Rethinking the American Lawn
"Lawns are nature purged of sex and death. No wonder Americans like them so much."
~ Micheal Pollan, from his essay Why Mow? in the New York Times 1989
It was already getting hot at 6:30 am on a July morning when I came downstairs to feed the dogs. My 87-year-old dad was waiting for me, wagging his index finger toward the garage. He pointed to the grass spreader he'd filled with Scott's Weed and Feed set to spread at double the rate recommended on the back of the bag. A new 2-gallon canister of RoundUp was nearby. "I need you to spread this on the lawn every two weeks," he said. "The lawn is just terrible with brown spots and clover taking over."
I looked outside at our gorgeous mountain-town lawn. "No, Dad, I'm not going to do that. We already fertilized," I said. "We have dogs and little kids coming to visit, and the lawn looks great; I'll pick up a healthier alternative at the nursery," I casually quipped. We've had this conversation before. He knows where I stand. I am so grateful for our home and beautiful yard, but I suffer from serious ecological anxiety over it. Equally frustrated with me, he shouted:
"I've been doing this for fifty years exactly the same way. Don't tell me I don't know what I'm doing!"
"Whoa. OK. Whatever," I said as I grabbed my keys and rushed out the door, recognizing the point when there was no room for respectful debate.
I was thrilled for him when the late spring snow finally melted because he could spend more time outside puttering around the yard. But ever since the first vole holes and clover blossoms appeared, he's been like Farmer Bean from the Fantastic Mr. Fox, consumed with getting rid of every vermin and weed on our lawn. Perfection might be possible in a country club lined with concrete and asphalt, but not in our culdesac surrounded by sagebrush in the mountains of Idaho. We also butt heads about watering; despite a wet spring, the entire Western USA is still in a "megadrought - the driest 22-yr period since the year 1200."
As I contemplated our conversation, I realized that it wasn't the environmental impact bugging me as much as his fervor for an impeccable lawn. Yes, the implications of "fifty years of doing the same thing," infuriated me, but I was more confused and, frankly, saddened by the fact that he isn’t satisfied with anything less than perfection. I thought back to my childhood in Colorado and our challenging lawns. Some were planted on steep side hills, and most replaced fields of wildflowers and required outstanding fitness and agility to mow, but they were gorgeous. He’s right. It’s been fifty years of doing the same thing.
It turns out that socio-biologists have a term called "Savanah syndrome" that points to genetic blueprinting that predisposes people to "prefer landscapes that feature an ocean of short grasses interrupted by occasional islands of vertical trees." The thinking goes that this atmosphere is associated with calming home spaces and might explain a primal human instinct to impose order on the environment. Don’t get me wrong here, I too thrill at the sight and feel of a lovely lawn, especially if I can dance, play sports, or have a picnic on it. But like fast food, automobiles, social media, and fashion, the American lawn has metastasized under our insatiable appetite for bigger, better, and more beautiful.
"Dad, did you have a lawn growing up?" I asked him one July evening as we played Cribbage and drank our Manhattans. "No, no way," he said. "No one in my neighborhood did." Hmmm … now maybe I was onto something … Could it be that to a truly self-made man, a well-kept lawn was the ultimate sign of leisure and success? Is the lawn a metaphor for the "American Dream" and how it is still possible if you just work hard enough?
In these times of insecurity and chaos, we need to feel in control of something, anything, and controlling our backyard is within our reach. But can we do it differently? Can we not freaking give a crap about what our neighbors think? Not judge others on the state of their yard? Worry more about the fish and the dogs and our children than we do about how things “look?” As we face cultural and climate changes, could choosing to not control nature be an evolutionary step forward? Assuming “status” is something we'll always strive for, what if the highest status came to those who live in harmony with the natural world around them?
A Short History of My Dad
To better understand my dad's passion for a great lawn, I started with his upbringing. Coming of age in middle school, my dad said his father lost a good job in corporate sales in Minneapolis "to men coming home from the war." This forced the family to move into my dad's mother's childhood home, Winchester, Massachusetts. In this historic bedroom community of Boston, my dad and his three siblings lived with their grandparents until they left for college.
