I’ve been participating in it all summer: the quintessential summer ritual that provides comfort and nostalgia almost on a cellular level. Mowing the lawn. The smell of cut grass intoxicates me, invoking childhood memories of wet sneakers, running fast across the grass chased by my friends, and hitting a birdie with a badminton racquet. A freshly mowed lawn conjures feasts of buttery ears of corn and cool watermelon balanced on collapsing paper plates while swatting mosquitoes and trading stories with family, or reading by the glow of a flashlight in a tent in the backyard during a long, hot summer night illuminated by fireflies winking on and off.
Growing up in the American Northeast, I experienced plentiful soft, green, expansive lawns—at my house, my grandparents’ houses, and friends and neighbors’ houses. It’s just the way it was. Well, except when I was a toddler in Bakersfield, CA, which I vaguely recall as a flat, hot, shimmering brown expanse, our little manicured tract house wavering in the heat as if it were only a mirage. Oh, and in the hills outside of Albuquerque, NM, when I was in my 30s, where the yard was high desert scrub with pale green sage, pretty yellow chamisa, and fragrant juniper. Dancing out the door in New Mexico barefoot routinely resulted in a sharp stab and an “ow, ow!” that required a retreat to the deck to extract the thorny goatshead about the size of a large pea except sporting sharp barbs in all directions—also appropriately named puncturevine weed—from the tender bottom of my foot. My dog used to step on them and hop to me, holding up his paw in a pathetic plea for assistance.
Which all makes a lush green lawn sound like a panacea of peace and loveliness. Which it is. And … it isn’t. Just sit outside on any beautiful afternoon, and it will begin: the drone and whine of small engines near and far, drowning out the cheery songs of the birds, drowning out whispers of the breeze in the trees. Each week, men, women and children all over the United States, even in dry Bakersfield and Albuquerque, turn keys to start up a host of mowers and then spend anywhere from one to six hours circling in a zen-like jostled reverie to cut the grass. Some industrious souls with smaller lawns or a propensity for masochism still use push mowers, or even reel mowers with no engine, to push and pull with aching arms and a sweaty brow to create those neat, fragrant, carpeted grass lines.
Life is short. Damned short. So why are we content to dedicate our precious summer hours to such a seemingly futile task? The grass grows right back within a day or two, in a wet summer sometimes hours (I swear I’ve seen it grow), taunting us to drop what we are doing to tame the lawn once again. Every year I think about this more and more. While the American love affair with the lawn feels as essential as apple pie, it is also a waste of resources, time, and fossil fuel, only to create what is basically an environmental wasteland.
Having a nicely manicured, sizeable lawn around one’s home is what we do as responsible, well-to-do Americans. It doesn’t matter if one is lower class, middle class, or upper class, a nice lawn makes a statement: I have property, and I have my life together.
Unkempt lawns evoke visions of squalor—a flea-bitten, bony bloodhound sleeping on the porch, skin twitching to disturb the flies landing on his tattered fur. A wooden door slightly crooked on the hinges with a torn screen. God forbid, chickens scratching around in the front yard in the bare dirt amongst some rusted tin cans. Let’s throw in a couple of barrels and a broken down car. This stereotypical, economically prejudiced view of unkempt yards did not arise from our DNA; it was not ordained by a holy writ from above. It was, pun intended, cultivated. Yes, this mindset was intentionally crafted by the likes of the United States Golf Association, the United States Department of Agriculture, and numerous American garden clubs like the National Plant, Flower and Fruit Guild, and the Home Culture Club starting in the late 1800s. The campaign for the lawn went well into the twentieth century and the pressure and cries for “responsible yard care” were additionally bolstered by a growing, robust lawn care industry sporting the latest and greatest lawn care tools, mowers, and toxic chemicals, often with ads that planted visions of wealthy elites or stirred lust with voluptuous housewives in billowing short skirts pushing a mower with a single lovely hand.
In Virginia Scott Jenkins’ meticulously researched and thorough book (who knew a book called The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession could be so riveting), Jenkins states, “The domestic front lawn is a typically American landscape feature. Lawns can be found in all parts of the country, from New England to Florida and California. Houses in Phoenix have front lawns…But this has not always been the case. Lawn grasses are not native to this continent” (9).
When I first read this—call me naïve or uninformed—I was shocked. Lawn grasses, the very fabric of my childhood outdoor escapades, were not native?
Jenkins goes on: “Lawns were new to most Americans in the nineteenth century. Homeowners were taught to incorporate the new lawn aesthetic into the landscape and to learn how to take care of their lawns. It was a slow process, but by the mid-twentieth century, front lawns had become thoroughly integrated into the American landscape” (10).
