28 September 2009

Lawns & Lawn Care

I have been thinking a good deal about lawns and lawn care in western society. I detest lawns. Yet I am not even close to coming to grips with the reasons for my profound hatred of them. México offers a wonderful perspective from which to contemplate all that. I have limited my thinking to residential lawns in an effort to limit the subject sufficiently such that I can make a start on wrapping my mind around it. But the more one ponders even that limited category of lawns, the more elusive the subject becomes.

Why lawns? Wherefore lawns? Whence lawns? I confess that these questions are the reason that I have been reading the great western philosophers recently.

I need to do more reading about lawns specifically now. I am not talking about the volumes and volumes written on the care and feeding of lawns. Someone somewhere has written at least a monograph on why residential lawns, as they are presently constituted, in the first place. That is what I am interested in. Having as yet failed to find even a monograph on the subject, I am starting my own.

The environmental damage wrought by lawn care is not something that really interests me. I know something of it, but I am not going to rant about that other than to say this. When John Sebastian of the Lovin' Spoonful sang of his wish to “fall on his face in somebody's new mown lawn,” he could not have been singing about the modern American residential lawn, particularly the one with the little flags planted in it signifying that the new mown lawn has now just been treated to a cocktail of chemicals. Even the damned dogs and cats are not allowed to walk around on that lawn in order to take a shit.

Given the enormous amount of time and effort and resources expended by much of the citizenry in order to maintain an acceptable residential lawn, the lawn as an institution must satisfy some deep longing in the heart of contemporary western man—or at least in the hearts of a great number of them.

My real interest is, as I said, the residential lawn consisting of closely, evenly cropped grass, edged and manicured. The grass itself is usually selectively bred for the purpose of forming a dense carpet close to the ground. The residential lawn as currently constituted is first and foremost something to look at, albeit it usually in passing. Still, there are those who stare at their lawns, as if it were a Vermeer, for extended periods of time or at their neighbors' lawns either enviously or scornfully. That a very small minority occasionally plays volleyball or badminton or croquet on their lawns does not obviate this fact. A residential lawn appeals to an aesthetic viewpoint. The precise nature and worth of that aesthetic viewpoint is a subject for another day.

Here is just a start on that aspect of the subject truly at hand, my working hypothesis. As recently as the 19th Century, residential lawns were the exclusive province of the aristocracy. A closely, evenly cropped expanse of grass, edged and manicured, in part signified that the resident of the manor behind all that had the necessary manual labor of others at his beck and call in order to maintain a lawn, the gardener and his assistants.

Lawns were an essential part of a residential manifestation of station and power. Only the simplest and most rudimentary of machines were in existence as aids in lawn maintenance. Your run-of-the-mill cottage dweller had to devote his time to feeding himself rather than to lawn care. I am sure that sodding a new lawn out in front of his little place never crossed his mind.

With the waning of the power of the aristocracy and the waxing of the power of the haute bourgeoisie, we had a whole new class of people interested in a residential display of station and power. They, too, got their lawns. It should then come as no surprise that as the ascent of the problematic ideals of democracy premised on the questionable assumption that the masses are capable of governing themselves neared its apogee—every man a king, as Huey Long put it--vast numbers of working people began craving a lawn as a symbol of their new station in life. In a republic they were now citizens and no longer subjects of the state, parties now to a solemn contract with their state. The state had, in widely accepted popular theory, become their servant rather than their master.

A typical member of the working classes came to feel entitled to his own little Versailles, some more Versailles-ish than others, and nowhere more so than in that vanguard of democracy, the United States of America. The citizenry demanded of its servant government a subsidy of lawn ownership for veterans in the late forties and fifties and sixties and an immensely popular jury rig of the entire tax structure to the benefit of every residential lawn owner.

Levittown 1950

Nearly everybody could now afford a lawn. All you had to do was put a house on it. An enormous number of ordinary working people in the United States of American got their lawns.

But they were still working people unable to devote the enormous amount of time to lawn care that the manual labor of lawn care required. In the democratic market place there came a great new demand for and the advent of all the machines specifically designed to aid in lawn care—miniature grass mowers with small internal combustion engines capable of quickly cutting wide swathes of grass to a perfectly uniform height, edgers, trimmers, vacuums, mulchers, aerators, blowers, and ultimately—a beloved source of so much laughter for me—the lawn tractor with attachments. The Industrial Revolution had come to be the servant of lawn care.

Note cool attachments.

A fantastic new product, lawn aerator sandals.

Five, maybe six pretty decent little lawns in the background.

[Caption deleted.]

There followed quickly the great demand for and advent of a vast array of fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides and other chemicals also specifically designed for that one same purpose. The science of the Enlightenment itself had come to be the servant of lawn care.

In this century we have arrived at an aristocracy of everyman wherein large numbers of the democratic citizenry of the United States of America now pay for the labor of others to maintain their lawns. The sine qua non of the condominium owners' association is just that, as a matter of fact. The labor engaged in this task is quite often, but certainly not always, black or Mexican.

Not Mexican.

Is not that so perfect on several levels? At one level the lawn itself has become a kind of Robin Hood, all dressed in Lincoln green, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. I have never really cared for Robin Hood either. As with lawn care, the whole Robin Hood thing can get out of hand very quickly.

There is a start on the subject, but it still does not satisfy me by a long shot. However, this all may go some way toward explaining the great current gnashing of teeth up north arising out of the fact that so many Americans are losing their lawns. This king, too, is subject to being dethroned.

Still, I am like that great personage of whom it was said that he hated mankind but truly loved individual men. I love my Mexican lawn here. It is a totally organic lawn. It doubles as a semi-arid habitat. It is mowed regularly three times per year. And when Teo is through mowing it with the gas-powered weed whacker and comes over with his big hand clippers to help me with my small hand clippers to trim around the camper, I give him ten pesos.


Beej said...

oh man, couldn't you just picture me racing through the neighborhood on that riding mower in the video? What fun.

Beej said...

Steve, I've been thinking. You should get a nanny goat. Not only would it keep the grass at a good heighth but you could also milk it so you dont have to keep your cereal milk behind your tire any more.

mister anchovy said...

When we moved into our last place, I started to turn the front and back lawns into perennial gardens. It took a couple or three years to finally get rid of it completely but by the time we left the yards were transformed into crazy beautiful gardens.

Now we have lawn again in the new place. We also have lots of trees and grass doesn't do so well. Weeds do pretty well though, and I have plenty. I started carving out some gardens this year and my vague plan is to add a garden or two each year.

Señor Steve said...

Perennial gardens are a neat option, mr. anchovy. In the mid-west United States, returning lawns to prairie with wild flowers would be so cool. That takes a while and is difficult to do of course. And in contravention of provisions of most city ordinances by the way. But how much more work could it be than a lawn, which also takes time to develop even when one sods it?

Señor Steve said...

It would work out better, Beej, if my landlady Señora Maria got the goat. Perhaps I will plant the seed. I will simply inform her as I hand over my next rent check that I for one would not mind if she acquired a goat or two. It is, after all, a good idea and certainly not in contravention of any city ordinances here.

Ruth said...

And if the goat doesn't work out---
birria is a gift of the Mexican gods. Save me a plate.

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Jordan Mallory said...

This is a great article. I love taking care of my lawn, especially during the summer. However, during the Fall I have so rake up so many leaves because I have a lot of trees on my property. This year I really want to try a Tow Behind Lawn Vacuum . I heard they are really easy to use and it would be a lot quicker then raking.