Why Mow? The Case Against Lawns

Anyone new to the experience of owning a lawn, as I am, soon figures out that there is more at stake here than a patch of grass. A lawn immediately establishes a certain relationship with one’s neighbors and, by extension, the larger American landscape. Mowing the lawn, I realized the first time I gazed into my neighbor’s yard and imagined him gazing back into mine, is a civic responsibility.

For 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 to 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 Scarsdale, unfurls across a dozen golf courses, and wraps itself around the pale blue pools of Bronxville before pressing on toward the Hudson. New Jersey next is covered, an emerald postage stamp laid down front and back of 10,000 split levels, before the broadening green river divides in two. One tributary pushes south, and does not pause until it has colonized the thin, sandy soils of Florida. The other dilates and spreads west, easily overtaking the Midwest’s vast grid before running up against the inhospitable western states. But neither flinty soil nor obdurate 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 grass across the continent, with scarcely a thought to the local conditions or expense. America has more than 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, Tenn., 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 passer-by.” 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.

It is not easy to stand in the way of such a powerful current. Since we have traditionally eschewed fences and hedges in America (looking on these as Old World vestiges), 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 the majority will not tolerate the laggard. I learned this at an early age, growing up in a cookie-cutter subdivision in Farmingdale, L.I.

My father, you see, was a lawn dissident. Whether owing to laziness or contempt for his neighbors I was never sure, but he could not see much point in cranking up the Toro more than once a month or so. The grass on our quarter-acre plot towered over the crew-cut lawns on either side of us and soon disturbed the peace of the entire neighborhood.

That subtle yet unmistakable frontier, where the closely shaved lawn rubs up against a shaggy one, is a scar on the face of suburbia, an intolerable hint of trouble in paradise. The scar shows up in “The Great Gatsby,” when Nick Carraway rents the house next to Gatsby’s and fails 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.

Our neighbors in Farmingdale displayed somewhat less class. “Lawn mower on the fritz?” they’d ask. “Want to borrow mine?” But the more heavily they leaned on my father, the more recalcitrant he became, until one summer””probably 1959, or ’60″”he let the lawn go altogether. The grass plants grew tall enough to flower and set seed; the lawn rippled in the breeze like a flag. There was beauty here, I’m sure, but it was not visible in this context. Stuck in the middle of a row of tract houses on Long Island, our lawn said turpitude rather than meadow, even though strictly speaking that is what it had become.

That summer I felt the hot breath of the majority’s tyranny for the first time. No one said anything now, but you could hear it all the same: Mow your lawn or get out. Certain neighbors let it be known to my parents that I was not to play with their children. Cars would slow down as they drove by. Probably some of the drivers were merely curious: they saw the unmowed lawn and wondered if someone had left in a hurry, or perhaps died. But others drove by in a manner that was unmistakably expressive, slowing down as they drew near and then hitting the gas angrily as they passed””pithy driving, the sort of move that is second nature to a Klansman.

We got the message by other media, too. Our next-door neighbor, a mild engineer who was my father’s last remaining friend in the development, was charged with the unpleasant task of conveying the sense of community to my father. It was early on a summer evening that he came to deliver his message. I don’t remember it all (I was only 4 or 5 at the time), but I can imagine him taking a highball glass from my mother, squeaking out what he had been told to say about the threat to property values and then waiting for my father””who next to him was a bear””to respond.

My father’s reply could not have been more eloquent. Without a word he strode out to the garage and cranked up the rusty old Toro for the first time since fall; it’s a miracle the thing started. He pushed it out to the curb and then started back across the lawn to the house, but not in a straight line: he swerved right, then left, then right again. He had cut an “S” in the high grass. Then he made an “M,” and finally a “P.” These are his initials, and as soon as he finished writing them he wheeled the lawn mower back to the garage, never to start it up again.

I WASN’T PREPARED TO TAKE SUCH A HARD LINE ON MY 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 exact location of every stump and stone, the tunnel route of each resident mole, the address of every anthill.

I noticed that where rain collected white clover flourished, that it was on the drier rises that crabgrass thrived. After a few weekends I had a map of the lawn in my head 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 metaphorical sense, how I keep the forest at bay and preserve my place in this landscape. Much as we’ve come to distrust it, the urge to dominate nature is a deeply human one, 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 lawns 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 short-grass savannas of Africa on which we evolved and spent our first few million years. This is said to explain why we have remade the wooded landscapes of Europe and North America in the image of East Africa.

Such theories go some way toward explaining the widespread appeal of grass, but they don’t really 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 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 even begin to account for the unmistakable odor of virtue that hovers in this country over a scrupulously maintained lawn.

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 30 feet from the road and it proscribed walls. He was reacting against the “high dead-walls” of England which he felt made a row of homes there seem “as of 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 who set out at midcentury 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 as if 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, tree stumps everywhere one looked. As Cobbett and many other 19th-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 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 his 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. Also, the English never considered the lawn an end in itself: it served as a setting for lawn games and as a backdrop for flowerbeds 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.” Like Olmsted before him, Scott sought to elevate an unassuming patch of turfgrass into an institution of democracy.

With our open-faced front lawns we declare our like-mindedness to our neighbors””and our distance from the English, who surround their yards with “inhospitable brick wall, 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 fence or hedge 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 garden writer in 1921 attributed the popularity of open lawns to our “infantile instinct to cry ‘hello!’ to the passer-by, to 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 specifying 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 of 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 land 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; perhaps his initials in the front lawn were a kind of Emerald Letter.

Possibly because it is this common land, rather than race or tribe, that makes us all Americans, we have developed a deep distrust of individualistic approaches to the landscape. The land is too important to our identity as Americans to simply allow everyone to have his own way with it. And once we decide that the land should serve as a vehicle of consensus, rather than an arena of self-expression, the American lawn””collective, national, ritualized, and plain””begins to look inevitable.

AFTER MY FIRST SEASON of lawn mowing, the Zen approach began to wear thin. I had 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 sentences 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 begin to make the lawn productive. Behind the house, I put in a perennial border. I built three raised beds out of old chestnut barnboards 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””I continued to observe front-yard conventions, 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, the relation to my neighbors that a lawn implied; it was 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 mower’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? A 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 fertilizer, lime, 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 and 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 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 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 one 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 20th-century industrial civilization””its chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and machinery. 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 we glimpse in the ChemLawn commercials, the 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 just about any crop grown in this country. Suits fly against the national lawn-care companies, and interest is kindled in “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 rather 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 half way.

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 oxeye 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, Twisted Sister or Van Halen isn’t playing the Hartford Civic Center, this large blond teen-aged being is apt to show up with a 48-inch John Deere mower that shears the lawn in less than an hour. It’s $30 a week, but he’s 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 revert to meadow, or even forest, except that I don’t go in 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 even if I did, 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 musclebound 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 space””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 a decision. It’s a private matter, and I’m trying to keep politics out of it.