Jenkins explains how the transformation of the American yard had to do with European immigration, obviously, and a desire to imitate the grand, sweeping estates of European nobility (think the grounds of Downton Abbey), exemplified in America by the numerous gorgeous park designs of Frederick Law Olmsted in the mid-nineteenth century (Jenkins 25). About the same time Americans began to covet this European aesthetic, the United States Golf Association began a quest to find the best blend of grasses to create the perfect golf green. To do this they enlisted the help of government scientists and what would eventually become the United States Department of Agriculture. Through ignorance and bumbling, settlers had pretty much destroyed America’s native grasses, so grass enthusiasts turned their sights to importing, interbreeding, and otherwise messing around with Mother Nature to manufacture grass seed blends that could survive in the variety of climates across the United States. Kentucky bluegrass was brought here from overseas in the late 1700s, likely from the Middle East and other parts of Europe (sorry bluegrass musicians, it’s not from “down home”), while other grasses were shipped over from Africa and other parts of the world. These new grasses “escaped” out into the environment, washing down riverways and streams until they began to populate more and more land tracts.
In the process of importing and integrating new grasses—to keep up with the Downtons, to tee off on a carpet of velvety green—useful approaches to the front lawn, such as raising vegetables in sizeable gardens, raising chickens, and other endeavors that resulted in broom-swept dirt yards, were quietly tucked away in the far reaches of backyards, hidden from view. Such activities of sustenance were viewed as below what affluent families should have for a front lawn aesthetic, even to the point where towns and cities passed rules or ordinances (still in place today) for property maintenance outside the home. Jenkins quotes an 1897 horticulture book: “…our suburbs will not always have so many uncared for, weed-grown lots littered with empty tin cans, badly kept ‘yards’, and impassable roads” (32).
Enter home and garden clubs, women’s magazines, and a “City Beautiful Movement” all of which became mouthpieces for the USGA and USDA, patiently instructing the poor ignorant masses on proper lawn care and home maintenance strategies which required time-consuming labor for which no working class person back then, or even now I might argue, actually had the time. The wealthy simply had their servants or groundskeepers do the planting, weeding, fertilizing, and mowing, tasks carried out by hand or with rudimentary tools and machines. According to Jenkins, America’s first mowers were patented in the 1860s.
By the early to mid-twentieth century, the tutelage on lawn care was plentiful and far-reaching. It was a public relations campaign to rival the persuasion regarding patriotism and sacrifice for the war effort during World War II. Contests, billboards, magazines, hardware stores, and trading cards touted images of gorgeous lawns and intimated that the care was so easy a kid could do it (indeed, many kids got the chore of lawn care). Ne’re-do-wells with sloppy yards were chided and looked down upon by neighbors. This advertisement from an 1888 catalog, quoted by Jenkins, contains a typical message: “Faust’s Fairmont Park Lawn Grass Seed Special Mixture … we know of nothing that will so much improve the appearance, and contribute to the comfort of a home, as a beautiful lawn. It matters not, be it the home of the rich or the poor, its refining and invigorating influence is felt by all alike, for it is one of nature’s gifts” (71).
The creation of our American obsession with the lawn took about a hundred years, culminating in the suburban bloom after World War II, fed in part by the prosperity efforts embedded in the New Deal. I was born in 1963, and thus the ubiquitous embrace of lawn aesthetic and lawn culture has been synonymous in my psyche with affluence, good standing, beauty, small town charm, neighborliness, citizenship, community, and even whiteness. Pretty powerful notions emanate from those blades of grass.
Here we are over 50 years later and some not-so-small planetary problems have cropped up: an even stronger obsession with fossil fuels, the resulting build-up of greenhouse gasses, overpopulation and the resulting loss of wild habitat and open spaces, and the mysterious disappearances of certain species of pollinators. At the same time, it seems our lower and middle class workforce is especially harried and beleaguered, with little time or resources for the laborious upkeep of expansive, grass-filled yards.
As I drive my own rider mower in circles for about two hours a week, I have a lot of time to consider this costly ritual. As always, the rider mower casts me into a trance with its circles and jostling and buzzing. But now there is an undercurrent. I’m conscious that this ritual is manufactured, unnatural, and not in the best interest of the sustainability of the gorgeous forested environment teeming with toads, birds, flowers, and trees just at the perimeter of my lawn. I am more conscious that my lawn is a status symbol, born of privilege. I am also painfully aware of the path of destruction that my mowing creates.
