There was a hubbub in the Washington Post a while back over an Ohio woman’s refusal to mow her lawn.
In defiance of her town’s ordinance, Sarah Baker let her lawn of nearly one acre go. Her arguments for neglecting to mow include the desire to have “a working ecosystem,” “to attract wildlife and build a self-regulating environment,” to combat the declined populations of vertebrate animals, bees, and butterflies, and to avoid the pollution that comes from lawn care.
The next day, Washington Post editorialist Christopher Ingraham wrote a response piece whose title says it all: “Lawns are a soul-crushing timesuck and most of us would be better off without them.”
Perhaps the most sophisticated treatment of the question is a 1989 New York Times Magazine essay by Michael Pollan entitled, “Why Mow? The Case Against Lawns.” As Pollan explains, the American lawn has its roots in the 19th century movement to beautify America’s domestic landscape while at the same time distancing itself from the British style of walled gardens and lawns that then belonged only to wealthy landowners.
The following two paragraphs from Pollan’s essay best sum up the dynamics behind America’s well-manicured lawns:
“With our open-faced front lawns we declare our like-mindedness to our neighbors and our distance from the English, who surround their yards with ‘inhospitable brick wall, topped with broken bottles,’ to thwart the envious gaze of the lower orders. The American lawn is an egalitarian conceit, implying that there is no reason to hide behind fence or hedge since we all occupy the same middle class. We are all property owners here, the lawn announces, and that suggests its other purpose: to provide a suitably grand stage for the proud display of one’s own house. Noting that our yards were organized ‘to capture the admiration of the street,’ one garden writer in 1921 attributed the popularity of open lawns to our ‘infantile instinct to cry ‘hello!’’ to the passer-by, to lift up our possessions to his gaze.
Of course the democratic front yard has its darker, more coercive side, as my family learned in Farmingdale. In specifying the ‘plain style’ of an unembellished lawn for American front yards, the midcentury designer-reformers were, like Puritan ministers, laying down rigid conventions governing our relationship to the land, our observance of which would henceforth be taken as an index of our character. And just as the Puritans would not tolerate any individual who sought to establish his or her own back-channel relationship with the divinity, the members of the suburban utopia do not tolerate the homeowner who establishes a relationship with the land that is not mediated by the group’s conventions.”
I’m not yet quite sure where I stand on this issue. I’m one of those people who spends an inordinate amount of time mowing my lawn and hating almost every minute of it. Most times, I have the resentful feeling that I’m doing work that should be reserved for livestock. (It’s probably not unrelated to the feeling people have as they bend down to pick up their pets’ feces.)
On the other hand, I have some regard for context. When we make the choice to move into certain neighborhoods, we’re also making the choice to keep up our lawns for the sake of property values and maintaining neighborly good will.
What do you think? Does lawn mowing deserve some pushback, or should people continue to simply suck it up and start the Toro?
Image credit: Adib Roy