Lao Tzu

"A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” – Lao Tzu

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Brave New Lawn: An Emblem of the American Dream Dies Hard

I grew up in the 50’s in the suburban neighborhoods of the San Fernando Valley—North Hollywood, Panorama City, Woodland Hills— where lawns were as ubiquitous as the tract homes they adorned, or the dog poop in the clover. Something like that.

Anyway, the fact of lawns was not something I questioned as a kid, except to grumble when it was my turn to mow the grass. Pushing and pulling our reluctant, rusty lawn mower over stubborn, overgrown clumps of grass was not something I wanted to do on a Saturday, and neither was scraping dog poop off the wheels. But that every house had a lawn, and every person clean air and plentiful water, made water and clean air invisible as issues, as concerns. We never gave it a thought; we played on our lawns, that’s all, trading cards, playing Simon Says, cowboys and Indians, or horsie—rearing, bucking, grazing green grass like real horses.

Everything happened on the lawn: Our male dog, Buck the Airedale, got stuck for an hour in my uncle’s female dog, Leesha the Boxer, while she investigated the lawn, nose in the grass, oblivious of her panting caboose, while I ran to the adults, sounding the alarm about Buck’s predicament, and while the adults worked hard at ignoring me. Buck also —there’s so much Bucklore— raised his leg behind my girlfriend’s clueless brother and took a piss on his pants (now a real-estate attorney), while we sat in the grass and giggled; I smoked a cigar I found there, a cigar my step-father had lost during one of his meandering, upside-down treks across the lawn in hand-stand mode, and I smoked it until nausea put a stop to my smoking days, once and for all.

Still, as I remember one neighborhood in Van Nuys, our lawns were never kid heaven, compared to the vacant lot down the street. Well, it wasn’t really vacant; in fact it was overgrown with tall trees, bushes, and, best of all, hip-high (on a kid) grass, which we yanked up and out of the ground for our dirt-clod wars and for weaving into the sides and tops of our forts, for privacy. Of course, this was before homeowner associations, when nobody cared if there was a neglected plot in the neighborhood; it was also before these days of paranoia, TV addiction and video games, when children could disappear for hours and nobody worried, when children actually played outside. (In my neighborhood now, I rarely see children playing outside, though children do live here.) It was the vacant lot, with its nooks and crannies, paths, jungle terrain, forts and faraway feeling that did the trick, allowing for stories to emerge—plot, character, adventure, places for childhood imagination, where all things were possible.

That is to say, children and other living things do not need lawns.

Now, here comes today: Unclean air, water a finite, contaminated resource; gasoline is finite too, and dirty, as we have come to understand. The price of gasoline shocks us all, ruins some. We buy carbon-dependent food from supermarkets, or from small, family-owned markets, or even local farmer’s markets, but many folks haven’t tasted a real, home-grown tomato in years, if ever; the price of organic produce burns. Meanwhile, the weight of our excesses, our selfishness and greed, suffocates life on the planet. Despite these realities, lawns are as ubiquitous as ever—no matter the upkeep, no matter they require an egregious amount of water, gasoline to run power mowers, Round-up to kill the weeds and other unwanted things like birds, insects and human beings (cancer), fertilizers, so the green grass can grow all around, all around, so the green grass can grow all around. No matter that this miraculous soil is capable of growing everything yet is allowed to grow only one thing—grass.

Michael Pollen:

“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.”

But what of my little city here in dry North County San Diego, Escondido? Sure, the city has a water conservation web site, offers rebates, presentations to elementary schools in the area on all things relating to water; they had a “California-Friendly-Landscape” contest, a Water-Awareness Poster Contest, a Free Home-Water/Energy Savings contest, workshops, events, and they even have water-use Rules and Regulations, which they don’t really police, given budget cut-backs. But, obviously, they’re trying. Right?

So why is it, when I drive around town, I see greenbelt dividers on city streets and roads planted in grass —lush, green grass— and plenty of green lawns on business properties; then we have the parks and golf courses, still green as ever?

Seems like a disconnect to me, especially when alternatives exist to ease the burden on mother nature’s resources. Regardless, the lawn endures, as if to dig up a lawn and replace it with a rock garden is tantamount to stomping on the American flag. We must have our lawns, or die, apparently.

Aware of the downside to lawns but unwilling to lose the look, some choose the fake lawn as an alternative, imagining they’re doing something good for the environment, perhaps not realizing the facts:

“Whether fake grass is made of recycled or virgin materials, its manufacturing is a very energy intensive process, during which greenhouse gases are emitted. Natural grass is often accused of necessitating high quantities of fertilizing and gas-mowing, two activities that produce greenhouse gas emissions, but according to a research conducted by Berkeley's Laboratory For Manufacturing And Sustainability, artificial turf releases more greenhouse gases in its production, transportation and processing than the maintenance of natural turf.”

Time to replace replace the old symbols with new ones. Front yards planted in vegetables or designed with rocks and native plants tell a better story about us than lawns. I realize it’s not the BIG ISSUE, but it counts. Every little step counts.