In researching Winchester, I learned that when my dad was coming of age, there were clear physical boundaries between different social classes. One resident described Winchester in the 1950s this way:
"Then, as now, there was the 'West side,' whose residents were reputed to spend money and there was very evident that they did, and the 'East Side' whose residents meticulously paid their bills, and lived and looked like the solid conservative citizens that they were. The West side looked down its nose at the East Side, and the East Side looked askance at the extravagance of the West Side. Both East and West Sides were extremely condescending toward the inhabitants [of The Plains.] They were poor, Irish and Italian immigrants, tannery and farm workers."
My dad’s home was on the East Side, and all I could get him to tell me was that his best friend's dad on the same street was a Harvard professor, and he "did not get along at all" with another professor in the neighborhood. Winchester High brought together all the classes, and my dad confirmed was he was deeply aware of social status when he said, "I didn't really have many friends in school, but my ability to get along with both the poor Italians and the rich kids served me well."
So, where did my dad end up? Harvard. With its stately lawns to match its intellectual and sporting prestige. He paid for it by hitchhiking to Alaska each summer with his brothers, living in their station wagon, working for the mining and pipeline companies, and eating well only when his big brother won a poker game in the barracks. "Someone must have been pulling some strings for me," he told me once.
That my dad was a "self-made" man is undeniable. Yes, he had the privilege of being white, athletic (an all-American basketball player), and intelligent, but he made all his own money. He and my mom (who also grew up in Winchester and got a teaching degree from Harvard) moved west after college. While he worked as a geologist up at the Climax molybdenum mine on top of Fremont Pass, they scrimped, saved, and built their first home by hand from a kit in Frisco, Colorado. We moved three times before I graduated from high school in Evergreen, Colorado–each time to a nicer house with, you got it, a nicer lawn.
A Short History of the American Lawn
The word "lawn" is an Old English Puritan term that dates back to the 16th meaning "an open space" or what was called a "glade." Some of the earliest lawns were the grasslands around medieval castles in France and Britain, kept clear of trees, so guards had an unobstructed view of approaching threats. While early rich and powerful white people like Washington and Jefferson had lawns, most working-class American people would raise small livestock or vegetables in their yards.
A massive housing development built on Long Island in the 1940s called Levittown is the first credited with requiring owners of 17,000 lots to mow their yard once a week. With the rise of suburbia post-WWII, the perfect lawn became a potent symbol of the national ideal that, with hard work and sacrifice, home ownership and one's own patch of land could be within reach for every American.
The spread of the lawn across the American landscape mirrors the early days of manifest destiny when religious, political, and economic ideologies led to our insatiable appetite to subdue the "wild west." With our wits–aka the tools of 20th-century industrial civilization like chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and machinery–we superimposed our will on the land.
Our democratic puritan roots also get the credit for another national phenomenon: the lawn as a sign of both status and the individual's responsibility to his neighbors. As a status symbol, the lawn signaled that you were part of the leisure class (ironically, the upkeep of which took up your free time). Not conforming to keeping the lawn well-kept signified a moral downfall, even sloth, laziness; a poorly kept lawn became a sign of weakness.
Meanwhile, the "odor of virtue" that came from a beautiful lawn amplified how racism and systemic inequality marked the American landscape. Redlining, the discriminatory banking practice of classifying specific neighborhoods as "hazardous" or not worthy of investment due to their racial makeup, kept the possibility of green spaces and lawns out of the hands of black neighborhoods. Ted Steinberg, a leading scholar on the history of the lawn, wrote:
"At a minimum, the fresh new super green lawns offered an escape from monochrome life in the cities—a brightly colored consistent landscape that mirrored the aesthetic and racial uniformity of 1950s suburbia."
There is widespread research validating that integrating more natural environments into urban planning is a promising approach to improving mental health and reducing the rising global burden of psychiatric disorders. Indeed, this reminds me of a friend, a climbing guide, who volunteered to mow our massive in East Jackson in a perfect criss-cross pattern every few weeks one summer. Far away from his family, he said it was calming mental therapy that reminded him of childhood. Access to green spaces undeniably is a social justice issue, I'm just not sure giant lawns are the solution.
So what's the problem?
