Lawn Order: Spatial Victims

By Joshua Katcher   |  10Comments|

Aside from the 4-B’s of Mainstream American Male Identity: Beer, Ball, Bitches & Beef, there are a few other realms of manly-manifestation. The lawn is one of them. If you grew up in suburbia, like I did, you may have spent your summers mowing lawns, weed-waking, poisoning so-called ‘pests’, and cursing both the dandelions and the neighbors who so carelessly let their lawns go wild!

I’ll never forget the summer my father (a man who grew up in Brooklyn – and who, upon purchasing his first small house in the suburbs of upstate New York with my mother, proceeded to mow the lawn every single day of the warm seasons), in a fit of rage and as a last-stitch effort to communicate with the new Chinese-speaking neighbors who had let the grass get tall, drew a cartoon of a person mowing a lawn and left it in their mailbox. The next step would be a stealthy midnight-mow, which I knew was dead-serious. I also will never forget the bizarre behavior of our other neighbors who spent most days on their hands and knees cutting the lawn with scissors first, weeding, and then mowing. The saddest part was, their lawn never really even looked good after all that elbow-grease!

I was indoctrinated to the ways of the lawn early on, and I made a job of it, dangerous and tedious as it was. I always felt a small pang of grief imagining that microcosm beneath the grass canopy subjected to a huge, gas-powered, spinning blade. I empathized with the crawly things when I would picture a similar scenario happening to my house. I also remember thinking how absolutely silly the whole idea was, but I could never really articulate exactly why.

Green carpets. Turf. Perfectly mowed, lush, thick, emerald yards with no weeds, pests or brown-patches. It’s almost like a myth; the perfect lawn. Commercials for fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and lawn-care hardware tell us that suburban-utopia is just within reach, and when you buy into the myth by buying their products and working away homogenizing a little patch of nature, your neighbors will love you, your community will rejoice, and your self-worth, financial worth, and status as a man will be carved in stone! Right?

But what exactly is a lawn? Where did this tradition come from, and how does this $30 billion industry of seeds, fertilizers, mowers, power-tools, and water continue to enthrall the masses with illusions of a threatless, perfectly-controlled environment? Most importantly, what are the ramifications of this phenomenon for our health, the planet, and our psyches?

The lawn certainly has not gone unnoticed. It is the subject of the books “The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession” by Virginia Scott Jenkins, and “American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn” by Ted Steinberg.

Both of these books explore something so ubiquitous that most of us have never even stopped to ponder it’s meaning. The first thing to note is that the lawn is almost completely American – and as the American lifestyle continues to enthrall and infiltrate the globe, the lawn is short to follow. In the sixteenth century and continuing through the eighteenth, the “launde”, an open space or glade maintained by laborers wielding scythes, began to appear throughout the residences of British aristocrats. Obviously, it soon came to represent the leisure of class privilege, wealth, and power, and the culmination of lawn culture, according to Jenkins, was the establishment of twentieth century golf courses and country clubs. But as Steinburg argues, it never became the moral crusade it has become in America quite possibly because grass grows so effortlessly in Britain, and turfgrass is not at all native to North America – not even Kentucky Bluegrass. The early colonizers’ cattle quickly destroyed the native grasses, not used to grazing, and in came bluegrass seeds from Europe to fill that niche.

On a deeper level, the lawn represents a desire to control unpredictable, wild nature. Some anthropologists argue that that lawn comes from self-defense. When nomadic gatherer-hunters began settling into sedentary and semi-sedentary homes, they cleared the vegetation surrounding their dwellings in order to foresee potential danger coming – a predator, a snake, an enemy. The lawn is a bastion among the fearful and dangerous wilderness. Even more so, it is the manifestation of the deepest-seeded principals of our culture and civilization: man’s control over nature. Therefore, those who let their lawns go wild are threats to the foundation of civilization itself. Those who fail to uphold this symbol fail to be Americans. This is an unconscious concern, of course. I’d be startled to see my father articulate this to the Chinese family whose lawn-gone-wild was “destroying our neighborhood”.

