Perspectives on the American Lawn

by Shahla Farzan / The Mindful Californian

  • Sheep Grazing the White House Lawn circa WWI. Credit: White House Historical Assocation

IT’S HARD TO remember an October where the distant roar of a leaf-blower wasn’t the soundtrack. Every Saturday my father would sip his tea, waiting for the leaves to dry in the early morning sun. Eventually he would put on his ancient Connecticut State Police baseball cap and disappear into the shed, reappearing with the leaf-blower in tow. While I helped (i.e., picked out my favorites to press in the pages of my journal), my father consigned the brightly colored invaders to the compost pile. As leaf season came to close, there was an audible sigh of relief in our household. Thank goodness the snow would cover our endlessly needy lawn.

My father isn’t alone. When it comes to our lawns our love knows no bounds. Each year, we spend countless hours seeding, watering, weeding, spraying, and trimming in pursuit of the true American dream: a flawless lawn. While we may feel the glow of satisfaction after a day of yard-work (or perhaps just the tingling of a fresh sunburn), our successes on the road to lawn nirvana have had little to do with human grit and more to do with our proclivity for chemistry. The lawn care section of a typical hardware store resembles an arsenal: squadrons of herbicides, insecticides, and fertilizers waiting to assist in the battle for control of your lawn.

Given that lawns produce no tangible goods, it is extraordinary how fiercely we defend them. In less than 200 years, the lawn has become deeply entrenched in the American psyche. Some, including nature writer David Quammen have ruefully referred to this phenomenon as the rise of American Lawnism. While lawns may appear mundane to some, our irrational reverence for them and the social coercion that works to maintain them is the stuff of soap operas. Lawns are ingrained in the daily routine of our lives, but why? And perhaps more importantly, to what end?

AS I WRITE this post, wildfires are ravaging Colorado once again. Bears are flattening tents in search of s’more supplies. The San Andreas Fault is a ticking time bomb. I’m sure you get the picture. Nature is untamable and at times, utterly unpredictable. Lawns act as a buffer against capricious Mother Nature, providing a means of control in a fundamentally uncertain world. We subdue the tangled bank, replacing it with a lush green carpet instead. At the same time, lawns provide an assurance that humans can nurture a safer, more manageable form of nature. With each springtime flush of greenery, a homeowner can maintain a connection to the outside world.

In theory, lawns provide a sense of community and the appearance of a visually unified front. When a neighbor neglects his front lawn, it is the equivalent of disregarding the unwritten social contract. And that’s when things get ugly. In “Why Mow? The Case Against Lawns” Michael Pollan recalls his first encounter with the neighborhood lawn mob:

“Whether owing to laziness or contempt for his neighbors I was never sure, but [my father] could not see much point in cranking up the Toro more than once a month or so. The grass on our quarter-acre plot towered over the crew-cut lawns on either side of us and soon disturbed the peace of the entire neighborhood … No one said anything now, but you could hear it all the same: Mow your lawn or get out … Our next-door neighbor, a mild engineer who was my father’s last remaining friend in the development, was charged with the unpleasant task of conveying the sense of community to my father. It was early on a summer evening that he came to deliver his message … squeaking out what he had been told to say about the threat to property values… My father’s reply could not have been more eloquent. Without a word he strode out to the garage and cranked up the rusty old Toro … He pushed it out to the curb and then started back across the lawn to the house, but not in a straight line: he swerved right, then left, then right again. He had cut an “S” in the high grass. Then he made an “M,” and finally a “P.” These are his initials, and as soon as he finished writing them he wheeled the lawn mower back to the garage, never to start it up again.”

IN MANY RESPECTS, our preference for evergreen, grass monocultures has had impacts that extend far beyond our own backyards. To sustain our lawns, we have developed toxic insecticides and herbicides as well as exerted surprising pressure on our natural resources. Herbicides, such as 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (a major ingredient in Agent Orange) initially allowed homeowners to exclude undesirable plant species. However, these newly created monocultures were also vulnerable to insect attack, leading to a long march through a series of highly toxic insecticides. The highly mobile nature and long half-life of many of these compounds has ensured that they will persist in the environment long after we have perfected our lawns.

The non-native turfgrass now common across the United States is also ill suited to most areas in which it is planted. In seasonally arid regions, such as California, large volumes of water are used to keep turfgrass alive during the dry season. According to the Department of Water Resources 2005 update of the California Water Plan, California residents used approximately 8.9 million acre feet of water in 2000, or approximately 232 gallons per capita per day. Increasing demand for water has prompted many towns to limit water usage, but thirsty lawns have continued to contribute to the demand.

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As the late afternoon sun slants across my own yard, it’s hard to imagine that this unassuming little patch of earth can be such a complex amalgam of history, social expectations, legal boundaries, and environmental impacts. The American lawn is becoming a highly politicized and contested landscape, but my dry square of California crabgrass quietly keeps on growing.

In the coming weeks, I will explore recent conflicts associated with the American lawn, as well as new efforts to reconcile landscaping and ecological constraints. 

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