Revenge of the Lawn

Jack hated the front yard because he thought it was against him. There had been a beautiful lawn there when Jack came along, but he let it wander off into nothing. He refused to water it or take care of it in any way.
Now the ground was so hard that it gave his car flat tires in the summer. The yard was always finding a nail to put in one of his tires or the car was always sinking out of sight in the winter when the rains came on.

                                            –Richard Brautigan, Revenge of the Lawn

There is nothing more ubiquitous in American suburbs and small towns than the lawn. Indeed, “the lawn has become so much a part of the suburban landscape that it is difficult to see it as something that had to be invented.” Nevertheless, invented it was.

In ”Turf War”, Elizabeth Kolbert explores the phenomenon of the lawn, and along the way offers a measure of entertainment and illumination.

For instance: With the possible exception of barbeque and baseball, what could possibly be more American than lawns? And yet, “among the dozen or so main grasses that make up the American lawn, almost none are native to America. Kentucky bluegrass comes from Europe and northern Asia, Bermuda grass from Africa, and Zoysia grass from East Asia. These and other so-called turfgrasses are botanically ambidextrous; they can reproduce sexually, by putting out seeds, and asexually, by spreading laterally. (Biologists believe that they acquired this second ability some twenty million years ago, during the Miocene, when large herbivores, including the ancestors of the modern horse, switched from eating leaves to munching grass.)”

And so, by way of introduction to the invention of the lawnmower, Ms. Kolbert explains that “mowing turfgrass quite literally cuts off the option of sexual reproduction. From the gardener’s perspective, the result is a denser, thicker mat of green. From the grasses’ point of view, the result is a perpetual state of vegetable adolescence. With every successive trim, the plants are forcibly rejuvenated. In his anti-lawn essay ‘Why Mow?,’ Michael Pollan [author of The Botany of Desire and In Defense of Food, the latter reviewed over at the HCL blog in Alimentary, Dear Watson] puts it this way: ‘Lawns are nature purged of sex and death. No wonder Americans like them so much.’” Ouch.

Or consider the observation that “recently, a NASA-funded study, which used satellite data collected by the Department of Defense, determined that, including golf courses, lawns in the United States cover nearly fifty thousand square miles—an area roughly the size of New York State. The same study concluded that most of this New York State-size lawn was growing in places where turfgrass should never have been planted. In order to keep all the lawns in the country well irrigated, the author of the study calculated, it would take an astonishing two hundred gallons of water per person, per day. According to a separate estimate, by the Environmental Protection Agency, nearly a third of all residential water use in the United States currently goes toward landscaping.” And further, “a recent study by researchers at Ohio State University estimates that, owing to new development, the space devoted to turfgrass in the United States is growing at the rate of almost six hundred square miles a year.”

Ms. Kolbert’s appraisal of the lawn phenomenon is hardly a positive one, but even the most unrepentant advocate of turf should enjoy the read. Those who are avidly seeking alternatives are likely to be thrilled.

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