Lawn Gone?

What will it take to mulch our obsession for the perfect patch of ornamental grass?

By Daniel Wood 6 Apr 2013 |

Daniel Wood's back lawn in the Kitsilano district of Vancouver shrinks a bit more every spring as the grass yields to an ever-larger vegetable/cutting flower garden.

"The lawn is cartoon nature." -- Botanist John Greenlee

Consider the North American lawn as an offering to God, and everything else makes sense. The annual fattening of the sacred cow with fertilizer. The herbicidal genuflections before crabgrass. The summer libations of holy water. The virginal sacrifice: the lawn cut in its prime --- as the homeowner offers a prayer for eternal greenness. Then the grass, its spiritual purpose served, is sent dump-ward... until next Saturday's reiteration of this ritual.

But looked at it from a very different vantage point, as a growing number of environmentally-concerned people do, the lawn is a wasteful, polluting, conformist, ridiculously time-consuming and increasingly anachronistic effort to dominate nature --- whatever the cost or consequences. Which is my reluctantly acquired view. I mean: How is it that North Americans spend more on grass -- the kind you mow -- than the entire world spends on foreign aid? Hello? How is it that, during the continent's increasingly dry summers, over 60 per cent of drinking water goes to quenching the thirst of fundamentally decorative turf grass? Hello! How is it that the typical North American homeowner spends 150 hours on lawn care annually and 35 hours having sex? HELLO!

I come to this apostasy as a man whose lawn worship spans decades. I've revelled in the Zen-like -- or perhaps zombie-like -- repetition of straight, overlapping mown rows. The distance I've walked behind a mower would put me in good standing with the powerful cultural forces (and corporations) that deem 3.5-centimeters-long, emerald lawns the only permissible setting for a house. I've tonsured and edged within a nano-fraction of bliss. I've lain on my velvety carpet in the evening and thought Big Thoughts. Not once did I consider how it came to be that millions of North American lawns were facing the same meticulous grooming, the same incantations, that no alien invaders intrude on this idyllic, 2-4-D-defended Eden. I never asked myself: Why am I doing this?

Credit goes to France's Louis XIV who first demonstrated with his little 17th-century project at Versailles that prestige befell the man who could control nature's wantonness. Lords across Europe went a-leapin' to duplicate the Sun King's hectares of shaved Tapis Vert (green carpet lawns). That these lawns were conspicuously useless -- they replaced baronial meadows that had previously sustained sheep -- further enhanced their value to the gentry. Mown grass stood as demonstrable proof of the superiority the aristocracy felt toward those who toiled amid vulgar, proletarian dirt. In time, however, revolutions laid these presumptions low. Lawns helped democratize conspicuous consumption. It wasn't long before North American landscapers could be heard touting: "Nothing spells class like a good stand of grass."

And millions bought the sales pitch --- aerator, fertilizers, spreader, hoses, sprinklers, watering system, mower, pesticides, herbicides, edger, weed-eater, rake, composter, lawn gnomes and all. For several decades in the mid-20th century, pop psychologists sought the basis of this suburban obsession. The lawn as therapy? The lawn as male one-up-manship? The lawn as proof of belonging? The lawn as pet? Unlike Europeans, who never succumbed to the lure, North Americans found in lawns a marriage of their continent's twin egalitarian illusions: the rustic frontier (grass) conquered by civilizing utopianism (mowing). Lawns -- like Disneyland -- became an expression of the continent's idealistic soul.

A vast turf to be protected

By the end of the 20th century, North America's mown grass -- from yards to cemeteries to highway medians -- came to cover 300,000 square kilometres of land, an area twice the size of New England. And the cost? Well, ka-ching doesn't quite ring loud enough. In tools, water, fertilizers, and upkeep an individual homeowner -- discounting his monotonous free labour -- averages $250 per year for lawn care. There are 55-million single-family homes. The lawn-care cost per year for one municipal playing field averages $2,800. In North America, there are 750,000 of these. There are 14,500 golf courses. There are over 100,000 ferociously green corporate lawns. Each year, 60-million kilograms of pesticides hit this grass. Each summer day, 1.5 trillion litres of municipal water hits this grass, too. KA-CHING! North Americans spend an estimated $100-billion annually on lawns. In value, grass is, by far, the most important agricultural crop on the continent.

What I find curious is that of the five most popular species of lawn grasses grown in North America none have their origins here. Like the concept of the lawn itself, most of this continent's turf -- like bluegrass and fescue -- comes from European seed stock. This means that unlike local flora, which is naturally adapted to conditions here, tens-of-millions of North American lawn-lovers must maintain a never-ending war on nature, defending their vulnerable turf against the adverse effects of this continent's climate, insects, and weeds. That this battle is un-winnable -- a sort of suburban War on Bugs -- is, of course, never acknowledged by the profitable corporations.

And still, relentlessly, municipal lawmakers encourage homeowners to be unyielding in their effort. Thousands of North American municipal bylaws dictate the proper appearance, down to the colour, height, and weedlessness --- of people's front yards. Conformity is mandated. Unruly lawns are verboten. Fines are meted out for questioning the green monoculture. Says William Zinsser in his essay "The Mowing Ethic", "Let a man drink or default, cheat on his taxes or his wife, and the community will find forgiveness. But let him fail to keep his front lawn mowed and those hearts will turn to stone."

The war escalates

Satire is always a bad omen for the comfortable; it's a precursor of change. In 1982, the International Dull Men's Club and their Toro! Toro! Toro! Precision Power Mower Drill Team parodied the conformist lawn ethic during the Rose Bowl Parade --- with dozens of mower-pushing men mimicking the intricate, synchronized routines of American marching bands. A few years later, author Stephen King turned his vengeful lawnmowers against their human masters in Maximum Overdrive.

It wasn't just the appearance of astroturf, or pink plastic flamingos or the sales pitch for the very real, self-guided Mowbot lawnmower that encouraged ridicule; it was the growing awareness that, in this war against nature, the environment was losing. Agent Orange, so effective as a herbicide on Vietnamese jungle in the '60s, was altered into a kinder, gentler formula for weeds like dandelions. Pesticides did an effective job on insects and worms and the myriad microscopic creatures that inhabit the soil. The collateral damage from these continent-wide applications killed millions of birds and butterflies. To rejuvenate the newly sterilized soil, chemical fertilizers were required. Goodbye urban streams. Goodbye frogs and fish. And this was before --- in those last green and carefree days prior to widespread summer droughts and rising fuel (and petrochemical) costs --- the public realized global warming was not some crazy David Suzuki invention.

Going to seed?

The time will come when the North American lawn, especially the decorative front lawn, will follow smokers and the SUV culture into the sunset. Nevada now offers incentives for homeowners to remove their grass. Eighty cities in North America have banned the use of lawn pesticides. Increasingly, highway medians and sections of public parks are being allowed to go to seed. Class action suits have overturned civic bylaws on lawn uniformity. Continent wide, a shift to planting native ground cover is underway. (In my Kitsilano neighbourhood in Vancouver, one-third of all grassy front lawns are now gone.)

Something special will, of course, be lost with the decline of lawns. People will recall, as I do, the brainless satisfaction of following the chugging power mower on its circuit of the yard. The perfection of the rows. The smell. The edged boundaries. The childhood delights of leaping the sprinkler. That innocent time is passing. Financial and environmental pressures will make this happen. So will the inducements of the hammock. As someone wrote a long, long time ago: better is a handful of quietness than two hands-full of toil and a striving after wind.  [Tyee]

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