|On Tuesday we are going to begin looking at environmental transformations wrought by the Second World War. One of these transformations was the dramatic expansion of suburbs, and one of the most characteristic features of modern suburbs are expansive lawns. I'll bet many of you have spent countless tending neatly cropped lawns, but I bet few of you have ever pondered the historical, cultural, and symbolic meaning of those ubiquitous carpets of green. To help you focus, you should take a look at Homework #9 before you begin reading.|
By Michael Pollan
Excerpted from : Michael Pollan, Second Nature: A Gardener's Education (New York: Dell Publishing, 1991), pp. 65-78.
No lawn is an island, at least in America. Starting at my front stoop, this scruffy green carpet tumbles down a hill and leaps across a one-lane road into my neighbor's yard. From there it skips over some wooded patches and stone walls before finding its way across a dozen other unfenced properties that lead down into the Housatonic Valley, there to begin its march south toward the metropolitan area. Once below Danbury, the lawn--now purged of weeds and meticulously coiffed--races up and down the suburban lanes, heedless of property lines. It then heads west, crossing the New York border; moving now at a more stately pace, it strolls beneath the maples of Larchmont, unfurls across a dozen golf courses, and wraps itself around the pale blue pools of Scarsdale before pressing on toward the Hudson. New Jersey next is covered, an emerald postage stamp laid down front and back of ten thousand split-levels, before the broadening green river divides in two. One tributary pushes south, striding across the receptive hills of Virginia and Kentucky but refusing to pause until it has colonized the thin, sandy soils of Florida. The other branch dilates and spreads west, easily overtaking the Midwest's vast grid before running up against the inhospitable western states. But neither obdurate soil nor climate will impede the lawn's march to the Pacific: it vaults the Rockies and, abetted by a monumental irrigation network, proceeds to green great stretches of western desert.
Nowhere in the world are lawns as prized as in America. In little more than a century, we've rolled a green mantle of it across the continent, with scant thought to the local conditions or expense. America has some 50,000 square miles of lawn under cultivation, on which we spend an estimated $30 billion a year--this according to the Lawn Institute, a Pleasant Hill, Tennessee, outfit devoted to publicizing the benefits of turf to Americans (surely a case of preaching to the converted). Like the interstate highway system, like fast-food chains, like television, the lawn has served to unify the American landscape; it is what makes the suburbs of Cleveland and Tucson, the streets of Eugene and Tampa, look more alike than not. According to Ann Leighton, the late historian of gardens, America has made essentially one important contribution to world garden design: the custom of "uniting the front lawns of however many houses there may be on both sides of a street to present an untroubled aspect of expansive green to the passerby." France has its formal, geometric gardens, England its picturesque parks, and America this unbounded democratic river of manicured lawn along which we array our houses.
To stand in the way of such a powerful current is not easily done. Since we have traditionally eschewed fences and hedges in America, the suburban vista can be marred by the negligence--or dissent--of a single property owner. This is why lawn care is regarded as such an important civic responsibility in the suburbs, and why, as I learned as a child, the majority will not tolerate the laggard or dissident. My father's experience with his neighbors in Farmingdale was not unique. Every few years a controversy erupts in some suburban community over the failure of a homeowner to mow his lawn. Not long ago, a couple that had moved to a $440,000 home in Potomac, Maryland, got behind in their lawn care and promptly found themselves pariahs in their new community. A note from a neighbor, anonymous and scrawled vigilante-style, appeared in their mailbox: "Please, cut your lawn. It is a disgrace to the entire neighborhood." That subtle yet unmistakable frontier, where the crew-cut lawn rubs up against the shaggy one, is enough to disturb the peace of an entire neighborhood; it is a scar on the face of suburbia, an intolerable hint of trouble in paradise.
