The weekend rolls around. A look out the window. Grass. Long grass. Didn’t I just mow that? Go to the garage. Check the oil. Fill up the tank. Yank, yank, yank on the cord till it starts. Time to mow the lawns. Suburban Sisyphus begins again.
Even now the air hums with lawnmowers. Yet I know from conversation that many of these people will in truth despise their lawn. And I know from walking the neighborhood that few people use their lawn as anything more than a spare car park, or an open air dog toilet. Yet they toil. They buy the petrol, fix the mower, weekly they battle the grass.
Why bother? It’s not like it’s the only option. We could have:
- zen rock gardens,
- concrete slabs,
- fields of veggies,
- piles of gravel,
- permaculture food forests,
- carpets of rosemary, mint, and thyme,
- an elaborate series of interconnected goldfish ponds,
- or we could have at least stuck a goat on it.
Instead we have lawns.
It wasn’t always this way. The original lawn was not lawn, but pasture – somewhere to graze your sheep. Purely functional. Then in the 18th Century the English landscape garden was born. Naturalness was the key to this style, and grass was front and center. If you want to know what these gardens look like, visit a golf course.
At this point the lawn was pure aristocratic extravagance: beautiful, expensive, and pointless.
Then in the 19th Century the lawnmower was invented. Lawns went mainstream. However, this was at some level still both a status symbol, as well as a functional sporting thing: croquet, tennis, lawn bowls. The modern pointless lawn would have to await another invention.
Now the aesthetic of the English landscape garden was applied to town planning.
Strangely, in these suburbs the lawn has come to play a much bigger role than pure aesthetics. If you want to discover that role for yourself, then stop mowing. Life could get very weird.
Passers-by will shake their heads, your neighbors will twitch with an unnatural desire to mow your lawns for you, and you might even get arrested. Lawns spark an alarming degree of passion. Fanatics will cover the slightest brown blemish with green paint. Heretics will defiantly let the yard go wild.
Lawns are a statement.
Lawns are a moral symbol.
In a community dominated by lawns, with unfenced front yards, we become one lawn indivisible. The state of your lawn becomes a statement of virtue. The unkempt is the un-neighborly, the unreliable, the possibly dealing drugs or dead. Tear up the lawn and you are tearing up the community, setting yourself apart, destroying the illusion that we all live in one big happy park. The lawn is the symbol of the egalitarian, affluent community.
That is the idealized philosophy of lawns. This moral pressure ensures that even those who hate lawns have them, and those who have lawns maintain them. So ingrained is the idea of lawns that we struggle to imagine suburbia without them.
Yet lawns might not last. In my own community, lawns have become an inversion of their origin. Lawns, in the open front yard style, are the garden of the poor. The rich, in contrast, can be identified by the height of their walls and smallness of their lawn. The middle-classes, for the most part, are stuck between the two extremes, unsure which way to go. Considering how we got lawns, they will likely choose walls. It almost makes one feel sad for lawns.
Deeper Down the Rabbit hole:
If you’re looking for someone to blame for inventing lawns, try Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. Here.
“Turf Wars” Evan Ratliff. Here. An interesting read on the fight over lawns.
The Lawn Institute – making the case for lawns since the 1950s. Note how community is one of the first arguments they turn to. Here.
It’s not just lawns. See “Suburban Ideals on England’s Interwar Council Estates” for an example of how suburban gardening in general has always been a minefield. Here