I hear them in the distance again: the leaf-blowers, the mowers, the edgers and the chain-saws operated by the semi-skilled. Fat and huffing white men, or crews of immigrants, run the equipment. That silliest annual ritual of American life is again before us: the worship of the lawn.
It's fun, of course, to tinker with one's mower and grass. It takes me back to childhood summers of the 1960s, before the climate began to lash at us, when Richmond was hot and humid but the "heat island" of our built-up area was not so huge and the sky not so hazy. People then, less distracted by the flickering mirages of cyberspace, spent more time outdoors.
For a kid, the pleasant scent of mown grass meant that school would soon be out for the year and I could get down to the serious business of re-enacting Iwo Jima or the Battle of the Bulge. I think of these things every year as I remove the blade from the mower and sharpen it on my bench-grinder. I change the oil and filters, then move plugs of sod into bare spots from areas where I don't want grass to grow. Yet year by year, the amount of lawn we tend shrinks and we have more time for growing things we eat, and even this thing called "doing nothing outside."
Our city "lawn" is now a big garden with ample flowerbeds, a shaded patch of hostas and ferns, an informal garden of herbs and vegetables, and even one fruit tree. And there's this little frame of grass around the entire picture to show it off. No pesticides or herbicides go into the ground, and very little water is used to keep it lush, largely because of the lack of a big lawn. I cut the entire thing in about 10 minutes with my power mower, or in 20 minutes with an old-timey reel mower, after the sweet gum tree is done with its yearly crop of sticky balls. The string-trimmer only gets fired up every few weeks to keep the grass out of the garden.
Then it's time to wave a bottle of beer in the air until my neighbor Eric notices from across the street, and we put the lawn to its best purpose: sitting around in it and doing nothing productive. By midsummer, when all illusions of control vanish in the garden, it becomes time to do a lot of lounging in a canvas chair with a cold beer, until the mosquitoes run us onto the screen porch.
Not so for many other sweating, cursing American males (and sadly, more than a few unenlightened females) who spend endless hours slaving to have a perfect lawn of identical blades of grass, or hire others to do this. Give it a rest, Homo sapiens. We have evolved too far to fret over such a trivial and conformist thing.
Recently I held my tongue around a gardener who is giving up on her vegetables because her huge and sunny yard is "full of Bermuda grass." She fretted that she'd have to spray the entire property with poisons before she could grow veggies. I almost said that she should just drink poison and make the world a better place, but my wife, the more sensible and sane one in our domestic paradise, simply replied "pull the stuff out of your garden after it rains and stay ahead of it." That's what we do, and come water-restrictions time, our Bermuda-grass-"infested" lawn is greener than others seeded with wimpy drought-prone grasses unsuited to this bioregion.
Yes, I know that Bermuda grass is an imported strain too; in fact, most lawn grass is. There's a reason: Our climate was never suited to growing the stuff. There is also a reason for the effortlessly lush lawns of England: a maritime climate with regular, abundant rainfall and cool summers.
As with any fetish, the underlying psychopathology of lawn worship has a long history. Two recent books, Ted Steinberg's "American Green" and Virginia Scott Jenkins' "The Lawn" show how a taste for country living, English styles, golfing and postwar conformity conspired with clever turf-and-equipment suppliers to make a Frankenstein's monster that gobbles up fossil fuel, chemicals and time in pursuit of something unreal and unsustainable in most of North America.
There are a few ways out of this green trap. I set my mower's cutting height to three inches, ideal for retaining moisture, and I cut the lawn once per week until the rain fails us in late June. I never, ever fertilize beyond mulching leaves with the mower.
Keeping a manicured, fairway-perfect lawn is an exercise in futility. After our last drought in Richmond, how many entire lawns were ripped out and reseeded? And to what end? When the next drought occurs, the cycle will be repeated until it ends for good. Increasingly random weather spawned by climate change, the end of cheap and plentiful oil (much fertilizer is made from petroleum) and even restrictions on immigration will doom the grail quest for emerald perfection in every yard. Neighborhoods with (the horror, the horror) covenants will have to change their rules; localities will impose watering restrictions; and bit by bit, the old dream of totalitarian armies of identical green blades will yield to something dare I say it? more natural.
To get to a more enlightened view of lawn care, however, we must abandon the impossible ideal of perfection. A decade ago, I saw a T-shirt sporting a parody of the song title: "I fought the lawn, and the lawn won." Stop fighting, grass addicts; Mama Nature will outlast you. S
Joe Essid teaches English at the University of Richmond. You can catch him this summer playing a wicked game of bocce on the nice patches of grass at Maymont.
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