That same scar shows up in The Great Gatsby, when
Nick Carraway rents the house next to Gatsby's and falls to maintain his
lawn according to West Egg standards. The rift between the two lawns so
troubles Gatsby that he dispatches his gardener to mow Nick's grass and
thereby erase it. The neighbors in Potomac displayed somewhat less savoir
faire. Some offered to lend the couple a lawn mower. Others complained
to county authorities, until the offenders were hauled into court for violating
a local ordinance under which any weed more than twelve inches tall is
presumed to be "a menace to public health." Evidently, dubious laws of
this kind are on the books in hundreds of American municipalities. In a
suburb of Buffalo, New York, there lives a Thoreau scholar who has spent
the last several years in court defending his right to grow a wildflower
meadow in his front yard. After neighbors took it upon themselves to mow
down the offending Meadow, he erected a sign that said: "This yard is not
an example of sloth . It is a natural yard, growing the way God intended."
Citing an ordinance prohibiting "noxious weeds," a local judge ordered
the Buffalo man to cut his lawn or face a fine of $50 a day. The Thoreau
scholar defied the court order and, when last heard from, his act of suburban
civil disobedience had cost him more than $25,000 in fines.
I wasn't prepared to take such a hard line on my own new lawn, at least not right off. So I bought a lawn mower, a Toro, and started mowing. Four hours every Saturday. At first I tried for a kind of Zen approach, clearing my mind of everything but the task at hand, immersing myself in the lawn- mowing here and now. I liked the idea that my weekly sessions with the grass would acquaint me with the minutest details of my yard. I soon knew by heart the precise location of every stump and stone, the tunnel route of each resident mole, the exact address of every anthill. I noticed that where rain collected white clover flourished, that it was on the drier rises that crab grass thrived. After a few weekends I had in my head a map of the lawn that was as precise and comprehensive as the mental map one has to the back of his hand.
The finished product pleased me too, the fine scent and the sense of order restored that a new-cut lawn exhales. My house abuts woods on two sides, and mowing the lawn is, in both a--real and a metaphorical sense, how I keep the forest at bay and preserve my place in this landscape. Much as we've come to distrust it, dominating nature is a deep human urge and lawn mowing answers to it. I thought of the lawn mower as civilization's knife and my lawn as the hospitable plane it carved out of the wilderness. My lawn was a part of nature made fit for human habitation.
So perhaps the allure of the lawn is in the genes. The sociobiologists think so: they've gone so far as to propose a "Savanna Syndrome" to explain our fondness for grass. Encoded in our DNA is a preference for an open grassy landscape resembling the shortgrass savannas of Africa on which we evolved and spent our first few thousand years. A grassy plain dotted with trees provides safety from predators and a suitable environment for grazing animals; this is said to explain why we have remade the wooded landscapes of Europe and North America in the image of East Africa. Thorstein Veblen, too, thought the popularity of lawns might be a throwback to our pastoral roots. "The close cropped lawn," he wrote in The Theory of the Leisure Class, "is beautiful in the eyes of a people whose inherited bent it is to readily find pleasure in contemplating a well-preserved pasture or grazing land."
These theories go some way toward explaining the widespread appeal of grass, but they don't fully account for the American Lawn. They don't, for instance, account for the keen interest Jay Gatsby takes in Nick Carraway's lawn, or the scandal my father's unmowed lawn sparked in Farmingdale. Or the fact that, in America, we have taken down our fences and hedges in order to combine our lawns. And they don't account for the unmistakable odor of virtue that hovers in this country over a scrupulously maintained lawn.
To understand this you need to know something about the history of lawns in America. It turns out that the American lawn is a fairly recent invention, a product of the years following the Civil War, when the country's first suburban communities were laid out. If any individual can be said to have invented the American lawn, it is Frederick Law Olmsted. In 1868, he received a commission to design Riverside, outside of Chicago, one of the first planned suburban communities in America. Olmsted's design stipulated that each house be set back thirty feet from the road, and it prohibited walls. He was reacting against the "high dead walls" of England, which he felt made a row of homes there seem like "a series of private madhouses." In Riverside each owner would maintain one or two trees and a lawn that would flow seamlessly into his neighbors', creating the impression that all lived together in a single park.
