In Lawns We Trust

Genesis 1:28:  God said to [Adam and Eve], “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

To some suburban dwellers, God’s commandment from Genesis seems to mean “to rule over anything that lands on the ground,” including leaves, pine needles, seeds, buds, petals, feathers, twigs, and bark.

I live in suburbia and have a neighbor of this faith living immediately next door.  He is devoted to a Sunday ritual. Almost every weekend, barring rain or snow, he dons his headphones, lights a cigarette, and revs up the leaf-blower strapped to his back.  Then he proceeds to sweep every inch of his yard, his driveway, his neighbor’s driveway, and part of the street.  His property is less than a quarter of an acre.  Leaf-blowing should take him about ten minutes, given that he does it so regularly.  But he is often out there for two hours or more, disrupting the tranquility of a sunny afternoon with the insistent noise of a gas-engine.

It’s horrid and inconsiderate.  But it’s also emblematic, I think, of a deeper American problem, and that is our disconnection from the natural world and our belief that all of it—trees, flowers, insects, and wildlife—is our dominion and needs to be contained, controlled, and exiled.  We are colonizers in the ever-expanding promised land of suburbia.  A leaf-blower is to my neighbor as essential an implement as a covered wagon was to the so-called pioneers.  Weed-whackers, lawn-mowers, hedge-trimmers, chain-link fencing, pesticide, and driveway sealant are others.  And there are more.

Two years ago, I found my neighbor standing in the middle of my front yard after dark, suited up as if he were chasing a bear.  It was November, and I had just scattered vetch and clover seeds for a winter-cover crop, trying to undo some of the salt damage wrought by plows. He used his leaf-blower to send nearly every last seed into the street.  That was the night I told him to keep himself and his machine away from my yard.  I gave him a pass on the absent apology; he might have thought he was doing the single woman next door a favor.  But that hasn’t stopped him, since then, from regularly blasting everything within an inch of me.

There is a terrible cost to the weekend-warrior with a leaf-blower and a container of Round-Up.  All those incandescent, over-fertilized leaf- and flower-free lawns are one reason we are losing pollinators.  Some enterprising film student should hook a tiny camera to the back of a bee and follow as it flies in search of something edible.  That bee will likely fly over unappetizing acres of bright green suburban food-deserts, patches of monoculture decorated with mulch and store-bought peonies instead of tall grasses and beebalm and sunflowers.

Without flowers, bees starve.

Much about this monoculture-mindset is reminiscent of the belief in manifest destiny that justified westward expansion a century or two ago—the idea that we are entitled by God to confiscate lands and to rule indigenous life.  Anyone who infringed on that expansion was considered an adversary obstructing progress.  Many a perceived foe died.

Manifest destiny rationalized the expropriation of tribal lands, the exploitation of the labor of enslaved people to work cotton and sugar and tobacco plantations, and the turning of tall prairie grass dotted with buffalo herds into millions of buffalo-less acres of industrial farms that destroy aquifers, wipe out native plant and animal life, and create oceanic dead zones from fertilizer run-off.  Concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, produce massive quantities of beef and pork at the same time they generate gallons of animal waste that pollute fresh water and sully the air with particulate toxins. Antibiotic resistance is in large part the product of prophylactic medications that are excreted in animal waste and end up in human beings–something like a meat-producer’s analog to Round-Up.  These externalities of industrial food are considered not only part of the cost of doing business, but also an untouchable aspect of private industry on private land, despite the reality that we are all bearing the environmental cost of an “earth is ours to exploit” mindset.

I don’t live in the cattle-belt, but even in suburbia there is evidence of this approach to Mother Earth.  Endless green and vibrant lawns are unnatural: They do not occur in the wild.  I recently planted a large but contained patch of pollinating wildflowers on my lawn—which prior to my living there, grew nothing because the soil was so damaged by over-mowing and road salt.  Two years after I laid the seeds, a lush stretch of black-eyed Susans, hairy vetch, purple clover and assorted wildflowers sprang up.  The yard hums with bees, birds, and butterflies—and my neighbors are deeply and unapologetically unhappy.

One day I noted a spreading splotch of white on the grass they normally mow to about half an inch (with lots of patches of bare dirt showing through) adjacent to my yard.  My neighbor told me his wife put down weed-killer.  Then she appeared and said my wildflowers were ruining their lawn.

A few stray flowers had prompted her to pour so much pesticide on the grass that she destroyed much of it.

I asked my neighbor, oh he of the leaf-blower, what he was going to do about the bleached grass.  “What’s the use of doing anything as long as that shit is growing in your yard?” he griped, waving his hand toward a patch of beautiful yellow and pink flowers.  He couldn’t maintain his lawn, and it was my fault: A few stray blossoms had sullied the monoculture of the front yard I have not, in five years, ever seen him or his wife enjoying.

