Yesterday on Facebook and Twitter, this story in the Washington Post was trending: “My township calls my lawn a nuisance, but I still refuse to mow it”.
Next to the subhed, “Manicured lawns are ruining the planet,” was a picture of Sarah Baker, a woman with a flowing mane of chestnut hair, pictured arm and arm with her hot African American partner, recounting a familiar travail: A woman who knows a bit about plants–her family owns Baker’s Acres Greenhouse outside Alexandria, Ohio–decides she wants more of them in her life, so she allows her lawn to go to meadow.
She discovers the miracle I discovered when I fell in love with a horticulturist and began gardening in a serious way–that the lawn, the acme of urban/suburban American existence, is, in effect a green desert; that nothing, amid the toxic stew of fertilizers and herbicides that creates this carpet’s perfection, can actually live. On the other hand, allowing plant diversity to happen … also allows life to happen.
Her words are eloquent, so I’ll let them speak. She writes of the initial process:
A diverse potpourri of plants began to flourish, and a rich assortment of insects and animals followed. I had essentially grown a working ecosystem, one that had been waiting for the chance to emerge….
… the main point of growing a natural yard is to attract wildlife and build a self-regulating environment. The un-mowed plants in our yard attract plant-eating bugs and rodents, which in turn attract birds, bats, toads and garter snakes that eat them. Then hawks fly in to eat the snakes. Seeing all this life emerge in just one growing season made me realize just how much nature manicured lawns displace and disrupt.
But this discovery of life, though spiritually and even scientifically (Sarah is, after all, a horticulturist) informed, places the couple in conflict with their neighbors…
Who complain to the Township authorities, which declare her yard a “nuisance.”
Saying it would attract, quel horreur!, “animals”, the town council presents the couple with an ultimatum: Mow or we’ll do it for you and you’ll face a $1,000 fine. The couple appeals, tries to make their case at a public meeting–predictably, loses. But by this time, the newspapers have begun to take note, and the story gradually goes viral…
Leaving me wondering, Exactly how many times must this exact sequence of events unfold over the mindless, unthinking allegiance homo Americanus has pledged to the suburban lawn?
In California, there’s a drought crisis–virtually the whole state seems to be on fire. And yet it wasn’t until last month that the governor signed a bill barring cities and counties from fining residents who didn’t water their lawns. Meanwhile amid a growing consensus in the arid states West of the Rockies that, environmentally speaking, lawns don’t make a whole lot of sense, some observers are declaring that “the era of the lawn is over.”
And I say, yeah! But in the rest of the country, without the pressure of an environmental crisis, complacency rules.
Scientists have been warning of the pollinator crisis for the better part of a decade–have we listened? Scientists have been virtually begging Americans to cut back on the use of lawn herbicides and insecticides–an entire class of these biocides, the neonicotinids, was banned by the European Union in 2013 due to impact on bee populations. Has my lawn-obsessed father, or any of his neighbors in their upper crust suburb on the marsh, paid a moment’s heed? Not at all.
And it simply makes no sense–not in environmental terms, not even in historical terms. The lawn as a status symbol is, after all, an artifact of 18th century English aristocracy. Having ejected the peasants, their neighbors, from “the commons” to starve, they planted lawns, with a complete lack of irony, to demonstrate to their peers that they were so rich they didn’t need to grow food next to their houses. These are the values we symbolically embrace when we cling to lawns.
In a green and lightly populated world, lawns were a human and social disaster. But after three hundred years of industrial development, they are now an environmental threat, with devastating costs to birds and pollinators and more. Here in South Carolina where I live, the expansion of golf courses and suburbs into marsh and wetlands, with the fertilizers and herbicides required to maintain them, is poisoning the estuary on which we all depend for food, for jobs, for the way of life that we trumpet in tourist brochures. And yet, still, people remain blind to the costs–and will punish their neighbors for not falling down in worship of an essentially stupid and wasteful practice.
Every community I’ve lived in has folks like Sarah and Daryl–women and men who thoughtfully, rationally, reasonably choose to reject fashion and pursue a course that’s in keeping with their values and with science. I have yet to hear of a town that’s embraced them.
When I lived in Charlottesville, Virginia, the so-called “locavore capital,” my neighbors were aghast when I fell in love with a horticulturist, converted my front yard to a rock garden and my back yard to a production nursery. Neighbor ladies clucked at how “he just ruined your yard.”
Now that I live in a small town in South Carolina–a state where to say environmental consciousness is lacking is a masterpiece of understatement–I’ve watched aghast as a young colleague, an ecology professor, has become the target of neighbors’ ire for growing, with her partner, an edible garden and raising more chickens than the number officially sanctioned in the town code.
It’s appalling–a young woman who has so much to give, being hounded by a cabal of Baptist church biddies, who have made the extra chickens (three) and her lack of matrimony a holy crusade. She may end up leaving the college to find a friendlier place to live. It makes me want to ask, with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, “Did you fall down, hit your head, and wake up thinking you were in 1950?”
I have much more to say on this topic, but I’ll end with this thought. Good lord deliver us from hypocrites and idiots–and the tyranny of the suburban lawn.