Something There is that Doesn’t Love a Lawn
Nature abhors lawns, if by “lawns” you mean uniform patches of mown and manicured grass.
If you don’t believe me, put away the mower, the fertilizer, the herbicides, the water hose, and watch what happens.
Soon your lawn will be having sex. Yes, lawn mowing keeps grass in a permanent state of adolescence. Once you allow it to grow beyond its normal mown length though, it will begin producing flowers. You have to look closely to notice them, but those tiny spike-like things that grow on the tips of unmown grass are flowers, or plant genitalia as we biologists like to think of them. The wind disperses grass pollen, some of which will fall on the female parts of grass flowers and soon you have little grass babies—seeds, in other words.
Without the mower chopping them back to stumps, your lawn will sprout what lawn-lovers call weeds, what the rest of us call wild flowers. Eventually, you have a meadow.
Nature may abhor lawns but people adore them. So much so that if you put together all the lawns in the U.S., including the parks, the parkways, the golf courses, the cemeteries, the football, soccer, and baseball fields, it totals as much acreage as the state of Texas. Because we have to continually fight nature to preserve our lawns, they cost a bundle. Lawn care is an eighty billion dollar a year industry. We spend four billion dollars per year just purchasing new lawn mowers. And we spill(!) more gasoline each year when sloppily re-fueling those lawn mowers than the Exxon Valdez spilled into Prince William Sound, Alaska in the spring of 1989.
Also, because we’ve been brain washed into believing that lawns should be nice and green, even in the winter when grass wants to go brown and rest, we now spray nine billion gallons of water on our lawns daily. In case you’re keeping track, that’s almost three hundred gallons of water each day for every man, woman, and child in America. Any wonder that when there is a drought, limiting lawn watering is the first course of action?
We dump millions of pounds of pesticides and herbicides and millions of tons of fertilizer on our lawns too. Then it rains and these chemicals flow into our lakes, streams, and ultimately into our drinking water.
So the cost of lawns is both financial and environmental. Not to mention the time we spend on them.
Then there is the immigration problem. Virtually all American lawns are made of grasses native to somewhere else. Bermuda grass is not from Bermuda. It’s from Africa. Kentucky bluegrass is not from Kentucky. It’s from Europe. Together these two invaders make up the majority of lawns, parks, and playing fields in America.
All of which brings up the question of why we find lawns so attractive in the first place.
Even I, a confirmed hater of any form of yard work, find a large expanse of mown and maniacally manicured lawn like, say, a professional baseball field, delightful to see. One idea is that a lawn resembles a well-grazed savanna. When our distant primate ancestors decided to move out of the African forest and head into open country, a well-grazed savanna meant there were abundant animals to hunt. It also meant that if you stood upright, you could see approaching lions from a long way off. Is our love of lawns an ancient instinct?
Lawns also resemble well-grazed pastures. In fact the direct ancestor of American lawns was probably the British village green, a common grassy area set aside for communal grazing of livestock. Of course, prior to the invention of the lawnmower, grazing was pretty much the only way you could get a large field of short grass. The alternative was to whack it with a scythe. An even better alternative was to have your servants whack it with scythes. Which is why the first lawns planted solely for pleasure and beauty belonged to the aristocracy. They could afford the scythe-whacking servants. They could also afford to own land and not use it for growing food. Maintaining a large, well-managed lawn was an advertisement of wealth.
It’s difficult to imagine that so many of us love lawns because they are a symbol of someone else’s wealth though.
Lawns were democratized by the invention of the lawn mower. Despite that, the residential lawn, the pride of American middle-class suburban life and the bane of yard work haters like me, needed two more developments before it could really take off. First was standardization of the five day, forty hour work week. That was legislated by Congress in 1940 and it freed up Saturdays for slaving in your yard rather than for your employer. Second was the spread of the of the mass-produced, cookie-cutter suburbs, in which each house had its own small lawn. We can thank Bill Levitt for that. In fact, the lawn care industry ought to build a giant monument to Bill Levitt. In 1950 Time magazine named him “one of the hundred most influential people of the 20th century” for his invention of cheap suburban housing or Levitt-towns, as his early developments were called. A GI returning from World War II could purchase one of Bill’s houses for as little as four hundred dollars upfront money and that house included kitchen appliances, a television, and a pre-planted lawn. Part of the deal, if you read the fine print though, was that you had to mow your lawn at least once a week between April 15th and November 15th.
There would be no sex among the grasses of Levitt-towns.
Not surprisingly, Bill’s dad considered lawn maintenance a badge of good character. “A fine carpet of green grass stamps the inhabitants as good neighbors, as desirable citizens,” as he put it. I guess I must be a non-desirable citizen then, because I’ve watched with secret glee as my own lawn withered and wilted during a recent drought. I’ve learned that what I really crave is a “Freedom Lawn.”
A Freedom Lawn, the name comes from either “freedom from work” or maybe from “freedom from the enforced conformity of lawn culture,” is really an anti-lawn. Invented—or should I say, re-discovered—by some Yale professors in the 1990’s, a freedom lawn is a lawn that is pretty much left to its own devices. You don’t water it or put any chemicals on it. You can mow it, but only with a push mower. In the end, you waste no water and add no pollutants to your local streams or fossil fuel residue to the atmosphere. You just sit back and watch the dandelions and the clovers and the chickweeds and the violets take over.
So I think I’ve discovered why I like lawns anyway. They are a symbol of hard, honest, physical labor. And I adore hard, honest, physical labor, as long as someone else is doing it. Which makes the best place to get my manicured lawn fix when I need it—the baseball park, where they do the all the work.
I am a scientist and writer. My early research was field-based. I have done field research in several parts of the United States, Venezuela, East Africa, Micronesia, and Papua New Guinea. Once I became interested in the biology of aging, my research became more laboratory oriented. Perhaps because of my background in English, I have always been eager to communicate the excitement of science to the public at large. In that capacity I have written popular books, planned museum exhibits, and produced a regular newspaper column on science.
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What Nature Can
Teach Us about Living
1. Living is inherently destructive.
Biologist Max Kleiber called it The Fire of Life—which is more than a metaphor. Our bodies consist of forty trillion cells, each of which is an energy factory. That energy is provided by chemical reactions identical to those of a highly regulated fire. The chemical bonds in food are torn apart with the help of oxygen to release the energy needed to perform all cellular functions. This is precisely the same chemistry that causes the chemical bonds in wood, paper, or gasoline to be torn apart with the help of oxygen to release energy in the form of fire.
Just as fire produces side effects—sparks, soot, smoke—our cellular energy factories also do, by way of chemical by-products. Some of these by-products are oxygen radicals, which are destructive to the cellular energy factories themselves. To give an idea of the scale of damage, the DNA in each of our cells is estimated to be damaged by internal fire at least ten thousand times per day. Ten thousand bits of DNA damage per day times forty trillion cells and we are talking about numbers more familiar to astronomers than biologists. How do we survive for months, much less decades, in the face of such destruction?