Olmsted was part of a generation of American landscape designer/reformers--along with Andrew Jackson Downing, Calvert Vaux, and Frank J. Scott--who set out at mid-century to beautify the American landscape. That it needed beautification may seem surprising to us today, assuming as we do that the history of the landscape is a story of decline, but few at the time thought otherwise. William Cobbett, visiting from England, was struck at the "out-of-door slovenliness" of American homesteads. Each farmer, he wrote, was content with his "shell of boards, while all around him is as barren as the sea beach . . . though there is no English shrub, or flower, which will not grow and flourish here." The land looked like it had been shaped and cleared in a great hurry (as indeed it had): the landscape largely denuded of trees, makeshift fences outlining badly plowed fields, and tree stumps everywhere one looked. As soon as a plot of land was exhausted, farmers would simply clear a new one, leaving the first to languish. As Cobbett and many other nineteenth-century visitors noted, hardly anyone practiced ornamental gardening; the typical yard was "landscaped" in the style southerners would come to call white trash--a few chickens, some busted farm equipment, mud and weeds, an unkempt patch of vegetables.
This might do for farmers, but for the growing number of middle-class city people moving to the "borderland" in the years following the Civil War, something more respectable was called for. In 1870, Frank J. Scott, seeking to make Olmsted's and Downing's design ideas accessible to the middle class, published the first volume ever devoted to "suburban home embellishment": The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds, a book that probably did more than any other to determine the look of the suburban landscape in America. Like so many reformers of that time, Scott was nothing if not sure of himself: "A smooth, closely-shaven surface of grass is by far the most essential element of beauty on the grounds of a suburban house."
Americans like Olmsted and Scott did not invent the lawn--lawns had been popular in England since Tudor times. But in England lawns were usually found only on estates; the Americans democratized them, cutting the vast manorial greenswards into quarter-acre slices everyone could afford (especially after 1830, when Edwin Budding, a carpet manufacturer, patented the first practical lawn mower). Also, the English never considered the lawn an end in itself: it served as a setting for lawn games and as a backdrop for flower beds and trees. Scott subordinated all other elements of the landscape to the lawn; flowers were permissible, but only on the periphery of the grass: "Let your lawn be your home's velvet robe, and your flowers its not too promiscuous decoration."
But Scott's most radical departure from Old World practice was to dwell on the individual's responsibility to his neighbors. "It is unchristian," he declared, to hedge from the sight of others the beauties of nature which it has been our good fortune to create or secure." One's lawn, Scott held, should contribute to the collective landscape. "The beauty obtained by throwing front grounds open together, is of that excellent quality which enriches all who take part in the exchange, and makes no man poorer." Scott, like Olmsted before him, sought to elevate an unassuming patch of turfgrass into an institution of democracy; those who would dissent from their plans were branded as "selfish," "unneighborly," "unchristian," and "undemocratic."
With our open-faced front lawns we declare ourlike-mindedness to our neighbors--and our distance from the English, who surround their yards with "inhospitable brick Walls, topped with broken bottles" to thwart the envious gaze of the lower orders. The American lawn is an egalitarian conceit, implying that there is no reason to hide behind hedge or fence since we all occupy the same middle class. We are all property owners here, the lawn announces, and that suggests its other purpose: to provide a suitably grand stage for the proud display of one's own house. Noting that our yards were organized "to capture the admiration of the street" one landscape architect in 1921 attributed the popularity of open lawns to "our infantile instinct to cry 'hello!' to the passerby, [and] lift up our possessions to his gaze."
Of course the democratic front yard has its darker, more coercive side, as my family learned in Farmingdale. In commending the "plain style" of an unembellished lawn for American front yards, the midcentury designer/reformers were, like Puritan ministers, laying down rigid conventions governing our relationship to the land, our observance of which would henceforth be taken as an index to our character. And just as the Puritans would not tolerate any individual who sought to establish his or her own back-channel relationship with the divinity, the members of the suburban utopia do not tolerate the homeowner who establishes a relationship with the lawn that is not mediated by the group's conventions. The parallel is not as farfetched as it might sound, when you recall that nature in America has often been regarded as divine. Think of nature as Spirit, the collective suburban lawn as the Church, and lawn mowing as a kind of sacrament. You begin to see why ornamental gardening would take so long to catch on in America, and why my father might seem an antinomian in the eyes of his neighbors. Like Hester Prynne, he claimed not to need their consecration for his actions; think of his initials [which he once mowed] in the front lawn as a kind of Emerald Letter.
