News and Tribune

May 24, 2013

STAWAR: The lawns of summer

Local columnist

“Dandelion wine. The words were summer on the tongue. The wine was summer caught and stoppered.” 

— Ray Bradbury


My wife Diane and I have noticed that the Taraxacum are certainly plentiful this year. Taraxacum is just the fancy Latin word for dandelions, and for some reason they are especially prolific.

Lately we’ve seen entire fields of dandelions and street curbs full of what appears to be “dandelion snow.” I wonder if this means we will have even more next year. I also imagine that I have been inhaling a lot of those fuzzy parachutes and that has led to a lot more sneezing than usual this year.

I have always liked dandelions, although they were my father’s mortal enemy. Those he couldn’t immediately decapitate with his sling blade, he unmercifully attacked with various homebrewed chemicals as he cursed them. He disliked crab grass, but dandelions were beneath his contempt. They made him angry. A saffron-dotted lawn was proof positive of not only sloppiness, but reprehensible laziness — the emperor of all sins. 

As for me, I get a little misty when I remember the way our kids, when they were little, would pick bright yellow bouquets and proudly present them to their mom like they were a treasure. And who can resist scattering the tiny single-seeded fruits (achenes) by blowing on the seed heads. 

As a child, I remember spending an enormous amount of time just sitting in the grass repetitively making rings, bracelets and chains out of dandelion stems. Few things in nature have as much entertainment value as dandelions. 

Dandelions are even one of the components of root beer. Of course, our own children couldn’t sit in the grass and play with dandelions where we lived in Florida, due to the fire ants. And here in Indiana, you would run the risk of being attacked by ticks or chiggers. 

The dandelion’s name is derived from the French for “lion’s tooth,” and both common types are completely edible. I have never tried dandelion salad, but I doubt that I would like it. It brings to mind the bitter tasting poke salad (made from the pokeweed) I tried when I lived in Mississippi. 

According to Auburn University food scientist Dr. Jean Weese, despite Southern family traditions, people really shouldn’t eat poke salad. She says even the boiling process doesn’t remove all the toxins. Dandelions, however, are just fine. They can also be combined with citrus to make another piece of our summertime heritage — dandelion wine. 

“Dandelion Wine” was the title of Ray Bradbury’s 1956 novel of boyhood, which is set in the summer of 1928 in a fictionalized version of Bradbury’s home town Waukegan, Ill. The title refers to the wine made by the grandmother of the protagonist, 12 year-old Douglas Spaulding, and is a metaphor for all the joys of summer crammed into a single vessel. 

When I was about 12 years old, I remember seeing a paperback copy of this book lying around our house, with a picture of a boy on the cover. Someone is asking the boy (who must be Douglas), “Where did you go?” and he replies, “Out.” They then ask, “What did you do?” and he answers, “Nothing.” Despite its alleged feel-good tone, I didn’t trust Bradbury and found the book too creepy to read at the time. 

When I finally did read it, I noticed a chapter in which Douglas’ grandfather — who loves to hear the sound of the lawnmower — is appalled when he learns there’s a plan afoot to plant a special kind of grass that will kill off all the dandelions. This grass also grows so short there is no need to ever cut it. Eventually the grandfather, who maintains that he appreciates the “little things” in life, pays off the man who takes care of the lawn in return for not planting the new grass.

My father also always appreciated the sound of grass being cut and it was all my mother could do to keep him from cutting the grass on Sunday mornings, when the Presbyterians across the street were holding church. The special grass described in “Dandelion Wine” would have constituted a serious conflict for him, given how much he liked to cut the grass and how much he despised the dandelions. 

Today lawn care is a $40-billion-a-year industry in the U.S. and more than 80 percent of American homes have front lawns. A really nice lawn can add as much as 11 percent to the value of a home. According to Virginia Scott Jenkins, author of “The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession,” the modern lawn evolved from a 17th century European status symbol. 

Members of royalty and the aristocracy created lawns in an act of conspicuous consumption — displaying their wealth by having a manicured piece of land set aside strictly for pleasure, rather than agriculture. America’s wealthier founding fathers such as Jefferson and Washington picked up the tradition, but front lawns weren’t that common until after the Civil War and the widespread development of suburban housing.

In addition to sociological influences, many evolutionary biologists and psychologists believe that humans may have a genetic affinity to low-growing grass, such as found in lawns, stemming from our remote ancestors’ experiences in the African savannas. The increased visibility provided by the low savannah grass helped early hunters more easily locate prey while avoiding predators.

Although there is an anti-lawn movement, which questions the ecological value of lawns, viewing and maintaining them have been shown to have many psychological and health benefits. Linda Wasmer Andrews, a health writer and Psychology Today blogger, claims the repetitive movement involved in cutting grass has an innately calming effect on most people. She also believes than in addition to cardiovascular benefits and the burning of excess calories, just the aroma of freshly mown grass has a powerful soothing effect. 

Science writer Rebecca Clay summarized research showing the positive effects of nature in an article in the American Psychological Association’s Monitor titled “Green is Good for You.” She cites the work of Rachel Kaplan from the University of Michigan, who has studied what she calls “restorative environments.” In one survey, she found that office workers with a view of the outdoors liked their jobs more, enjoyed better health and reported greater life satisfaction. 

Studying the effects of living in a concrete and asphalt-dominated urban environment, Frances Kuo from the University of Illinois reported that even “isolated pockets of green containing just the bare bones of grass and a tree” had a significant positive affect on children living nearby. These children demonstrated better attention and greater ability to delay gratification and inhibit impulses than their lawn-isolated peers. 

Physical health also seems to be affected by such exposure. Roger S. Ulrich from Texas A&M found that hospital patients whose rooms had a view of grass and trees were discharged sooner, had fewer complications and even required less pain medication than patients with no room with a view. 

Based on a large national survey in Britian, Mathew White and colleagues from the European Centre for the Environment and Human Health found that people reported less mental distress and higher life satisfaction when they were living in areas with greater access to grass and trees. This finding held up even when researchers controlled for income, employment, marital status, physical health and housing type. They found that green space was roughly equal to one-third the positive effect of being married or one-tenth that of having a job as opposed to being unemployed.

I’m not sure my father ever experienced any of these kind of benefits. He viewed lawn care as a challenge, or more precisely a neverending war, whose success was only measured by a mounting dandelion body count.