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Newsletters  Turf warfare in the American suburbs * By David Quammen
Waterquality

There was a time, back in the late 1950’s and early ‘60s, when I was inclined to view the American lawn as part of a Communist plot. Thousands of square miles of valuable landscape, from Bangor to San Diego, were covered with useless swards of turf. Millions of man-hours (and, more to the point, boy-hours) were squandered each year on its upkeep. Did that extravagant commitment of resources serve the national interest? Clearly not. Like the helpless GI in The Manchurian Candidate, so it seemed, the entire class of American suburbanites had all somehow been brainwashed to execute certain dronish tasks. Mow. Rake. Trim. Fertilize. Kill off the broadleaf invaders with poison. Mow again. It was ruinously stupid. Khrushchev, I figured, had to be chortling up his fat little sleeve.

 

I conceived and nurtured this theory during my own long boy-hours spent at the exhaust end of a Toro mower – hours that, I believed, would have been far better devoted to more meaningful, red-blooded pursuits (such as baseball, or throwing cherry bombs at hornet’s nests, or breaking my nose on the handlebar of a bicycle) if only the cabalists in the Kremlin hadn’t managed to perpetrate this wholesale diversion of democracy’s young talent into the soulless drudgery of lawn care. Sputnik and then Yuri Gagarin had gone into space, after all, while America remained earthbound and I stained my Keds green with grass clippings. I was the only son among three children, and therefore the designated mowist. We lived on a half-acre. Formerly farmland, and before that deciduous forest, amid the rolling hills and the humid breezes of southwestern Ohio, it was relentlessly verdurous.

 

Our yard was gracefully punctuated with trees, true enough, a smattering of maples and sweet gums and pin oaks planted with heartfelt zeal by my tree-loving father, but most of the area was given to a conventional carpet of grass. The grass, unlike the trees, lacked individuality, conviction, and stature. This was grass like the neighbors’ grass, grass by conformity and default, grass maintained in the state of arrested development that distinguishes a lawn from a meadow or a prairie always growing longer, always demanding to be coddled, never maturing into anything self-sufficient or useful. It would have been different if we’d sold hay.

 

My father, a reasonable man and a patriot, did most of the landscaping labor himself. He worked cheerily, with an innocent enjoyment of vegetal greenness in any form, from broccoli to sequoias, so I always assumed that he was unwitting of the conspiracy. Besides, why should he be expected to see through to the darker reality, the secret Marxian subtext of American turf warfare, when other suburbanites for a thousand miles in every direction did not? Then one day, decades later, finding myself an adult and a homeowner, I bought a mower myself.

 

Nothing else that I’d ever done was quite so banally momentous. I had registered for the draft, I had voted, I had signed a mortgage, I had gotten a passport, I had once even cohabited with a television; but buying a lawn mower was the act that made me feel like a rock-solid American. Now I was co-opted. I mowed. I raked. I abandoned my conspiracy theory. I scowled at dandelions while they were still yellow and pretty, God help me. I even paid people to apply fertilizer and weed-killing chemicals. The national fetish for lawns, I came to realize, was something more subtle and deeply rooted, not to mention more durable, than mere Communism.

 

The numbers are sobering, Americans spend $25 billion a year on the planting and maintenance of turf grass, including municipal and corporate lawns as well as residential ones. The residential component alone amounts to $7 billion in retail trade – that’s $7 billion spent for mowers and weed whackers and leaf blowers and other powered machinery, for fertilizer and seed, for pesticides and hoses and sprinklers and rakes and clippers. Bermuda shorts and plastic flamingos are tallied separately.

 

The grassy yards of American homeowners cover a total of 20 million acres, roughly the same area as the entire island of Ireland. Unlike Ireland, though, a great portion of the American lawn acreage is arid, or semiarid, or otherwise climatically inhospitable to those species (mostly exotics from Europe) considered seemly for a well-manicured yard. One consequence is a need for intensive watering. Roughly 30 percent of urban water use on the East Coast, by one estimate, goes to lawn irrigation. On the West Coast, with its dry chaparral zone and its desert golf courses, the estimate is 60 percent. No doubt the preternaturally green lawns in Texas and New Mexico and Arizona, in Utah and Nevada, on the dry plains of eastern Montana and the Dakotas, are sucking away a similar share. Almost $800 million worth of grass seed is sold each year. The annual take by professional lawn-care businesses is about $3 billion

