It annoys me that certain of these people seem oblivious to the reality that, so far as most of their neighbors are concerned, rusted out rigs, piles of rotting boards and heaps of empty motor oil jugs don’t qualify as landscaping.

You won’t find any of those items for sale at home supply stores, at any rate.

But on the other hand there is a document known as the United States Constitution.

That venerable treatise mostly eschews aesthetic matters, but it’s quite specific about preserving the sanctity of private property.

And although the Constitution makes no mention of eyesores or nuisances, it seems to me that its authors —  who said the government can’t force people to supply room and board for soldiers in peacetime — probably would have bristled at the idea of government telling a homeowner what he can put in his back yard.

Of course there were no nuclear reactors in 1791, and I wouldn’t want one of those powering a neighbor’s barbecue or hot tub along on my street.

But Baker City’s task in trying to legislate aesthetic standards is far more daunting than the extreme and unrealistic example in the preceding paragraph suggests (just where, for instance, are you going to buy the enriched uranium — the local hardware store?).

No one has the right, constitutional or otherwise, to pollute his neighbor’s air or water.

Each of is, however, entitled to offend our neighbor’s sensibilities.

Well, sort of.

The situation gets kind of complicated at this point.

Everyone seems to agree that a manicured lawn is unlikely to bother anybody.

But what about two decrepit lawnmowers on a patch of desiccated dandelions?

I’d rather look at the lawn, myself. And if I was taking visitors on a tour of town I’d probably avoid the block where the dilapidated mowers stand.

I have no qualms, either, about saying that junked lawnmowers are ugly.

But I shudder inside when I imagine that I own the lawnmowers and the government tells me to get rid of them, or at least put them in a garage, or I’ll have to pay a hundred-dollar fine.

I don’t own a garage, is the thing.

I’ve kicked around this conundrum for more than a dozen column inches now and I’m no closer to a conclusion than I was at the end of the first sentence.

I was afraid that’s how it would turn out.

My great hope is that city leaders will continue to concentrate, as it seems to me they are doing now, on trying to ensure that no one, in using his or her private property, imperils anybody else’s health.

Government’s most sacred obligation, I believe, is to shelter each of us, as best it can, beneath a blanket of security.

And please try not to smother us with it.

Jayson Jacoby is the editor of the Baker City Herald.