Man versus nature is a common theme in America. The idea that Europeans whittled a civilization out of wilderness is one of the tired old narratives crammed full of erroneous assumptions and misinformation that has reinforced this idea. Even an education can’t turn back the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, message pumped into our brains from an early age that we are supposed to subdue nature; bend it to our will. And this is often motivated purely by ego. Lawns are the perfect example.
I hate mowing the lawn. Hate it. As the intoxicating smell of chlorophyll and other chemicals from fresh cut grass fill my nose (mowing’s only saving grace) my body goes on autopilot as my brain tries to figure a way out of ever doing this again. The mower follows a line separating clipped grass from unclipped and I make another pass around the yard while mumbling about the stupidity of what I’m doing.
I am Sisyphus.
Why do we spend so much money and work so hard for what amounts to a biological wasteland around our house? Why do we spend hours of time and gallons of gasoline? Why do we water it when it withers in the summer sun only to spend more time and money to cut it down again? Lawn grasses don’t feed my family or invite pollinators onto my property. I’m not baling hay to feed cattle through winter. The best reason I could come up with for our culture’s obsession with a neat lawn is the man versus nature, bending it to our will motif — creating order, our version of it, out of disorder. And with this illusion of control we advertise to everyone else that we have the money and time to waste resources.
The lawn craze has its roots in European royalty. A large swath of useless green was a statement that you could afford to own a large swath of useless green. You could afford servants and livestock to keep it clipped, and you could afford not to care if it ever made you one thin coin or an ounce of nourishment. Of course envy reared its head, as was intended, and those under the ruling class soon wanted to flaunt their own assets so lawns became commonplace among the gentry. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had English style lawns, but the common man could not afford to waste good soil until after the Civil War when the first subdivisions rose from the countryside.
The big boom in lawns happened after World War II. Soldiers returning from the war found more money near cities in an increasingly industrialized nation and left the farm for good. The well-manicured lawn was a lasting reminder that the hardscrabble country life (remember, this was just after the Dust Bowl years) was a depressing memory, and it was the declaration of a new life filled with sophistication and leisure time. A lawn said that a family could afford to buy food as opposed to growing it and provided a living, high-maintenance outdoor carpet upon which to perform leisurely activities. It said the owner could afford to spend money and hours of work on land with no tangible return. Sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it? But that leads us to where we are today.
And where we are today is reflected in numbers from the Earth Institute at Colombia University.
- American Lawns take up 30-40 million acres.
- Lawnmowers account for five percent of the nation’s air pollution.
- Each year more than 17 million gallons of fuel are spilled during the refilling of lawn and garden equipment (more gallons of petroleum than spilled by the Exxon Valdez).
- Homeowners spend billions of dollars and typically use 10 times the amount of pesticide and fertilizers per acre on their lawns as farmers do on crops.
- The majority of these chemicals are wasted due to inappropriate timing and application.
- The chemicals then become runoff and a major source of water pollution.
- Lawn watering accounts for 30-60% of urban water use, and most of this water is wasted due to poor timing and application.
My goal is to reduce the approximately two acres I mow down to a green patch about 40 yards square in front of my house, and I don’t even want to mow that small area. Basically, I don’t want to own a mower of any type. I’m whittling away on this with a few different methods.
- Expand the garden - Why not use that space to grow more food?
- Plant native wildflowers - More pollinators and very pleasant scenery.
- Let corner patches of the yard grow wild — Native wildflowers are coming up on their own and there’s no telling how many beauties I’ve mowed over in the past.
- Goats as mowers – No gas, no noise (less noise), free fertilizer and possible meat in the freezer after the growing season. Goats tend to browse rather than graze and are ideal for tree-filled yards (like mine). They are excellent at keeping vines and shrubs at bay while letting grasses grow to a healthy yet controlled height.
It will be a few years before my plan comes to full fruition, but I’ve already got a shady spot picked out on the creek where I can spend more time enjoying nature instead of fighting against it.