 

These figures reveal that the American lawn ethic, far from being a Commie ruse, is actually in the best tradition of rapacious capitalism. Most of the data I’ve just cited come from a gently iconoclastic book titled Redesigning the American Lawn, compiled by F. Herbert Bormann and some colleagues and grad students at the schools of forestry and of art and architecture at Yale University. Bormann and company also report that lawn-happy customers account for 25 percent of the profits to the synthetic-fertilizer industry, and that we use up to ten times more chemical pesticides per acre than do American farmers. In one recent year, sales of lawn pesticides ran to $700 million, representing 67 million pounds of variously lethal chemicals. Any of us who buy organic vegetables or moan about industrial pollution while maintaining a chemically enhanced lawn can take these facts as a challenge to our intellectual coherence.

 

Redesigning the American Lawn outlines the ecological and environmental costs of all this watering and fertilizing and poisoning, then offers a spectrum of viable alternatives, only some of which will cause your neighbors to surmise that you’ve gone insane. If your yard lies in Iowa, for instance, you could let the inexorable process of ecological succession return it to tallgrass prairie. If you live in Tucson, you could restore it to crumbled rock decorated with paloverde and scorpions. These would be noble and sensible courses of action that, in the long run would save money and water and leave your Saturdays open for tennis. But before any further discussion about alternatives to the American norm of lawn maintenance, I want to go back to a more basic question: Where did the norm come from?

 

History offers a partial answer. One branch of the historical explanation involves the developing profession of landscape architecture within the last 200 years. A second branch involves the rise of middle-class suburbs, a phenomenon that began in America during the mid-nineteenth century. A third branch of the story is technological: In 1830, an English carpet manufacturer named Edwin Budding patented the first lawn mower. "Country gentlemen will find in using my machine an amusing, useful and healthful exercise," Budding told the British patent office, and he seems to have died without ever being called to account for that piece of egregious hype.

 

The phrase"country gentlemen" gives an important clue to the sociological context of Budding’s invention: No one else, in that era, had a lawn. As known in England and continental Europe during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, lawns were a luxury of the wealthy classes, associated with grandiose and carefully landscaped country estates. In France the landscaping style was formalized and geometrical, as ultimately exemplified at Versailles, with flat polygons of lawn interspersed among walkways and canals and mazes and topiary gimmicks and elaborate gardens. In England there was a bit of that too, but toward the end of the eighteenth century a man known as Capability Brown created a new fashion in landscape design by loosening the formality, trading crisp linearity for naturally curvy lines, allowing trees to be trees and bushes to be bushes, and emphasizing large undulant fields of grass. Part of what made Brown’s style both appropriate and successful was the English climate – mild in the winter, cool in the summer, wet constantly. Grass loves England, and so England justly returns the compliment. But the only mowing performed on Capability Brown’s aristocratic lawns was done by hungry sheep or by peasant laborers working with scythes. Edwin Budding’s nefarious invention came later.

 

Although the English climate wasn’t transferable to America, the seeds of its grasses were, and so was the passion for lawns. That passion established itself here in new soil, with one difference – this was the land of democracy, and so lawns would be democratized too. About the same time as Budding patented his lawn mower, advances in transportation were expanding the margins of cities and making it convenient for middle-class people to relocate toward those margins. Row houses near the city center had formerly been the preferred dwellings for urbanites who could afford them; but now the preference shifted toward detached houses, each a little American castle, each on its own plot of land. This was the dawn of suburbia.

 

Meanwhile, several influential American landscapers of the mid-nineteenth century helped to popularize the notion that every residential lot should be upholstered with grass. That notion wasn’t a logical necessity; we might just as well have fallen into the tradition of planting our yards full of ivy, or buttercups, or alfalfa. Among the earliest of those American trend-shapers was Andrew Jackson Downing, best known for his Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, Adapted to North America, with a View to the Improvement of Country Residences, which appeared in 1841. In 1853 Downing published another book, Cottage Residences, encouraging middle-class suburban householders to want their own miniature versions of an Anglo-American country estate. "Quite an area, in the rear of the house, is devoted to a lawn, which must be kept close and green by frequent mowings, so that it will be as soft to the tread as a carpet," he decreed.

