By Robert A. Vella

Sometimes, a seemingly innocuous or mundane thing can become the focus of much more serious issues, and an examination of it can illuminate deep revelations about our human nature.  Such is the case with Megan Garber’s brilliant essay in The Atlantic titled The Life and Death of the American Lawn.

The ubiquitous American lawn was brought into sharp focus with California’s current drought crisis.  Fresh water supplies have declined so drastically in the Golden State – as well as throughout much of the American West – that maintaining lush, manicured, water-intensive lawns quickly became the brunt of intense criticism.  And, it was the push-back against that justifiable criticism which Garber illuminates so thoughtfully in her essay:

For much of American history, the healthy lawn—green, lush, neatly shorn—has been a symbol not just of prosperity, individual and communal, but of something deeper: shared ideals, collective responsibility, the assorted conveniences of conformity. Lawns, originally designed to connect homes even as they enforced the distance between them, are shared domestic spaces. They are also socially regulated spaces. “When smiling lawns and tasteful cottages begin to embellish a country,” Andrew Jackson Downing, one of the fathers of American landscaping, put it, “we know that order and culture are established.”

Garber goes on to detail how entrenched the symbolism of lawns is in American culture and provides examples of laws written to perpetuate it.  She then zeroes-in on the roots of that culture:

Which is all to say that lawns, long before Tom Selleck [who settled out-of-court with the Ventura County Calleguas Municipal Water District for alleged water theft] came along, have doubled as sweeping, sodded outgrowths of the Protestant ethic. The tapis vert, or “green carpet”—a concept Americans borrowed not just from French gardens and English estates, but also from the fantastical Italian paintings that imagined modern lawns into existence—became signals that the new country aspired to match Europe in, among other things, elitism. (Lawns, in Europe, were an early form of conspicuous consumption, signs that their owners could afford to dedicate grounds to aesthetic, rather than agricultural, purposes—and signs, too, that their owners, in the days before lawnmowers lessened the burden of grass-shearing, could afford to pay scythe-wielding servants to do that labor.) Thomas Jefferson, being Thomas Jefferson, surrounded Monticello not just with neatly rowed crops, but with rolling fields of grass that served no purpose but to send a message—about Jefferson himself, and about the ambitions of his newly formed country. [clarification added by TSJ]

So, the aesthetically-pleasing yet utility-lacking idea of lawns represent opulence and a kind of keeping up with the Joneses mentality often associated with Calvinism and unrestrained capitalism.  Indeed, the essay continues by linking this cultural attitude with the concepts of American exceptionalism and human dominionism:

Lawns became, in that conception, aesthetic extensions of Manifest Destiny, symbols of American entitlement and triumph, of the soft and verdant rewards that result when man’s ongoing battles against nature are finally won.

But, as Garber points out, we no longer live in an America of Manifest Destiny.  We no longer live in a world of limitless extent and resource.  We must change if we wish to  survive.  The problem is as real as it is acute, and whether we can resolve it remains a glaringly open question:

The problem is, though, that culture changes as gradually as grass grows quickly. Iconography is much harder to uproot than grass. To give up our lawns would be, in some sense, to concede a kind of defeat—to nature, to the march of time, to our own ultimate impotence. And it would, in its recognition of the ecosystemic realities of the latest century, require us to do something Americans have not traditionally been very good at: acknowledging our own limitations.

2 thoughts on “‘The Life and Death of the American Lawn’ examines cultural resistance to necessary change

  1. Hereabouts in central Ohio, the home of Scott’s Turf Builder, etc, a possible apocryphal story can be heard, to wit, D.G. Scott, relative of O. M. Scott, originally started selling grass seed because the farm and village women got tired of having to wash curtains so frequently from the dirt the chickens stirred up with all their pecking in the bare ground near their houses. If there is even a speck of truth to this dusty story, lawns may have once served a utilitarian purpose. But now, with no chickens allowed in town and air conditioning preventing dust from blowing in through the screens, ‘tapis vert’ is a useless extravagance and a grub producing monoculture, but still a huge business.


    • Interesting anecdote. Up here in the normally cool and wet pacific northwest (until recently, that is), residential lawns are not water-intensive. They typically remain green year-round on rainfall alone. Except for commercial properties, virtually all such landscaping have no irrigation or sprinkler systems. This summer was the first I’ve seen with brown lawns almost everywhere.

      Lawns make sense in this kind of climate (provided it continues), but they don’t in hotter drier regions like the desert southwest (which includes most of California). That people in such regions went lawn-crazy in the first place is precisely the kind of cultural arrogance Megan Garber addressed in her essay.

      Lawns do have utility under the right circumstances.


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