On the uselessness of lawns

grass fireworks

This world is filled with useless things: old habits we refuse to give up; new answers to problems that long ago vanished; professional football.

Most of them are inoffensive. We can live with them. But there are some that really get under my skin. Prime among these is the front lawn.

In my list of senseless things, the suburban front lawn takes the lead, surpassing such other bits of silliness as:

1. neckties

2. chrome detailing

3. parsley garnishes

4. extended warranties, and

5. nipples on men.

Explain for me, if you will, why so many well-meaning people work so hard to put a spot of green along the street, in an area of their property they never visit, save to mow it.

Of course, a thirsty lawn makes even less sense in the American Southwest, where it might well be considered a crime against nature. Yet, drive the streets of Phoenix and see all the pretty lawns: like kangaroos in Greenland.

It has been argued that front lawns are beautiful. Certainly grass growing in the meadow is among the most satisfying sights in nature, with its rusty autumn seedheads waving in the breeze above the thousand wildflowers that fill out the landscape.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Birds and butterflies are drawn to the meadow. It is a perfect Eden.

But lawns are not the same thing as grass. In a lawn, we chase away the wildflowers, which we call weeds, and discourage insects with noxious chemicals and we shoo away the birds that might eat up the newly seeded turf.

And the ample seedheads, with their glumes and awns, are slaughtered by the riding Toro, so the lawn approaches its Platonic ideal: AstroTurf. The lawn, as envisioned in the American suburb, might as well be a green shag carpet.

It is also argued that the tightly mowed lawn is a delight to walk upon, that it is a wonderful place for children to play or for the family to have a picnic.

That might be true of the back yard. But almost none of us does such a thing in the front yard. The neighbors would stare. About the only purpose the front lawn serves is to provide a comfortable place for the neighbor’s dog to poop.

That is a long way from the English estate lawn, which the American suburban lawn attempts to emulate.

We didn’t have lawns in America until after the Civil War. Houses were built right up on the street.

Dirt, which could be swept clean, was the ground cover of choice.

But after the Civil War, urban patterns began to change. Streetcars and passenger trains allowed more people to move out of the city to live and commute to work.

There are many reasons for the triumph of lawns in American landscaping. The idea took root in a century that was much more concerned with nature than our own. It was a time of Romantic poetry and art, and people looked for ways to be closer to nature. The lawn satisfied this need, in a small and distorted way.

But what began as bringing nature to suburbia ended, by the 1950s, as outright war against nature.

“A good many homeowners feel this way,” said Changing Times magazine in 1954: “Mother Nature has beaten them to a stand still for so many years that revenge is worth almost any price, as long as it comes in the form of a real good, drought-tolerant, weed-resistant lawn.”

I once lived in a house next to a jowly retiree who kept his lawn cut to the same length as his Marine crewcut. He was so intent on regimenting the naturally wild grass, that after he finished giving his lawn the buzzcut, he actually rode his mower for a half-mile up and down the road shoulder in front of his house to keep it all perfectly manicured. He did this at least twice a week.

I suspect he spied on his lawn at night to make sure it didn’t misbehave.

For if a lawn is a bit of nature, it is nature bridled and harnessed.

In his book, Second Nature, author Michael Pollan argues that “Lawns are a symptom of, and a metaphor for, our skewed relationship to the land. They teach us that, with the help of petrochemicals and technology, we can bend nature to our will.”

If we followed the logic of the lawn, we would create the front-yard equivalent of the plastic wood-grain walnut tabletop. Indeed, a friend of mine in Seattle, to avoid having to mow his lawn, poured in a layer of concrete instead, and painted it green. It frees him up to drink beer and watch ballgames.

If anything, the lawn is a peculiar case of cultural persistence. All around us are things that once made sense, but as they persisted through changing times, they lost touch with reality. Parents teach their children to play with “choo-choo” trains, although no one has seen steam locomotives since their grandparents.

We find Gothic pointed-arch windows — which made engineering sense in Medieval stone churches — in modern wooden churches.

And we get on and off the left side of jet airplanes because right-handed cavalry officers used to wear sabers on their left side, making it more sensible to mount and dismount their horses from the left. Early military airplanes — as part of the “air cavalry” — took the cue and the practice has never changed. (Indeed, those WWI biplanes often had “stirrups” on which to climb up into the open cockpit.)

Even neckties may once have had a reason to exist. It is said they served as bibs for sloppy eaters; but let’s face it, today you can throw a shirt in the washing machine, but you have to take the tie to the dry cleaners to get that mustard spot off. Tie as bib does not make economic sense.

And so, lawns, which originally functioned on English and French estates to provide hay for agricultural animals, later became symbols of rank, wealth and title.

Maine grass

They oddly persist this way in American suburbs.

It played into the curious American delusion that in our democratic nation — where everyone is theoretically equal — we are not equal as commoners, but as aristocrats. Every man in his white clapboard house was king in his castle. And each of us deserves his own rolling green estate, and if we only own enough property for a postage-stamp lawn, so be it.

Thorstein Veblen, the social critic who first came up with the concept of “conspicuous consumption,” at the turn of the century, saw the American obsession with lawns as yet another example of showing off your wealth, no matter how pitiful its amount.

And we began a century of “keeping up with the Joneses.”

After World War II, it became almost unpatriotic not to have a perfectly kept lawn to show off.

I suppose the reason I get so exercised about lawns is that I really, really love grass. I love the lacy panicles of panic grass, the bushy-eyebrow racemes of sixweeks grama, and the three-fingered tassles of big bluestem growing man-high in the few remaining patches of Midwest tallgrass prairie.

Grass B&W

And nothing beats the stiff stalked timothy, where the redwings like to squat and squabble.

It has been suggested that people value lawns in part because we have some faint genetic memory of developing as a species on the savannahs of Africa. I feel that atavistic pull, but it is prairie that excites it, not front lawns.

In the prairies, vast fields of wheat or wildgrass blow like seawaves in the wind.

In America’s suburbs, the front lawns mock “nature without check with original energy.”

It has been said that an eagle in a cage is not an eagle. And grass in a lawn is not grass.

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