 

Others followed Downing’s lead. Jacob Weidenmann published Beautifying Country Homes in 1870, arguing in its first sentence that such a beautified home "should be sufficiently back from the public road to afford ample room for an unbroken ornamental lawn." Frank J. Scott published The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds the same year, insisting that a "smooth, closely-shaven surface of grass is by far the most essential element of beauty on the grounds of a suburban house." A modern author named Michael Pollan, in his own excellent book of horticultural ruminations, Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, suggests that Scott’s volume "probably did more than any other to determine the look of the suburban landscape in America." May God have mercy on Mr. Scott’s soul.

 

These guys, from Capability Brown to Frank J. Scott, can be seen as the founding ideologues – the Marx and the Engels and the Trotsky and the Kamenev – of American lawnism. And if that’s so, then a man named Frederick Law Olmsted might be considered the Lenin. Pollan, for one, credits Olmsted with having virtually invented the American lawn. Although Olmsted is best known as the landscape architect who designed Central Park in Manhattan, he and his partner were also responsible for the prototypical grassy suburb – a development called Riverside, on a bank of the Des Plaines River eight miles west of Chicago. Laid out in 1869, serviced by railroad from the city, Riverside was intended to accommodate 10,000 people in an affordable middle-class parody of country living, with lots nestled side-to-side like keys on a piano and a continuous sweep of lawn uniting them all. It was bucolic escapism with a distinctly collectivist tinge, suggesting that maybe my adolescent conspiracy theory wasn’t so wrong-headed after all.

 

Another partial answer to the mystery of lawnism comes from evolutionary biology. This is the "savanna hypothesis," as outlined in several semi-obscure papers published during the 1980s by a biologist named Gordon H. Orians.

 

Orians had been drawn to the subject of landscape aesthetics by his studies of habitat-selection processes among birds, which led him to start wondering how we humans select our preferred habitats. It’s a crucial issue in the lives of most species, including Homo sapiens. "If a creature gets into the right place," according to Orians and one co-author, "everything else is likely to be easier." That "everything" refers to all the basics of survival and Darwinian success: finding food, finding water, finding ways to escape from predators and prevail against competitors, finding mates, finding the security and resources necessary for raising young. In the case of our own lineage, Orians figured, the crucial first few million years of evolutionary adjustment occurred in eastern Africa, where early humans and their hominid ancestors had diverged from the arboreal, forest-dwelling apes and adapted themselves to a new sort of life, prowling bipedally through sunny grasslands punctuated only sparsely by trees - the savannas.

 

For a creature like us, it was the right place. In a tropical forest, most of the edible biomass (animal flesh, fruits, leaves) exists in the canopy, beyond reach of a terrestrial primate. But in savannas, Orians noted, "trees are scattered and much of the productivity is found within two metres of the ground where it is directly accessible to people and to grazing and browsing mammals." There’s much more meat on the hoof, in a savanna. There’s much more edible vegetation within reach. Also, sight lines across the grasslands are long, so there’s better chance for alert hominids to spot dangerous predators that might turn them into meat. And the sparse clusters of trees with low-branching trunks offer emergency refuge – if a lion or a rhino threatens, a hominid can revert momentarily to the arboreal habit. One inconvenience of savannas is the scarcity of water, but even that scarcity becomes an advantage to hunters, by tending to concentrate game around water holes during the dry season. For all these reasons, Orians argued, savannas would have been more hospitable for early humans than either wetter or drier habitats.

 

He went a step farther. If the fitness of a species to its habitat can be coded genetically in the form of landscape preference, and if a few million years of such coding can survive throughout just a few thousand years of civilization, Orians predicted, then "savanna-type environments with scattered trees and copses in a matrix of grassland should be highly preferred environments for people and should evoke strong positive emotions." The history of landscape architecture, not just in England and America but throughout the world, tends to suggest that he’s right.

 

The spooky implication of Orians’s hypothesis, as I read it, is that sitting a house in the suburbs on a patch of lawn, with a few low-branching trees at the edges, might be one way of answering a hard-wired genetic mandate that’s almost as peremptory as hunger or sex.

 

Then again, we don’t eat raw zebra meat anymore, most of us. So why should we otherwise prolong our retrograde adherence to a savanna lifestyle?

