I have a lingering fondness for the scruffy olive and khaki coastal desert landscape around the Southern California city I called home for seven years, as I do for the cold but colorful alternate universe I discovered there when I took up scuba diving. But I never really felt ‘at home’ in California. I was raised in North Carolina, and I missed the rhythm of the region’s four very distinct and evenly paced seasons.
When I overshot the Atlantic in heading back East, I found myself in an equally beautiful country, France, but in a city that really only has really two seasons, Spring and Fall, with transitions from one season to another happening seemingly overnight.
As a result of this seasonal deprivation and an adult lifetime spent living in cities, I have really been reveling in the long-lost pleasure of watching a lush Southern Spring slowly unfold. When I got a call from a neighborhood friend who is a landscaper reminding me that it was time to get my lawn ready for Spring, I was a little baffled: it looked to me like Nature had this whole Spring thing well in hand.
And so I did nothing.
Soon my lawn was covered in a dozen different shades of green, and dotted with small blue, white, yellow and purple flowers. My kids and I thought it looked very pretty, but it became clear very quickly that when given a free hand, Nature will not produce anything that even remotely resembles a proper suburban lawn. While Nature was having her way with us, I watched my neighbors spray, spread, blow, mow and edge their lawns into perfectly manicured seas of tidy emerald green grass, and for the first time I really understood how fiercely and relentlessly one must battle Nature to achieve what has become the American standard of the perfect lawn.
As I plunged into research into organic strategies for keeping the HOA at bay, I was reminded of images I had seen in a New York Times article about the drought laying siege to the world’s seventh largest economy (a.k.a. California). The image above in particular stuck in my mind. It’s one of several remarkable images by photographer Damon Winter in that article, “California Drought Tests History of Endless Growth,” by Adam Nagourney, Jack Healy and Nelson D. Schwartz.
The authors observe that as California municipal employees rip up turf and replace it with desert scrub to comply with Governor Brown’s 25% water reduction mandate, city managers cross their fingers Californians’ ideal of beauty will evolve along with the changing landscape.
The dons at Harvard University are holding on to a similar hope. In the Harvard Magazine article “When Grass Isn’t Greener: Alternatives to the ‘perfect’ lawn, at home and at Harvard,” Nell Porter Brown details a similar transformation underway across the university’s 800 acres in an effort to, as Bruce Butterfield puts it, have a landscape that both “looks good and is good for the plants and earthworms and animals and people.”
The excellent article goes on to trace the roots of the enhanced monoculture known as American “ideal lawn” back to the 1700s, with desires for order and status morphing over time into our present addiction to what botanist Peter Del Tredici aptly notes is a purely cosmetic landscape that “goes against the more heterogeneous natural landscape and requires tons of fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides, gasoline for mowing, and water, to be maintained.”
Instead, Porter Brown notes, Del Tredici favors the “freedom lawn” concept presented in Redesigning the American Lawn. That approach “calls for a green expanse composed of a community of plants” that “sort themselves out according to the topographical gradient that is most peoples’ lawns.”
I noted this gradient phenomenon myself as I tried an early round of weed pulling. Each weed seemed to have found its perfect niche, some clinging to loose soil, others embedded in clay, some preferring damp shady spots and others loving sun-baked dry patches. (Incidentally, my children found this weed pulling exercise both puzzling and amusing. Kids: “What’s a weed anyway?” Me: “Uh, I dunno exactly. Any plant growing where people expect grass, I suppose.” Kids: “But we have the prettiest backyard in the neighborhood – whoa, do NOT touch the ones with the blue flowers.” Me: “Ok, I won’t touch the ones with flowers, but if we have too many weeds, the neighbors won’t like it. I was thinking we’d shoot for like a one-third ratio.” Kids: Blank adults-are-from-Mars stares.)
Later, as I pushed my reel mower silently over my accidental “Freedom Lawn,” I wondered, will one natural lawn make any difference? The answer is no, of course. But if, as Nell Porter Brown reports, NASA satellite data shows that turf covers close to 50,000 square miles of American land – three times more acreage in the nation than irrigated corn – then turf liberation at a national scale becomes very interesting indeed, especially if 98% of sprayed insecticides and 95% of herbicides reach a destination other than their target species. (Wikipedia).
You don’t have to be concerned about whether a given chemical is “safe,” or even about the spiraling loss of biodiversity worldwide, to follow the logic in math like that.