A LAVISH EXPANSE OF LAWN IS THE ULTIMATE EXPRESSION OF AMERICAN WELL-BEING AND WEALTH. BUT HOW DID THAT BECOME THE FASHION? AND AT WHAT COST?
My earliest lawn memory is seared into my hippocampus as a near-death experience. I’m maybe two or three years old, running for my life across the proud expanse of green at Duke Farms, my best friend Dario Duke’s home on Wyandanch Lane in Southampton. Pounding after me is a Tyrannosaurus Rex (in reality the family’s large black Lab who just wants to play). I see it closing the distance in giant bounds until I can hear wet panting just behind me, and then it blocks the sun and great rough forepaws flatten me into the cut grass.
Bruce Chatwin and others have observed that there is an ancestral comfort in open grassland; Homo erectus felt safe on the savannah because he could spot predators in time to flee. Not my first experience. But I was able to move on and love many lawns. Before returning to its present role in the shouting match about what America is and who loves it the most, let’s excavate the lawn’s history, and how it came to be this colossal agricultural overachiever.
Some facts for perspective: The most recent NASA satellite imaging of Earth found that turf grasses took up around 40 million acres in the contiguous United States — or roughly three times as much area as corn. A fifth of the total land area of Massachusetts and New Jersey is blanketed with lawn. In North America as a whole, lawns have overtaken croplands as the primary managed land cover — more than 79,000 miles in total.
The word lawn takes an etymological stroll from the 12th-century Breton usage, lann, meaning moor or forest clearing, to the Middle English launde, or glade, to its most recognizable cognate, laune, meaning stretch of grass, or turf. The first so-called lawns probably referred to clearings in the woods used as communal pastures for grazing livestock in northern France and Great Britain around 900 years ago. Around the same time, King Henry I expensively maintained perhaps the earliest estate lawn at Clarendon Palace for sport, leisure, and sheer beauty. As a perquisite of the aristocracy, the lawn was well set by the early 1700s, when the prime architect of the English garden, Capability Brown, made broad, endless green swards a signal aspect of the Manor House. From then to now, oceanic lawns have offered open views of grand properties, and signified wealth and status.
The semiotics of seed weren’t lost on our homegrown aristocracy, and the first documented lawn in America was planted by, wouldn’t you know it, Thomas Jefferson. George Washington had his own “bowling green” at Mount Vernon, and if you visit, there’s a sign at the top of what one French nobleman called “a kind of courtyard with a green carpet,” with a quote from Washington, which reads, “Began again to Smooth the Face of the Lawn, or Bolling [sic] Green on the West front of my House . . . ” It goes on to explain that “the 18th-century lawn was expensive to plant and required extensive labor to maintain. The gently curving perimeters gave the landscape a more natural appearance, strongly contrasting with the straight, formal walks of most American landscapes of the time.” To keep the lawn smooth, skilled slaves used a large stone roller and scythes. Other estates used flocks of sheep to manage the growth of turf grass cultivated from European and Asian seeds.
Which brings us to one of the critical beats in the lawn-story arc: the invention of the world’s first mower by an English textile engineer named Edwin Beard Budding in 1830. It wasn’t until 1868 that a few lighter versions of this unwieldy iron apparatus were introduced to the American market. Naturally, these were luxury items, and it wasn’t until the 1940s that affordable rotary power mowers democratized the lawn for the country’s expanding middle class. 139,000 mowers sold in 1946; that blew up to 4.2 million by 1959.
Once the lawn became mainstream, it forked off as a signifier of privileged separateness and became in a way, anti-elite. In suburbia, it still announced prosperity, but also the conformity of shared ideals, mores, and styles of living. If there was a tidy plot in front of the house trimmed with the owner’s personal choice in perennials, the backyard could be a section of one wide swath of lawn punctuated with a low fence or a hedge, or maybe nothing at all. It was a natural security blanket, a reminder that not just I, the homeowner, but we had done well on our comfortably homogeneous rung of the social ladder. The monochromatic repetition of manmade lawns was an assurance that everything was in order; at the first half of the cataclysmic 20th century, between the First World War and the Cold War, this was a big deal.
That’s a mini-history, which takes us approximately to the end of 1950s: simpler, Technicolor days before the shadow fell across the figurative American lawn. Many events coalesced at the darkening, but let’s name two low-hanging fruit: the assassination of J.F.K., and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Around 1963, America grew out of dizzy, fizzy adolescence into suddenly sober proto-adulthood. The environmental movement went nationwide and inspired legislation not long after Silent Spring shone a light on the chemical industry’s sinister marketing of pesticides through disinformation. Then the dominos fell fast. 80 people died of air pollution causes on Thanksgiving Day, 1966; in January, 1969, an oil spill in California raised the cry for environmental protection laws; the National Environmental Policy Act passed in 1969; April 22, 1970, was the first-ever Earth Day. The Clean Air Act became law in 1970, followed by the Clean Water Act in 1972.
The opening scene of David Lynch’s "Blue Velvet" shows a suburban dad stroke out on his sun-splashed lawn, and then the film’s tone curdles into something awful. We realize that the cheap thin façade of paradise is rotten with evil.