I find it quite disturbing—the stream of refuse that arcs out from my hungry blades. Moths tumble; flowers are severed at the head. One time I ran over a frog, chopped it right in half. I thought I was going to throw up. Grasshoppers and crickets frantically leap out of my path and snakes slither to safety. I used to grit my teeth and shrug off the havoc I created, the fact that my lawn puts living creatures in peril. The lawn must be mowed; what can one do? It’s necessary collateral damage. But is it? I’ve found I can mitigate the mayhem by simply driving slower and keeping an eagle eye out for critters. As my mower groans along, I see toads, bees, grasshoppers, crickets, snakes and moths, some moths bearing startlingly gorgeous colors and patterns on their wings. I slow down, stop, or go the other way until the path is clear. I try to mow in the heat of the day, when the living things are not nestled into the grasses to the same degree as they are in early evening when the moisture settles down. Even still, it’s impossible to miss them all.
So this summer I simply mowed less often. I let my grass burgeon to a disreputable five or six inches long and then simply raised the mower blades higher. As a result of this choice, which some may view as neglect, my lawn is a lot healthier. But some of the neighbors didn’t like it. They actually inquired if I had been traveling or had been ill. I also had to fight my own pre-programmed response to a longer lawn: my life is out of control, I am not well off, and I am a sloth. Gradually, though, I grew used to the less-kept look and now even gaze upon it with pride. Lo and behold, more flowers appeared, which I let float as long as possible along the top of the grass, which brought butterflies and bees. In June, I harvested the dandelions, which, counter to the anti-dandelion weed propaganda, carry all manner of vitamins and antioxidants. I ate the leaves; I even put the flower petals in my pancakes one day. Next, wild strawberries appeared. I harvested those. I’ve grown to love this laissez-faire approach to lawn mowing.
Still, I must confess, when I do cut the grass, I feel my sense that “all is right” with the world returning. The smell comforts me, triggering that little kid nostalgia. I love to walk across the grass in bare feet (sure beats goatsheads).
At the same time, the cognitive dissonance clangs: noise, gas fumes, beheading the clover that the bees love, adding more C02 into the atmosphere. When I am done, an area that was teaming with life is silent and empty—only the grass grows. Jonathon Engels writes, “They [lawns] go against nature. We fight weeds and trees from invading the landscape, which is desperately trying to repair itself with these pioneering species. We work sparingly with animals, leaving perches few and far between for the birds, vast expanses of land with no rockeries nor rotting wood for the lizards and frogs. The whole thing keeps growing…” (“Why Our Lawns are Bad”). Such dissonance has me looking for solutions.
This spring my mother gave me a reel mower that she wasn’t using. Looking sweetly retro, the reel mower has a number of silver blades in a cylindrical pattern that whir and click along with only the power of my muscles, muscles which I know will grow to the size of Popeye’s if I use the mower regularly. Proudly, I loaded the reel mower into the back of the car and took it to the local mower repair shop to get the blades sharpened and have it oiled up. The owner of the shop looked down at my little prize with disdain. “We don’t service those,” he said with a chuckle, as if I were amusing in my quaint retreat to past technology. “In fact, I don’t know anyone who does. Not enough people use reel mowers and they take a special tool and a lot of time to sharpen.” My heart sank. Luckily another guy in the shop piped up. “Steve sharpens those over in Montpelier. He’s the only one around.” “Really?” I asked, brightening. “Does he charge an arm and a leg?” “Forty-five bucks.” So off I went to Steve’s. Steve was a bit of a relic himself, speaking and moving at the pace of a turtle, and I wondered nervously just how long he would be able to keep doing repairs. Not to worry; he did an excellent job.
Once the reel mower was all sharpened and ready, I had another problem. My yard was simply too big to maintain with the little mower. It takes 2 to 3 times as long to mow my yard with it. Like many of my friends, I work, at any given time, about 4 jobs and 50-60 hours a week to make ends meet. To use the reel mower for all of the lawn all summer was just not do-able. Thus, I use it for the portions with the flattest and thinnest lawn coverage. A friend quipped on Facebook when I posted a picture of my reel mower, “If you can’t mow your whole lawn with that, your lawn is too big.” Then I dislocated my shoulder in July tripping while exiting my tent, and sadly for me that was the end of the reel mower for the summer. There is always next summer I guess.
