lawn 1

In Michael Pollen’s memoir, Second Nature: A Gardner’s Education, which is an account of his experience gardening in an old bit of Housatanic Valley farm he and his wife bought in the eighties, while they were living in Manhattan, begins with the ur-suburban experience of lawn mowing….

At least, ur-suburban for a certain generation. LI’s old man was a farmer wantabee from the day the farm he owned, outside of Syracuse, New York, arm wrestled him into bankruptcy, two out of three falls. Fate shoved him into the heating and air field, and the rest was history – actually, a history that placed him and his family, Yankees, in the suburbs of a Dixie city during the sixties, when the South was breaking out of its apartheid slumbers, and large numbers of Yankees were changing the demographic. So, coming home from another day of dealing with idiots who hadn’t checked the pressure on the lines, miscalculated roof tonnage for their units, or had otherwise fucked up, as was the wont of the whole world besides my Pop (a trait LI has, unfortunately, inherited in spades, although luckily countered by my Mom’s serenity of the long term, which I have also inherited0), he would take comfort in watering, fertilizing, edging, weeding and in other ways pampering the lawn. Like so many places in suburban Atlanta, our subdivision was created by drawing a thin veil of red clay and rock over a former woods-cum-garbage-dump – the woods as a garbage dump being one of the primal modes of contact between the American householder and a buncha trees – and thus was not a promising soil from which to coax dwarf plums, or to transplant friendly Yankee deciduous, like redleaf maple. Yet transplant my old man did. Transplant, actually, a whole generation of landscapers did. From kudzu to pittis porum, the natural history of northern Georgia was remade to the extent that mere humans with bulldozers, nurseries, fertilizers and pesticides could remake it.

Michael Pollen’s father was, apparently, that well known blight in the neighborhood, the guy who DID NOT MOW HIS LAWN. Our neighbor, Mr. Fox, suffered from a similar defect, and his lawn became a terrorist refuge – for indeed, dandelions and crabgrass, to my old man, evoked emotions of horror and anger much like those evoked by the Taliban creeping in from Waziristan in our fresh faced doughboys in the valleys of Afghanistan.

Here’s Pollan:

“The summer he [Pollan’s father] stopped mowing altogether, I felt the hot breath of a tyrannical majority for the first time. Nobody would say anything, but you heard it anyway: wo your lawn. Cars would slow down as they drove by our house. Porbably some of the drivers were merely curious: they saw the unmowed lawn and wondered if someone had left in a hurry or died. But others drove by in a manner that was unmistakeably expressive, slowing down as they drew near and then hitting the gas angrily as they passed – this was pithy driving, the sort of move that is second nature to Klansmen.”

After getting the message, Pollan’s father did a rather American thing – he took his lawnmower out into the tall grass and simply mowed his initials into it. “…as soon as he finished writing them, he wheeled the lawn mower back to the garage, never to start it up again.”
With this family history, it is no wonder Pollan is conscious of lawns. He has written about grass in The Botany of Desire as a sort of parasite on humankind. In Second Nature, he writes, rewriting his NYT article :

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 content, with scant thought to the local conditions or expense. American has some 50,000 square miles of lawn under cultiation, 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 cusotom 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.”


Brian said…
The horror of the suburbs of Cleveland and Tuscon looking exactly alike is a sad commentary on our culture. (Un)fortunately, this is coming to an end-we just don't have enough water in the arrid west.