A year before the seed-blowing incident, I went to Nova Scotia on a spring vacation, eager on my return to see if the wildflowers I had planted along the border of my yard had blossomed.  But the yard was weirdly empty.  I asked around: My neighbor had come over and mowed down “the weeds” while I was gone.  When I told him they were wildflowers, he didn’t apologize or offer to replant.  Taming nature is the righteous calling of the weekend-warrior.  He didn’t think he had done anything wrong.

At the corner of our lot there are some city trees and a patch of scrabbly grass that I considered planting with perennials.  When the neighbor-wife heard that, she told me she wanted to put in some flowers.  “But not wildflowers,” she said.  “They are wrecking our lawn.”  The flowers wrecked it, not the poison.  A few days later, a bunch of Home-Depot-like flats of flowers appeared, spread over the ground as if to stake it out.  I thought: Who cares? I’m not gonna argue—flowers are flowers.  I even watered them after they had been sitting out, untended, in several days of 90-plus degree heat.  But a few more days passed, and the plants did not end up in the ground. An intended planting turned into the making of potpourri, because all the flowers—and the little Japanese maple she bought as well—turned crunchy brown.  And the dead flowers are there still, as if to remind me: No seeds allowed.

My neighbor is no more interested in cultivating vegetation than she is in water ballet.  She laid claim to that patch of dirt before I did—to control it, confine it, and own it.

My garden

Trees aren’t spared, either.  Years back, in a different community, I enjoyed the view of a stately oak tree in the backyard of the house across the street.  At the time I lived in a more urban environment and that tree, with its changing leaves, nesting birds, and sparkle of snow in winter, was a pleasure to behold.  I’ll never forget the day I came home to a machine that looked like something from The Lorax–a tree-grinder that reduced the sixty-foot stripped trunk of the tree to a pile of chips in mere minutes.  I was as grief-stricken as if a dear friend had died.  I asked the homeowners why they took down the tree: It didn’t look diseased.  Their answer: “We are sick of raking.”

I am reminded of this needless tree-death because my leaf-blowing neighbor offered to cut down a grove of about twenty white birches after six of them were storm-damaged.  Why would I cut down all the trees, instead of only the most bent and broken?  “The goddamned leaves,” he said.  “They make a mess.”  I was truly terrified that I would come home one day to find he had leveled my birches, so deep was his dislike.  Ironic: Given the frequency with which he trots out that leaf-blower, I would have thought he loved my trees.  Their annual crop of red, orange, and gold give him a predictable reminder, when he’s got that contraption on his back, of his self-perceived mastery.

Manifest destiny is how the West was won and private property enlarged.  “God gave the World to Men in Common,” said the political philosopher John Locke.  “But since he gave it them for their benefit, and the greatest Conveniencies of life they were capable to draw from it, it cannot  be supposed he meant it should always remain common  and uncultivated” (italics mine).  Translation: Stake out a patch of land; if you work it, it’s yours.  Making a patch of ground the means of production was the basis for property ownership when the United States was still young.  Clearly some people today still believe this is an acceptable way not only to negotiate boundaries, but to dictate how to care for the land itself.

I wouldn’t say that all suburban homeowners are selfish or even the more benign “clueless.”  But if I look around even at the messier yards, I still see too much mulch, not enough diversity, and nothing that calls to birds and bees.  On any given morning in my suburban community, I will pass a truck hauling a huge lawnmower and a team of insistently shrieking leaf-blowers that shatter our collective peace.  I wonder: When did this become a thing, that armies of grounds-keepers are regularly deployed for the maintenance  of ordinary homes?  That I have to crisscross the streets so I can breathe air instead of clouds of dust and exhaust?  Noise is pollution, too, with the attendant health toll.

That is why I have, of late, come to think about suburban yards as emblematic, in some part, of what is wrong with contemporary America.  Suburbia is the final frontier of manifest destiny.  Buy or build a home.  Rip up the surrounding trees and diversity of plant life.  Unroll layers of manufactured grass; border with mass-produced orange mulch that is treated with petrochemicals. Install store-bought flowers that soon wilt because of insufficient soil aerification.  Hang a feeder for the birds that don’t come because there are no insects—because the same Round-Up that makes the grass perfectly uniform in color and density kills wildflowers (aka “weeds”) that draw the insects (aka “pests”) that feed the birds.  Maybe pop in a spindly young tree or two and surround them with more mulch.  Erect a fence—preferably chain-link—that marks your property and keeps people out.  If necessary, tether a dog somewhere.  Install a water hose or lay sprayers that suck up more than your share of water in order to keep the aptly called carpet of genetically modified grass intact.  Invest in expensive lawn and garden tools so you can keep your patch of green trimmed, sanitized, and orderly.  Seal your driveway with a tarry cover so snow and rain run off, carrying away whatever salt and chemicals you have spread and diffusing them in the groundwater.  Don’t worry if your externalities pollute water, destroy diversity, and drive away wildlife.

This is America.  In lawns we trust.

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