My father’s anger is not alone. Stories of pissed-off neighbors leaving notes, making death-threats, and organizing at midnight to mow the black-sheeps’ lawns are as bountiful and insidious as crabgrass and dandelions. The disconnect among American immigrants to their lawns is also hugely misunderstood, and often met with xenophobia, racism and aggression.

The lawn is largely considered the male domain in the same sense that the backyard garden is traditionally considered the woman’s. And with it, comes an ever-expanding arsenal of tools made for killing and controlling. A man with a good lawn is simply seen as a powerful protector and provider. A place for the kids to play is also a defense against ticks and whatever other creatures could hide in less manicured yards.

Environmentally speaking, the partnership between the USDA and the US Golf Association (which made it possible for grass to be grown in all regions of this country) has been devastating to ecosystems with the overuse of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Couple that with suburban sprawl and the demands for water in dry regions of the country specifically for lawn maintenance, and the lawn reveals itself as a remarkable environmental problem.


-NASA scientists estimate that turf grass is the single-largest irrigated crop in the United States. According to the Cristina’s study about 128,000 square kilometers or nearly 32 million acres of the United States are covered with turf grass.
-A 2002 Harris Survey suggests as a nation we spend $28.9 billion yearly on lawns. To put that into a personal perspective that translates into approximately $1,200 per household
-50 -70% of all urban fresh water is used for watering lawns. More than half this amount is wasted, because of inappropriate timing or dosage. Nearly all the water used could be save by appropriate use of native landscaping that does not require any watering beyond natural rainfall.
-78 million households in the United States utilize garden pesticides.
-$700 million is spent annually on pesticides for lawns in the US.
-67 million lbs of synthetic pesticides are added to lawns in the US each year.
-We use three times as much pesticide on our lawns per acre as we do on our agricultural crops.
-$5.25 billion is spent on fossil-fuel-derived fertilizer for U.S. lawns. The majority of this fertilizer is wasted because of improper timing or dosage and becomes a source of pollution to surface or ground water. Most of this expense and pollution could be eliminate by proper timing, proper dosage, or intelligent use of compost and other organic fertilizers.
-A typical power lawnmower pollutes as much in one hour as driving an automobile for 20 miles. This can be greatly reduced by using 4-stroke gas lawn mowers or electric mowers. Where feasible, it can be totally eliminated by using a hand-powered reel mower.
-60 to 70 thousand severe accidents, some fatal, result from lawnmower use, as well as significant damage to human hearing.
-580 million gallons of gasoline are used for lawnmowers. Much of this goes to pollute the air by evaporation, or to harm vegetation and surface or ground water by spillage.

So, what are the alternatives? I think growing your own, organic food is probably the healthiest, smartest, and most economic solution to the virtually useless and destructive lawn. “Food Not Lawns” and “Edible Estates” are two books that explore this revolutionary act. Talk about local food! And free! Sounds good to me.

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10 responses to Lawn Order: Spatial Victims
  1. God & lawns
    (An amusing story of unknown authorship that would perhaps be even funnier if it weren’t so heartbreakingly true.)

    GOD: “St. Francis, you know all about gardens and nature. What in the world is going on down there in the USA? What happened to the dandelions, violets, thistle and stuff I started eons ago? I had a perfect, no-maintenance garden plan. Those plants grow in any type of soil, withstand drought and multiply with abandon. The nectar from the long lasting blossoms attracts butterflies, honeybees and flocks of songbirds. I expected to see a vast garden of colors by now. But all I see are these green rectangles.”

    ST. FRANCIS: “It’s the tribes that settled there, Lord. The Suburbanites. They started calling your flowers weeds and went to great lengths to kill them and replace them with grass.”

    GOD: “Grass? But it’s so boring. It’s not colorful. It doesn’t attract butterflies, birds and bees, only grubs and sod worms. It’s temperamental with temperatures. Do these Suburbanites really want all that grass growing there?”

    ST. FRANCIS: “Apparently so, Lord. They go to great pains to grow it and keep it green. They begin each spring by fertilizing grass and poisoning any other plant that crops up in the lawn.”