Lawns cover over 2% of the USA according to the Freakanomics podcast: How Stupid is our Obsession With Lawns. The most egregious statistics include that we use 20 trillion gallons of water per year on lawns (we use just 30 trillion gallons to irrigate all our crops) and spend as much as $60 billion annually to maintain this grass. With pesticides and herbicides leaching into our water supply, megadroughts, and the cost and time to maintain massive lawns, it's past time to re-evaluate this unnatural obsession.
As I write this story, I'm on a whirlwind vacation in France, to join a post-Covid family wedding. You may recall Europe experienced massive heat and fires this summer, and everywhere we've been, from Britany to the Toulouse, is bone dry. I got to stay at a gorgeous Airbnb estate overlooking dried sunflower fields. The grounds were mowed but otherwise left as is. No one would even think of watering here (well they might but few have irrigation) and everything is still breathtaking.
We got to do a Hennessey Cognac distillery tour where I learned that irrigating grapes during Cognac production violates the French appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) designation’s legal requirements. It turns out this is true for all vineyards in France, except those growing grapes for the simplest of wines. That's just how they roll here; the "art" of producing good wine (and good food comes) from passionate people with exceptional tastebuds working with the terroir, not conquering it.
It’s likely that Mother Nature will eventually force us to let go of our unnatural obsession with lawns, but before then, it’s critical to question whether psychological constructs like status are getting in the way of better choices. In the NYT Ezra Klein Show podcast, We Build Civilizations on Status. But We Barely Understand It, Stanford sociologist Cecilia Ridgeway explains:
“Status is is basically the esteem that other people have for us, how we are seen by others, how we’re evaluated, the worth they attribute to us in the situation. Status isn’t just some social vanity limited to elite institutions or the top percentages of the income ladder. It’s a cultural system that is absolutely fundamental to how our society operates, one that permeates literally every aspect of our lives, from the office, to the classroom, to the dinner table.”
Ridgeway argues that there’s a double-edged sword of status. On the one hand, status hierarchies drive human ingenuity and progress. But on the other hand, they’re the source of some of the deepest forms of inequality and injustice. It’s only by interrogating these oftentimes invisible social constructs, that we can evolve and do things better and solve social (and environmental) issues. Interestingly, after reading a draft of this story, my dad suggested something else handed down from the English is in play, at least for him:
“I absolutely love order, and that’s what I’m striving for.”
Assuming we can make peace with forgoing a perfect lawn, what are some alternatives? Gardens, low-maintenance groundcovers, and xeriscaping—a water-conserving landscape technique— are much less cost and labor-intensive than a traditional lawn and much less poisonous. In the words of Micheal Pollan:
"I'm not suggesting that there is no place for lawns in these gardens or that gardens by themselves will right our relationship to the land, but the habits of thought they foster can take us some way in that direction."
Thankfully, in our mountain subdivision, there is no requirement for a lawn, and "drought-tolerant native grasses" are encouraged. Ideally, because I do love them, we'd have a healthy green lawn when it's wet in the spring, but as the summer heat dries it up, we’d proudly let it go like the rest of the world around us.
To justify his striving for order, my dad is a firm believer that the earth is a resource to be used to support our human empire, and his geologist background gives him faith in our planet's abundance and resilience. My kids and I believe that humans are deeply interconnected to everything in nature and that what we've done for the past fifty years is simply not an option. As a household, we’re just trying to find peace.
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RESOURCES AND INSPIRATION
How Stupid is Our Obsession with Lawns, Freakanomics Podcast
The Strange Psychology of the American Lawn, by Austin Perlmutter M.D., Psychology Today
Why Mow? The Case Against Lawns by Michael Pollan, New York Times Magazine
We Build Civilizations on Status. But We Barely Understand It; The Ezra Klein Show
American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn by Ted Steinberg
The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession, by Virginia Scott Jenkins
Lawn People: How Grasses, Weeds, and Chemicals Make Us Who We Are by Paul Robbins
Lawns into Meadows: Growing a Regenerative Landscape by Owen Wormser
Lawn Gone!: Low-Maintenance, Sustainable, Attractive Alternatives for Your Yard by Pam Penick
Sue Muncaster, mother to my niece and nephew and forever family, you are a gifted thinker and writer. Your fine essay will do more for the planet, lawn-wise, no matter what occurs short-term on that beautiful patch of land near the mountains of eastern Idaho. Brava and well done!❤️