Perhaps because it is this common land, rather than race
or tribe, that makes us all Americans, we have developed a deep-seated
distrust of individualistic approaches to the landscape. This land is too
important to our identity as Americans to simply allow everybody to have
their own way. After having decided that the land should serve as a vehicle
of consensus, rather than as an arena for self-expression, the American
lawn--collective, nationalized, ritualized, and plain--presented the ideal
solution. The lawn has come to express our attitudes toward the land as
eloquently as Le Notre's confident geometries expressed the humanism of
Renaissance France, or Capability Brown's picturesque parks expressed the
stirrings of romanticism in England.
After my first season of lawn mowing, the Zen approach began to wear thin. I had by then taken up flower and vegetable gardening, and soon came to resent the four hours that my lawn demanded of me each week. I tired of the endless circuit, pushing the howling mower back and forth across the vast page of my yard, recopying the same green sentence over and over: "I am a conscientious homeowner. I share your. middle-class values." Lawn care was gardening aimed at capturing the admiration of the street," a ritual of consensus I did not have my heart in. I began to entertain idle fantasies of rebellion: Why couldn't I plant a hedge along the road, remove my property from the national stream of greensward, and do something else with it?
The third spring I planted fruit trees in the front lawn, apple, peach, cherry, and plum, hoping these would relieve the monotony and at least begin to make the lawn productive. In back I put in a perennial border. I built three raised beds out of old chestnut barn boards and planted two dozen different vegetable varieties. Hard work though it was, removing the grass from the site of my new beds proved a keen pleasure. First I outlined the beds with string. Then I made an incision in the lawn with the sharp edge of a spade. Starting at one end, I pried the sod from the soil and slowly rolled it up like a carpet. The grass made a tearing sound as I broke its grip on the earth. I felt a little like a pioneer subduing the forest with his ax; I daydreamed of scalping the entire yard. But I didn't do it, didn't have the nerve--I continued to observe front-yard convention, mowing assiduously and locating all my new garden beds in the backyard.
The more serious about gardening I became, the more dubious lawns seemed. The problem for me was not, as it was for my father, with the relation to my neighbors that a lawn implied; it was with the lawn's relationship to nature. For however democratic a lawn may be with respect to one's neighbors, with respect to nature it is authoritarian. Under the Toro's brutal indiscriminate rotor, the landscape is subdued, homogenized, dominated utterly. I became convinced that lawn care had about as much to do with gardening as floor waxing, or road paving. Gardening was a subtle process of give-and-take with the landscape, a search for some middle ground between culture and nature. A lawn was nature under culture's boot.
Mowing the lawn, I felt like I was battling the earth rather than working it; each week it sent forth a green army and each week I beat it back with my infernal machine. Unlike every other plant in my garden, the grasses were anonymous, massified, deprived of any change or development whatsoever, not to mention any semblance of self-determination. I ruled a totalitarian landscape.
Hot monotonous hours behind the mower gave rise to existential speculations. I spent part of one afternoon trying to decide who, in the absurdist drama of lawn mowing, was Sisyphus. Me? The case could certainly be made. Or was it the grass, pushing up through the soil every week, one layer of cells at a time, only to be cut down and then, perversely, encouraged (with lime, fertilizer, etc.) to start the whole doomed process over again? Another day it occurred to me that time as we know it doesn't exist in the lawn, since grass never dies or is allowed to flower and set seed. Lawns are nature purged of sex or death. No wonder Americans like them so much.
