IPSWICH — In his brimmed summer hat and grass-stained boots, Mike Mantarian climbed onto a John Deere riding mower, revved the engine a time or two, and rumbled on his way. A half mile of rolling lawn lay before him, a ribbon of tree-lined green that slopes away from the hilltop mansion toward Ipswich Bay.
The sweeping expanse is known as the Grand Allée of Castle Hill, the centerpiece of the Crane Estate in this historic seaside town and a majestic backdrop to countless weddings and concerts. The lush, undulating lawn, which recalls the grandeur of Renaissance gardens, is among the few landscapes of its size and kind in the world.
Since May, the daunting task of mowing the grand grass mall has fallen to Mantarian, a college student home for the summer. Once a week, sometimes twice, he circles, criss-crosses, and shuttles across the vast lawn for several hours, maneuvering smoothly around hedges and statues, rolling through the hills.
An easygoing 20-year-old from Newbury who studies environmental science at the University of New Hampshire, Mantarian said he enjoys the work, which has a simple, satisfying precision and immediate rewards. With each pass, each change of direction, he edges closer to his goal. It takes focus, to follow the lines just right. But there’s something peaceful about the repetition, about being alone with his thoughts for hours at a time.
And the sublime views, of an opulent estate and the ocean beyond, never grow old.
“Up that last hill, it just opens up, right to the water,” he said. “That’s the best part. Definitely makes it worth it.”
Mantarian takes few breaks while he mows, even on hot days. But he usually pauses at the cliff, for a minute or two, to take it all in. On a clear day, he can see the Isles of Shoals, a group of rocky islands off the coast of New Hampshire and Maine.
“Can’t complain about this,” he said.
The estate regularly hosts events on the lawn, and Mantarian has learned the importance of its care, how it has to look just right for big occasions. It is a responsibility he does not take lightly.
“It’s always in the back of my mind,” he said.
Mantarian heard about the job through a family friend who works at the estate, which is run by the nonprofit group The Trustees of Reservations, but showed up for his first day with little idea about his duties. Then he saw a backyard stretching the length of 5½ football fields.
Mantarian had mowed his family’s lawn growing up, as his older brother had before him. But this was another level entirely.
“Definitely a step up,” he deadpanned.
His boss gave him a quick tutorial, showing him how to make a few passes around the perimeter before mowing the center, so the clippings get mowed twice. He learned to change the direction of the cut each time, alternating straight lines with diagonal to avoid creating ruts.
But mostly, he learned by practice, and the sprawling estate offered plenty of that. As the weeks went by, his turns got sharper, his edges closer. As he adjusted to the width of the mower, his rows barely overlapped.
“My lines have been getting straighter and straighter,” he said with a workman’s pride.
As with any job, there are downsides. The mower is covered and has a fan, but the sun still takes a toll, and the bugs come biting. And while he takes his time, the ride is still pretty bumpy.
“Like a mechanical bull,” he quips. “It can be rough.”
Wet grass slows him down, though the blades are regularly sharpened. But he doesn’t have to deal with customers, and his nights and weekends are free. He can listen to music to pass the time or just daydream, without a boss barking in his ear.
His boss, Tim O’Riordan, said he was a bit nervous when Mantarian took over. A man in his 80s had mowed the lawn for years, and knew every inch. But Mantarian caught on quickly, O’Riordan said, and understood the job had to be done well.
“With a view like this, you have to put a lot of work into it,” he said. “We want those lines drawing your eye down the Allée to the ocean.”
On Tuesday, it was Mantarian’s day to mow the entire lawn, from the mansion to the cliff. He started on the left, hugging the tree line down the hill before cutting across the lawn to the right and heading back up the hill. He slalomed skillfully around obstacles, leaving little work for the edgers.
Mantarian makes $9.50 an hour and is saving as much as he can for college. He’s living at home for the summer. But his Dad has relieved him of his mowing duties there.
“Doesn’t even ask anymore,” Mantarian said.