Today, the lawn has been co-opted by the green movement as a passionate issue that cuts a dividing line in the soil between friends of the Earth and those who think, “The planet is doing fine, it’s the overtaxed and underemployed who need help.” Anti-lawn screeds and rants have been appearing in print and online at least back to 1989, when the food writer and activist Michael Pollan included a chapter entitled “Why Mow? A Case Against Lawns” in his book Second Nature. In “Cultivating a Garden, Cultivating a Mind,” he writes, “Lawns, I am convinced, are a symptom of, and a metaphor for, our skewed relationship to the land. They teach us that, with the help of petrochemicals and technology, we can bend nature to our will. Lawns stoke our hubris with regard to the land.”
That’s a long way from the glory days when lawns were a place to soak in verdant glory and the satisfaction of taming Nature — Manifest Destiny realized in a chaise longue. Animus toward the lawn has inspired titles such as Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn by Fritz Haeg, a picture book first published in 2008. A blogger named Lorrie Otto, the force behind an anti-grass movement called the Wild Ones, wastes no words in describing the lawn as “really evil,” and, in 2015, The Washington Post ran a piece under the header Lawns Are a Soul-Crushing Timesuck and Most of Us Would Be Better Off Without Them.
With all this lawn hate in the air, which side are homeowners and businesses on the East End taking? With endless golf courses and miles of the most pampered lawns in the galaxy, you’d imagine the worst. But wait. Charlie Marder, who has run Marders, the Bridgehampton landscaping firm, on organic principles for over 40 years, remembers when his passionate stand to treat lawns and gardens without chemicals actually lost him customers. Nowadays, his clients look at their lawns and gardens as “biological capital,” the same way they regard their bodies and health. “They’re not going to take care of themselves with healthy, organic preparations and then put toxic chemicals all around their property.” Marder says. “They understand what biodiversity is and get the argument against monoculture.”
What about the golf courses and country clubs, whose custodians take lawn care to an obsessive level? Aren’t they the most profligate water wasters? According to Marder, “It’s amazing how little water gets put on a golf course. They’re always trying to make that turf work harder and find the water deeper, because once you water too much the roots come up to the surface for air and the turf then becomes more susceptible to drought than if you let it go dry and dormant for a moment and let it search for its own moisture.” Homeowners are still overwatering, in his view, even while they get the case against chemicals. “They’ll say, ‘Well, the temps are above 80 degrees and it hasn’t rained in over a week, I better crank my irrigation system up.’ ” He points out that sometimes you can’t get any more water into your soil; all that’s needed is a two- or three-minute spritz to cool the grass off.
No matter how much estate owners try to redeem themselves by loving their lawns as they love their bodies, there’s no getting out of the lawn’s shadow. It’s in the culture now. Then again, it’s been an artistic theme for decades. Way back in 1975, Joni Mitchell turned an irrigation system into something almost Biblically menacing in The Hissing of Summer Lawns, a poem to the dark underside of suburbia:
He put up a barbed wire fence
To keep out the unknown
And on every metal thorn
Just a little blood of his own.
She patrols that fence of his
To a Latin drum
And the hissing of summer lawns. . . .
The opening scene of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet shows a suburban dad stroke out on his sun-splashed lawn, and then the film’s tone curdles into something awful. From the familiar tract-development ranch, we submerge into the mown lawn to see bugs teeming in the soil. Loud buzzing and munching sounds drown out the theme music, and we realize that the cheap thin façade of paradise is rotten with evil.
This year, 2017, hasn’t seen actual turf wars yet; no spasms of violence in the aisles of the Riverhead Home Depot garden department. But the American lawn and its care are linked with way too much bad history and negative associations to be a shared, neutral place and pastime ever again. Slaves worked long hours in the hot Virginia summer sun to keep the first ones beautiful. Mowers were marketed to men, the lawn was hubby’s province (as the kitchen was wifey’s), and men ran the chemical companies that manufactured the pesticides, all of which gives the lawn a case of testosterone poisoning.
Then there’s all the high-pitched invective against monoculture turf grass, which is like a dog whistle to the diversity police even though it’s just grass. Did I mention a New York Post article titled Trophy Lawns Destroyed This Hamptons Pond With Poison? This is the too-early obituary of Georgica Pond, which has been reported on extensively — and a bit less sensationally — for decades by The East Hampton Star, as life within the pond struggles to survive the nitrates and phosphates a passel of billionaires lavished on their adjacent lawns.
It’s all too much. And too conflicting. After all, I haven’t let my lawn go completely native, even though I don’t use chemicals to treat it. And my wife just called me to, dare I say it, do the mowing. As a nation, we may be back to an old slogan with a new twist: Your lawn, love it or leave it.
At top: The American Dream landscape — sod not yet trucked in at the house at center — from the Amagansett-raised, San Francsico-based artist Michael Light: “New Subdivision on Meander Points Drive, Looking East, Twin Falls, Idaho,” August 2009. It appears in Great Rift, one of Light’s many “big aerial books.”