Grass on Great Temple Mound cut with remote-controlled mower

hduncan@macon.comMay 16, 2013 

Nick McClendon uses a remote control mower to knock down the weeds on the steep sides of the Great Temple Mound at the Ocmulgee National Monument. GRANT BLANKENSHIP/THE TELEGRAPH

A couple of teenagers climbed the wooden stairs that wind up the Great Temple Mound at Ocmulgee National Monument on Thursday.

“I can’t imagine how lousy it would be to mow that,” one of them said, gesturing to the steep mound.

“Push mower,” nodded his friend.

“I’m not even sure they mow that,” a girl said.

But on the opposite side of the mound stood Nick McClendon with the modern machine he uses to reveal the shape of an ancient marvel.

It’s not a push mower. (The angle of the slope, which is as much as 55 degrees, is too steep for a push mower.)

It’s a four-foot-square mower called a Spider, which McClendon operates by a remote control the size of a computer keyboard. He stands at the top of the 45-foot-high mound, holding the remote in a harness, while the Spider climbs the hill anchored by a cord considerably thicker than most spider webs.

And unlike most spiders, this one isn’t graceful. It lumbers along unevenly, chewing up 4-foot-high grass and spitting it out in shreds a few centimeters long.

Rodents as big as a man’s hand scamper from the blades and into the little mounds of cut grass. McClendon says the hawks sometimes perch nearby while he mows so they can swoop in for an easy meal.

Swallows flit around the mower with enthusiasm, gorging themselves on insects. One nabs a grasshopper the size of a hummingbird. The smell of cut grass is so strong it seems to color the air green.

Before the park bought the mower a year and a half ago, McClendon and a co-worker cut the grass on the mounds with brush cutters and weed trimmers. If the workers did nothing else, they could finish in four days. It takes the Spider just 12 hours, McClendon said. The mounds have tested many a proud machine. Before buying the Spider, park officials watched demonstrations of other mowers, McClendon recalls. One flipped over.

The possibility creates enough suspense to interest passers-by. Students of Georgia Cyber Academy and dads who were visiting the park Thursday posed for pictures with the mower.

It seems like an anachronism in this place, built by the ancestors of the Creek Indians thousands of years ago. But the park must control nature in order to make it accessible to the public.

The Indians didn’t have power mowers. During the period when the Creeks had a village at the site, the mounds were probably covered in shrubs and young forest, said park Superintendent Jim David.

But the Indians controlled nature, too.

“We’re pretty sure the trees were wiped out for fuel and construction during the mound-building period,” David said. And after Europeans established a trading post nearby, the Indians “hunted the area out” for pelts to trade.

They also cleared land for planting corn, beans and squash. Their farming production was so low by today’s standards that they had to cultivate many more acres to feed a village, David said.

Today, Indian farm fields are now covered in grass tipped with purple seeds that release in a puff when brushed by a pant leg.

Visitors may see more of that this summer than in the past. Because of sequestration funding cuts that reduced the park budgets by 5 percent, Ocmulgee National Monument isn’t hiring seasonal employees to cut grass and maintain trails during the growing season, David said.

McClendon and one other employee will be handling all that, including 96 acres of grass.

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.


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