In a Scientific American article titled, “The American Obsession with Lawns,” Krystal D’Costa says, “It’s the time of year when the buzz of landscaping equipment begins to fill the air, and people begin to scrutinize their curb appeal.” Since we moved from the country back to a suburban neighborhood about three years ago, my wife Diane and I have become increasingly preoccupied with our lawn. I’m starting to stay awake at night worrying about those bare spots along the hill in the back yard and I’m only a step or two away from turning into Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino, yelling, “ Hey you punks, get off my lawn.”
We didn’t think about the lawn very much when we lived out of town. The last time we lived in a subdivision, we still had boys at home we could make mow the lawn. Things are different now and we try to keep the yard from becoming an embarrassment and making us the neighborhood pariah, but it’s a constant struggle.
When I was in college I remember reading about American sociologist Thorstein Veblen, who wrote a classic 1899 treatise, “The Theory of the Leisure Class.” The central notion in this work is that really rich people (the leisure class) feel compelled to display their wealth by wasting it, preferably within the view of the public. Veblen called this phenomena “conspicuous consumption.” The TV tropes website says, “Common variations on this theme are using a hundred-dollar bill to light a cigar or cigarette, or tossing entire stacks of bills into a roaring fireplace to keep the blaze going.” The Krusty the Clown character from The Simpsons television series says, “Ahh, there’s nothing better than a cigarette... unless it’s a cigarette lit with a $100 bill!”
The modern lawn is a recent cultural phenomenon. It, however, is another example of conspicuous consumption. It evolved from the park areas surrounding great European manors and estates. These areas signified that the land owners were wealthy enough to dedicate land exclusively for decorative purposes, rather than for agriculture. At the time this was an immensely expensive act, comparable to burning money. Maintaining a fine lawn can also symbolize dominance over nature and create an illusion of order and stability.
Although the middle class has now adopted lawns as its status symbol, they are still an expensive proposition. Americans spend well over $60 billion a year just to maintain their lawns, not to mention all the labor and effort.
Climate Conscious writer Jackie Badilla says, “Today, lawns are a source of socio-economic status, unity, civilization, pride, success, order, safety, civic responsibility, an ideal aesthetic, and a barometer for the value of one’s neighbor.”
It’s difficult not to be judgmental about lawns when you drive through most subdivisions. Lawns that are covered with dandelions, have sparse areas, or are overgrown really do stand out. Our neighborhood seems to have a lot of diversity ranging from finely manicured lawns to fairly frightening landscapes. Lawns can bring neighborhoods together or blow them apart.
After a disastrous first year, when I tried to cut our grass myself with a riding mower, we hired a lawn service. As I’ve mentioned before, our back yard has a very steep section and I actually fell off the riding mower — twice. Last year our lawn ended up having a number of bare spots. In the fall and earlier this spring we bought and applied Turf Builder, which is supposed to thicken your lawn. I think our neighbors were gratified to see us out there working on it. Although expensive, the Turf Builder seems to be working, but it takes a lot of effort to spread the grass seed and keep it watered. Diane thinks we should get the award for the most improved lawn, if there was such an award.
I never had a good lawn care role model. My father never took lawns very seriously. When my mother would complain about the lawn needing to be cut, he would wait until Sunday morning. Then he would fire up our gasoline mower, much to the dismay of the Presbyterian congregation trying to hold services across the street. I suspect it was more than a little passive-aggressive.
Psychology Today blogger Dr. Austin Perlmutter says, “…a well-manicured lawn is tethered to ideas like success and stability. The relative health and attractiveness of the grass in our yard becomes a barometer for our life as a whole. In this way, cultivating a healthy, neatly mowed lawn helps us convince others we’re doing well.” In one survey, people reported that they believed that having an attractive lawn reflected positively on them and their family. You may have noticed that Dr. Perlmutter used the metaphor “barometer” when referring to lawns, I think that’s because of the constant pressure they create. Except for the reprieve of the winter months, they constitute a continuous threat to your status.
Lawns also have an expensive ecological cost. Most well-kept lawns require more water than rain can provide. Approximately one-third of the residential water supply ends up being used for lawns. Also, every year lawn mowers and other machinery emit millions of tons of airborne pollutants. This doesn’t include the even greater amount of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers that cover the ground and leach into the water supply.
In response there is a small but militant anti-lawn movement. The American Society of Landscape Architects has suggested that homeowners replace their beloved grass with drought-resistant ground cover that requires no mowing. This is referred to as “sustainable landscaping.” In the long run, it just may be less expensive, easier to manage, and more environmentally friendly than our current lawn.
My father once bought a used concrete mixer, which soon became his prized possession. I’m quite sure he wasn’t kidding, and perhaps he was ahead of his time, when he suggested covering our yard with concrete and painting it green.