 

Beside, living amid grass is one thing; maintaining it in a state of impeccable, homogeneous primness is another. Anyone who has ever slacked off from the regimen of fertilizing and poisoning for a couple of years knows that dandelions and chickweed – let alone all those other invaders that waft their seeds through the suburbs, eager for a foothold – goes against all the rules of ecology and entropy. It’s as futile as trying to organize a precision drill-team among stray cats.

 

Are there alternatives for the conflicted suburbanite?

 

There are always alternatives to nonsense. Bormann and his colleagues, in Redesigning the American Lawn, advocate shifting to what they label the Freedom Lawn, a slightly disheveled and heterogeneous plot of postmodern landscaping, as distinct from the Industrial Lawn, with it’s petrochemical inputs and its assembly-line conformity to convention. Pollan’s book describes his own gradual divergence from greensward orthodoxy: He grew bored with mowing and found that the more serious he became about real gardening, the more dubious he felt about lawns. He planted a rough hedge of forsythia and other mixed shrubbery to break up the Olmstedian continuity between his lawn and his neighbor’s, and he converted a half-acre of grass into a meadow of daisies and black-eyed Susans. He also arrived at a keen understanding of the larger trend: "Lawns, I am convinced, 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." He started letting his patch of nature unbend.

 

These folks have emboldened me toward a similar course of deviant behavior, which feels long overdue. I’ve been cutting grass for the past 35 years, off and on, but now there’s a voice within me saying, No mow.

 

It’s the right time for a radical change, because lately my wife and I have begun planning to build a new house on the same lot where we presently live. We love the location; it’s just the old house itself, ramshackle and tiny and mostly held up by bookshelves that’s no longer adequate. So we’ll raze the building, or give it away to the Salvation Army if they can move it, then cause a more suitable home to be built on our little patch of land. And now that we’re imagining into existence precisely the house that will fit our needs and conventions, we’ve also started rethinking the lawn.

 

We don’t feel the necessity, here in Montana, of mimicking a tropical savanna or an English manor. Beyond that general truth, there are ecological and aesthetic particulars to be settled: what to jettison, what to keep, what to add. The two large mountain-ash trees will stay, though building around them may entail extra costs. Mountain ash is a native species hereabouts, thriving robustly through the long snowy winters, the long snowy springs, the scorching dry summers followed by frozen autumns. The riotous hedge of lilacs will stay too; I’m not sure they’re native, but they don’t demand special treatment and no earthly smell is more cheery than blossoming lilacs in early June. The spruce in the southwest corner will stay, and perhaps the four smallish maples that we planted eight years ago in a gesture of nostalgia to my Ohio roots. The raspberries will be offered room to expand. The lawn itself will go. If any grassy vegetation finds its way into our final collage, I suspect, it will be native species – western wheatgrass or blue grama, for instance. It will be welcome to grow tall and seedy, but it will have to get by on its own.

 

What else will we add? Sagebrush and wild rose and prickly pear might be nice. We don’t play barefoot badminton out there anyway. A Douglas fir, cluster of aspens, maybe a western larch, so we can watch its needles turn yellow in the fall and sprinkle down like shredded saffron. I’d love a big cottonwood and I don’t think we should commit to keeping its thirst slaked. Likewise with alder and water birch. But there should certainly be a chokecherry, so that I don’t have to continue poaching fruit off the one across the alley. Anything that attracts bumblebees will be encouraged to blossom. We’ll have crows and magpies if we have to hire them. And decorative statuary? Well, no plastic flamingos for this ecosystem, but maybe a nice discreet cast-iron effigy of a grizzly bear. It’ll have to be in miniature, though, because ours is a very small lot.

 

There will be no mowing. There will be no whacking of weeds – the very concept of "weed," which has no meaning apart from certain invidious human presumptions, will be thrown into question. There will be no semiannual visits by the chemically armed enforcers from Nitro-Green. There will be raking, OK, maybe, but only to clean up after the deciduous trees and the lilacs. So far as possible, this will be a low-maintenance landscape as well as an ecologically sensible one.

 

There will be a new meaning given, too, to the notion of yard equipment. My wife may continue to plant wildflowers, but for that she needs little more than a trowel. As for the rest, I’ve got my own ideas. In place of the mower and the weed whacker and the rake and the sprinkler and the spray dispenser for pesticides, I see a folding aluminum lawn chair, an all-weather end table, a pair of sunglasses, a broad-brimmed hat, and a hardback copy of Leaves of Grass.

 

July 1994 * Outside

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