And just where was my lawn, anyway? The answer's not as obvious as it seems. Gardening, I had by now come to appreciate, is a painstaking exploration of place; everything that happens in my garden--the thriving and dying of particular plants, the maraudings of various insects and other pests--teaches me to know this patch of land more intimately, its geology and microclimate, the particular ecology of its local weeds and animals and insects. My garden prospers to the extent I grasp these particularities and adapt to them. Lawns work on the opposite principle. They depend for their success on the overcoming of local conditions. Like Jefferson superimposing his great grid over the infinitely various topography of the Northwest Territory, we superimpose our lawns on the land. And since the geography and climate of much of this country is poorly suited to turfgrasses (none of which are native), this can't be accomplished without the tools of twentieth-century industrial civilization: its chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, machinery, and, often, computerized irrigation systems. For we won't settle for the lawn that will grow here; we want the one that grows there, that dense springy supergreen and weed-free carpet, that platonic ideal of a lawn featured in the Chemlawn commercials and magazine spreads, the kitschy sitcom yards, the sublime links and pristine diamonds. Our lawns exist less here than there; they drink from the national stream of images, lift our gaze from the real places we live, and fix it on unreal places elsewhere. Lawns are a form of television.
Need I point out that such an approach to "nature" is not likely to be environmentally sound? Lately we have begun to recognize that we are poisoning ourselves with our lawns, which receive, on average, more pesticide and herbicide per acre than any crop grown in this country. Suits fly against the national lawn-care companies, and lately interest has been kindled in more "organic" methods of lawn care. But the problem is larger than this. 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. Lawns stoke our hubris with regard to the land.
What is the alternative? To turn them into gardens. I'm not suggesting
that there is no place for lawns in these gardens or that gardens by
themselves will right our relationship to the land, but the habits of thought
they foster can take us some way in that direction. Gardening, as compared to
lawn care, tutors us in nature's ways, fostering an ethic of give-and-take with
respect to the land. Gardens instruct us in the particularities of place. They
lessen our dependence on distant sources of energy, technology, food, and, for
that matter, interest. For if lawn mowing feels like copying the same sentence
over and over, gardening is like writing out new ones, an infinitely variable
process of invention and discovery. Gardens also teach the necessary if un-American
lesson that nature and culture can be compromised, that there might be some
middle ground between the lawn and the forest--between those who would complete
the conquest of the planet in the name of progress, and those who believe it's
time we abdicated our rule and left the earth in the care of its more innocent
species. The garden suggests there might be a place where we can meet nature
Probably you will want to know If I have begun to practice what I'm preaching. Well, I have not ripped out my lawn entirely. But each spring larger and larger tracts of it give way to garden. Last year I took a half acre and planted a meadow of black-eyed Susans and ox-eye daisies. In return for a single annual scything, I am rewarded with a field of flowers from May until frost.
The lawn is shrinking, and I've hired a neighborhood kid to mow what's left of it. Any Saturday that Bon Jovi, Judas Priest, or Kiss Isn't playing the Hartford Coliseum, this large blond teenage being is apt to show up with a 36-inch John Deere mower that sheers the lawn in less than an hour. It's $30 a week, and I don't particularly like having this kid around--his discourse consists principally of grunts, and he eyes my wife like he's waiting for a Penthouse letter to unfold--but he freed me from my dark musings about the lawn and so given me more time in the garden.
Out in front, along the road where my lawn overlooks my
neighbors', and in turn the rest of the country's, I have made my most
radical move. I built a split-rail fence and have begun to plant a hedge
along it--a rough one made up of forsythia, lilac, bittersweet, and bridal
wreath. As soon as this hedge grows tall and thick, my secession from the
national lawn will be complete. Anything then is possible. I could let
it all go to meadow, or even forest, except that I'm not sure I go for
that sort of self-effacement. I could put in a pumpkin patch, a lily pond,
or maybe an apple orchard. And I could even leave an area of grass. But
if I did choose to do that, this would be a very different lawn from the
one I have now. For one thing, it would have a frame, which means it could
accommodate plants more subtle and various than the screaming marigolds,
fierce red salvias, and muscle-bound rhododendrons that people usually
throw into the ring against a big unfenced lawn. Walled off from the neighbors,
no longer a tributary of the national stream, my lawn would now form a
distinct and private place--become part of a garden, rather than a substitute
for one. Yes, there might well be a place for a small lawn in my new garden.
But I think I'll wait until the hedge fills in before I make my decision.