Aside from the 4-B’s of Mainstream American Male Identity: Beer, Ball, Bitches & Beef, there are a few other realms of manly-manifestation. The lawn is one of them. If you grew up in suburbia, like I did, you may have spent your summers mowing lawns, weed-waking, poisoning so-called ‘pests’, and cursing both the dandelions and the neighbors who so carelessly let their laws go wild!
I’ll never forget the summer my father (a man who grew up in Brooklyn – and who, upon purchasing his first small house in the suburbs of upstate New York with my mother, proceeded to mow the lawn every single day of the warm seasons), in a fit of rage and as a last-stitch effort to communicate with the new Chinese-speaking neighbors who had let the grass get tall, drew a cartoon of a person mowing a lawn and left it in their mailbox. The next step would be a stealthy midnight-mow, which I knew was dead-serious. I also will never forget the bizarre behavior of our other neighbors who spent most days on their hands and knees cutting the lawn with scissors first, weeding, and then mowing. The saddest part was, their lawn never really even looked good after all that elbow-grease!
I was indoctrinated to the ways of the lawn early on, and I made a job of it, dangerous and tedious as it was. I always felt a small pang of grief imagining that microcosm beneath the grass canopy subjected to a huge, gas-powered, spinning blade. I empathized with the crawly things when I would picture a similar scenario happening to my house. I also remember thinking how absolutely silly the whole idea was, but I could never really articulate exactly why.
Green carpets. Turf. Perfectly mowed, lush, thick, emerald yards with no weeds, pests or brown-patches. It’s almost like a myth; the perfect lawn. Commercials for fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and lawn-care hardware tell us that suburban-utopia is just within reach, and when you buy into the myth by buying their products and working away homogenizing a little patch of nature, your neighbors will love you, your community will rejoice, and your self-worth, financial worth, and status as a man will be carved in stone! Right?
But what exactly is a lawn? Where did this tradition come from, and how does this $30 billion industry of seeds, fertilizers, mowers, power-tools, and water continue to enthrall the masses with illusions of a threatless, perfectly-controlled environment? Most importantly, what are the ramifications of this phenomenon for our health, the planet, and our psyches?
The lawn certainly has not gone unnoticed. It is the subject of the books “The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession” by Virginia Scott Jenkins, and “American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn” by Ted Steinberg.
Both of these books explore something so ubiquitous that most of us have never even stopped to ponder it’s meaning. The first thing to note is that the lawn is almost completely American – and as the American lifestyle continues to enthrall and infiltrate the globe, the lawn is short to follow. In the sixteenth century and continuing through the eighteenth, the “launde”, an open space or glade maintained by laborers wielding scythes, began to appear throughout the residences of British aristocrats. Obviously, it soon came to represent the leisure of class privilege, wealth, and power, and the culmination of lawn culture, according to Jenkins, was the establishment of twentieth century golf courses and country clubs. But as Steinburg argues, it never became the moral crusade it has become in America quite possibly because grass grows so effortlessly in Britain, and turfgrass is not at all native to North America – not even Kentucky Bluegrass. The early colonizers’ cattle quickly destroyed the native grasses, not used to grazing, and in came bluegrass seeds from Europe to fill that niche.
On a deeper level, the lawn represents a desire to control unpredictable, wild nature. Some anthropologists argue that that lawn comes from self-defense. When nomadic gatherer-hunters began settling into sedentary and semi-sedentary homes, they cleared the vegetation surrounding their dwellings in order to foresee potential danger coming – a predator, a snake, an enemy. The lawn is a bastion among the fearful and dangerous wilderness. Even more so, it is the manifestation of the deepest-seeded principals of our culture and civilization: man’s control over nature. Therefore, those who let their lawns go wild are threats to the foundation of civilization itself. Those who fail to uphold this symbol fail to be Americans. This is an unconscious concern, of course. I’d be startled to see my father articulate this to the Chinese family whose lawn-gone-wild was “destroying our neighborhood”.
My father’s anger is not alone. Stories of pissed-off neighbors leaving notes, making death-threats, and organizing at midnight to mow the black-sheeps’ lawns are as bountiful and insidious as crabgrass and dandelions. The disconnect among American immigrants to their lawns is also hugely misunderstood, and often met with xenophobia, racism and aggression.
The lawn is largely considered the male domain in the same sense that the backyard garden is traditionally considered the woman’s. And with it, comes an ever-expanding arsenal of tools made for killing and controlling. A man with a good lawn is simply seen as a powerful protector and provider. A place for the kids to play is also a defense against ticks and whatever other creatures could hide in less manicured yards.
Environmentally speaking, the partnership between the USDA and the US Golf Association (which made it possible for grass to be grown in all regions of this country) has been devastating to ecosystems with the overuse of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Couple that with suburban sprawl and the demands for water in dry regions of the country specifically for lawn maintenance, and the lawn reveals itself as a remarkable environmental problem.
- NASA scientists estimate that turf grass is the single-largest irrigated crop in the United States. According to the Cristina’s study about 128,000 square kilometers or nearly 32 million acres of the United States are covered with turf grass.
- A 2002 Harris Survey suggests as a nation we spend $28.9 billion yearly on lawns. To put that into a personal perspective that translates into approximately $1,200 per household
- 50 -70% of all urban fresh water is used for watering lawns. More than half this amount is wasted, because of inappropriate timing or dosage. Nearly all the water used could be save by appropriate use of native landscaping that does not require any watering beyond natural rainfall.
- 78 million households in the United States utilize garden pesticides.
- $700 million is spent annually on pesticides for lawns in the US.
- 67 million lbs of synthetic pesticides are added to lawns in the US each year.
- We use three times as much pesticide on our lawns per acre as we do on our agricultural crops.
- $5.25 billion is spent on fossil-fuel-derived fertilizer for U.S. lawns. The majority of this fertilizer is wasted because of improper timing or dosage and becomes a source of pollution to surface or ground water. Most of this expense and pollution could be eliminate by proper timing, proper dosage, or intelligent use of compost and other organic fertilizers.
- A typical power lawnmower pollutes as much in one hour as driving an automobile for 20 miles. This can be greatly reduced by using 4-stroke gas lawn mowers or electric mowers. Where feasible, it can be totally eliminated by using a hand-powered reel mower.
- 60 to 70 thousand severe accidents, some fatal, result from lawnmower use, as well as significant damage to human hearing.
- 580 million gallons of gasoline are used for lawnmowers. Much of this goes to pollute the air by evaporation, or to harm vegetation and surface or ground water by spillage.
So, what are the alternatives? I think growing your own, organic food is probably the healthiest, smartest, and most economic solution to the virtually useless and destructive lawn. “Food Not Lawns” and “Edible Estates” are two books that explore this revolutionary act. Talk about local food! And free! Sounds good to me.