When driving about in my car, I now study what other people are doing with their lawns. I am simply astounded at the size of many homeowners’ lawns, many of which have up to 5 or 6 acres manicured to fairway-quality greenery. According to NASA scientists, “there is now an estimated total of 163,812 square kilometers, or more than 63,000 square miles, of lawn in America — about the size of Texas” (“The American Lawn”). According to this article in the Huffington Post, the American lawn is the largest “single crop” we grow. Perhaps the biggest tragedy, however, is I never see any activity on these vast lawn areas—no children playing, no picnics, no adults napping on blankets, no lawn games. I assume we are all too busy working or too tired from earning the resources to keep a home these days, or are inside hooked to various screen-devices, living in another world altogether.
As I drive, I can now spot the environmentally conscious mowers. They tend to leave unruly swaths of wildflowers scattered about the groomed green. The patches of flowers look pretty, but unusual. A rare homeowner here and there mows only a tiny swatch just around the house with the rest grown to hayfield height. I am all too aware of my pre-programmed reaction—unkempt. The silent judgment that follows is something along the lines of: they must be busy, disorganized, or lazy slackers. And of course there are the growing numbers of ticks and tick-borne diseases to consider, another justification to tame nature’s wildness to an orderly 3-inch carpet. Still, I find I have a growing admiration for these mowers of only tiny swaths.
Back home I walk my property. I have a modest 1.2 acres, about ¾ of which is lawn. How can I create less lawn, yet still retain aesthetic beauty and usefulness? One neighbor has simply transferred almost all of her property right up to her door into orchards, strawberry patches, and vegetable and flower gardens. But she basically works out there in the yard all day, every day. I simply can’t carve out that kind of time, though her productive land is pretty and the produce sumptuous. On one steep back hill on the north side of my property, I am letting the trees grow up wild. I always have to pay to have it brush-hogged anyway. I know it will bring songbirds and create a windbreak. It’s a fascinating experiment—what will Mother Nature produce on her own? So far poplars have appeared, a few maples, and some white pine. Already I notice more bird activity.
Along the road, I’ve let a 5 to 6 foot-wide stretch of grass grow all summer. It looks messy, but I plan to put in a short post-and-rail fence there to create a visual line. Each spring this will save me from raking up the gravel the snowplow pushes from the road to my lawn over the winter. It’s nice to have this subtle barrier of grass and flowers between the road and my space, which is really only “my space” by decree of human invention of the notion of “property.” In this little patch of wildness, I notice how the tall grasses are beautiful when they go to seed, their feathery plumes wheat and purple-colored, waving in the breeze. I’ve always let a back corner along the stonewall go to grass and wildflowers over the summer as well. There is one problem with letting the lawn go wild though: trees will grow up and take over, which can then reduce light and solar in the home. So I have to have this area brush-hogged in the fall, after the frosts have caused the crickets to go into hibernation. Last, I drew in the perimeter edges all around the circumference of my lawn by 2 feet or so. It’s not much, but it helps.
These are but modest changes, but they are a start at least. The American lawn is a conundrum. In spite of myself, I feel a sense of satisfaction after cutting a section of grass. I am okay. I am being a responsible homeowner. The universe is in order. I am American. These thoughts, of course, are a form of brainwashing, instilled by the lawn aesthetic campaign of 100 years ago and the resulting mindless cultural habit that has followed. There is no easy solution as to how to cultivate the yard in alternative, aesthetically pleasing, useful ways. Even with my various creative strategies, my lawn is still too big. Despite the issues, I love my lawn; I like the way it looks, feels, and smells. I enjoy a good competitive game of croquet, when I don’t have an injured shoulder, that is. I like reading out on the lawn on a blanket. It’s fun to watch the robins hop across the grass in the evening looking for earthworms. I am sure more and better solutions exist to reduce the areas I still mow. Finding those alternatives will be my winter research project. For I must answer the little voice that now pipes up as the sweet hay smell lingers over my freshly-mowed yard: You might be thinking you have just done your civic duty and restored order, but in reality you have actually committed floral and insect homicide, burned up some fossil fuel, added more C02 to the air, and created a stretch of environmental wasteland.
Engels, Jonathon. “Why Our Lawns Are Bad for the Environment and How to Change
Them for the Better.” Permaculture Research Institute, Permaculture Research
Insitute, 3 June 2016, https://permaculturenews.org/2016/06/03/why-our-lawns
Scott Jenkins, Virginia. The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession. Smithsonian
Institution Press, 1994.
Wile, Rob. “The American Lawn is Now the Largest Single ‘Crop’ in the U.S.” HuffPost,
Oath, Inc./HuffPost, 2017, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/lawn-largest