The Case for Lawns

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Today everything is covered in six inches of snow that arrived on the wings of a winter storm last night, but only a few days ago when I snapped this photo, the temperature was in the 50s and it felt like winter was breaking up. Having lived in Pennsylvania for most of my life, I know not to trust what seems like the stirrings of an early spring; I was not surprised when the snowstorm blew through, but because there is a bit of a contrarian in me, I spent my day thinking about green things — lawns and parks, in particular. There’s a fascinating article about the history of lawns in America that I read in the New York Times Magazine nearly 28 years ago, which I’ve never forgotten, and today I wondered if it was possible to find it online. It seemed like a long shot but, lo and behold, I found it in one quick Google search and was surprised to find that it was written by Michael Pollan, whose name meant nothing to me back then, but whom I now know from his Netflix documentary series on food. I really love Pollan’s curious mind, his passion and eloquence, all of which comes across in this article, which is titled “Why Mow?; The Case Against Lawns.” What’s funny is that, while his article works towards his viewpoint that the American obsession with lawns is neither natural or healthy (either ecologically or psychologically), and he makes some valid and thought-provoking points in building his case, his article stayed in my mind all these years precisely because it made me love the ideas that influenced and informed our suburban American landscape.

IF ANY INDIVIDUAL CAN BE said to have invented the American lawn, it is Frederick Law Olmsted. In 1868, he received a commission to design Riverside, outside of Chicago, one of the first planned suburban communities in America. Olmsted’s design stipulated that each house be set back 30 feet from the road and it proscribed walls. He was reacting against the “high dead-walls” of England which he felt made a row of homes there seem “as of a series of private madhouses.” In Riverside, each owner would maintain one or two trees and a lawn that would flow seamlessly into his neighbors’, creating the impression that all lived together in a single park. †

Truly, I feel my heart flush with admiration when I read the quote above and think about the work of Frederick Law Olmsted — and I feel it flush with pride in regard to the American landscape. In terms of my tastes, architecturally and land-wise, I love beautifully flowing, open spaces. I need privacy like anyone else, and I think there can be areas in a yard that accommodate that, but I also love seeing my neighbors and having a reason to pause in my day and chat about the weather or the Christmas lights or the state of the azaleas in the spring. Though I understand Pollan’s feeling that lawn care in America is an exercise in conformity that can make one feel “the hot breath of the majority’s tyranny” when an individual doesn’t keep his lawn mowed, maintained, and on par with everyone else’s in the neighborhood, I don’t see how this expectation is different from other popular expectations we have about how a person should behave in our society. The majority of us hope and expect our neighbors and nearby business owners will keep up their properties and not let them fall into disrepair, whether there’s a yard involved or not. We don’t like it when the paint is peeling and falling off our next door neighbor’s house — and we don’t like it when they stop wearing clean clothes and traipse about the neighborhood looking disheveled and smelling ripe (unless, of course, they are undergoing a hardship or are not well, in which case we understand and find a way to help).

In the historical overview of his article, Pollan talks about what the landscape in the United States looked like before Olmsted’s influence, and basically it looked rough, “as if it had been shaped and cleared in a great hurry — as indeed it had: the landscape largely denuded of trees, makeshift fences outlining badly plowed fields, tree stumps everywhere one looked.” Unlike in Europe, hardly anyone practiced ornamental gardening because, if one had the luck and the fortitude to carve out a piece of land here, one was most likely engaged in eking out a living from that land by farming it. But, as Pollan notes, there were also cities here, with a growing middle-class of city people who were prospering and moving out of them in the years after the Civil War. That is when the “borderlands” of America started to change in appearance, he explains, and it began with Frederick Law Olmsted — the man who designed so many of our country’s beloved parks, including Central Park in New York City, as well as many of the campuses of our universities (such as Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley). He was the impetus, and his vision and groundwork were then furthered by another gentleman:

In 1870, Frank J. Scott, seeking to make Olmsted’s ideas accessible to the middle class, published the first volume ever devoted to “suburban home embellishment”: “The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds,” a book that probably did more than any other to determine the look of the suburban landscape in America. Like so many reformers of his time, Scott was nothing if not sure of himself: “A smooth, closely shaven surface of grass is by far the most essential element of beauty on the grounds of a suburban house.”

Americans like Olmsted and Scott did not invent the lawn; lawns had been popular in England since Tudor times. But in England, lawns were usually found only on estates; the Americans democratized them, cutting the vast manorial greenswards into quarter-acre slices everyone could afford. Also, the English never considered the lawn an end in itself: it served as a setting for lawn games and as a backdrop for flowerbeds and trees. Scott subordinated all other elements of the landscape to the lawn; flowers were permissible, but only on the periphery of the grass: “Let your lawn be your home’s velvet robe, and your flowers its not too promiscuous decoration.”

But Scott’s most radical departure from Old World practice was to dwell on the individual’s responsibility to his neighbors. “It is unchristian,” he declared, “to hedge from the sight of others the beauties of nature which it has been our good fortune to create or secure.” One’s lawn, Scott held, should contribute to the collective landscape. “The beauty obtained by throwing front grounds open together, is of that excellent quality which enriches all who take part in the exchange, and makes no man poorer.” Like Olmsted before him, Scott sought to elevate an unassuming patch of turfgrass into an institution of democracy.

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. †

I don’t know about you, but most of these ideas sound rather good to me. I think our open lawns — these small acreages that you don’t have to be a land baron to afford, that stretch out for the enjoyment of all, at least visually — accurately and beautifully symbolize the democracy we strive for. Yes, our lawns certainly do have a uniformity to them, but uniformity does not necessarily equate with sameness — and sameness (where it does exist) doesn’t always equate with ‘bad.’ I’ll touch on that in my conclusion, but first I need to acknowledge that while I haven’t made mention other aspects of Pollan’s article (just as relevant now as when he wrote it in 1989) questioning the ecological impact of American’s insistence on having green lawns in places of the country where perhaps they don’t belong, using pesticides and chemicals  that perhaps shouldn’t be used anywhere, it’s not because I want to brush those points aside. It’s more the fact that the history and symbolism of the lawn is what thunderstruck me about this article originally and continues to do so now.

Pollan himself is proof that we are a country of smart people, of innovative thinkers, and this gives me hope that we will find solutions that will allow us to uphold our tradition of having these flowing green spaces across our country. Our collective lawns stretching from sea to shining sea, creating the impression that we are living in a park, is a more-than-lovely, defining feature of these great United States. In the same way that in landscape design, various elements serve as archetypes — with rocks sometimes set in the ground as a representation of water (symbolizing the unconscious), while a cave or grotto signifies the womb of Mother Earth — I really would like to believe, along the lines of Olmsted and Scott, that our collective, sprawling lawns makes an archetypal statement, too. One that declares,  We are Americans and we are united in our enjoyment of being a country that was formed with the promise that you could come here and own land, not through entitlement, but through labor. We earned this land as commoners: this is our pride, our commonwealth and our common good that is on display. We do hope you’ll come for a barbecue later, but for now, let us start our engines.

†Excerpted from the New York Times Magazine article “Why Mow?; The Case Against Lawns by Michael Pollan, published May 28, 1989. I linked the title to the online article, for those who’d like to read it in its entirety. It is fascinating, beautifully written, and brings up more topics than I’ve managed to cover in this post.

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