    GOD: “The spring rains and warm weather probably make grass grow really fast. That must make the Suburbanites happy.”

    ST. FRANCIS: “Apparently not, Lord. As soon as it grows a little, they cut it, sometimes twice a week.”

    GOD: “They cut it? Do they then bale it like hay?”

    ST. FRANCIS: “Not exactly Lord. Most of them rake it up and put it in bags.”

    GOD: “They bag it? Why? Is it a cash crop? Do they sell it?”

    ST. FRANCIS: “No, sir — just the opposite. They pay to throw it away.”

    GOD: “Now, let me get this straight. They fertilize grass so it will grow. And when it does grow, they cut it off and pay to throw it away?”

    ST. FRANCIS: “Yes, sir.”

    GOD: “These Suburbanites must be relieved in the summer when we cut back on the rain and turn up the heat. That surely slows the growth and saves them a lot of work.”

    ST. FRANCIS: “You aren’t going to believe this, Lord. When the grass stops growing so fast, they drag out hoses and pay more money to water it so they can continue to mow it and pay to get rid of it.”

    GOD: “What nonsense. At least they kept some of the trees. That was a sheer stoke of genius, if I do say so myself. The trees grow leaves in the spring to provide beauty and shade in the summer. In the autumn they fall to the ground and form a natural blanket to keep moisture in the soil and protect the trees and bushes. Plus, as they rot, the leaves form compost to enhance the soil. It’s a natural circle of life.”

    ST. FRANCIS: “You’d better sit down, Lord. The Suburbanites have drawn a new circle. As soon as the leaves fall, they rake them into great piles and pay to have them hauled away.”

    GOD: “No. What do they do to protect the shrub and tree roots in the winter and to keep the soil moist and loose?”

    ST. FRANCIS: “After throwing away the leaves, they go out and buy something which they call mulch. They haul it home and spread it around in place of the leaves.”

    GOD: “And where do they get this mulch?”

    ST. FRANCIS: “They cut down trees and grind them up to make the mulch.”

    GOD: “Enough! I don’t want to think about this any more. St. Catherine, you’re in charge of the arts. What movie have you scheduled for us tonight?”

    ST. CATHERINE: “Dumb and Dumber, Lord. It’s a real stupid movie about …”

    GOD: “Never mind, I think I just heard the whole story from St. Francis.”

  2. We just had our front lawn replaced with bark and native plants. It is much more beautiful than the lawn, and the water company came out to measure it for our rebate because of the water we’ll save! Taking care of the lawn was stressful for us, and it aggravated my fiance’s allergies to boot. We are so happy with our beautiful front yard now!!

  3. Thanks for this timely & witty article but I have to make the comment that I find it inappropriate and sexist to call women “bitches” in an article as if it’s funny–it’s not; it’s derogatory. That being said, we’ve had an organic yard for the past 3 or 4 years, and while it’s a little more expensive, find that it does quite well. We use organic fertilizer in the summer/fall, and corn gluten in the spring to help with weeds. It’s more expensive than non-organic, but when you think that all that toxic stuff is going into our water systems and we drink it, it’s worth it!

  4. Nancy! I totally agree. I would never call a woman a bitch.

    I am simply expressing a grievance I have with mainstream male identity – that list is from the mainstream male perspective, not mine, and unfortunately, part of that identity is objectifying women and nature and animals.


  5. Well said, as always Joshua. Great blog! xo Kris

  6. One of our neighbors has a radioactive lawn–it’s the deepest emerald green I’ve ever seen and perfectly manicured. Some may find it attractive–I think it’s hideous. It makes me sick to see all the chemicals they spread across their lawn. Our lawn is full of clover, dandelions and squash, cukes and watermelon. I love it. Our neighbors probably think we’re hicks, but I don’t really care! Great blog!

  7. Imagine what people subsistence farming in developing nations would think to see us throw away our biggest national crop:

  8. Lawns with no dandelions, lawns that are weed free… they are so sad.. I love the little lilies that pop up here in MObile they are spider lilies and they are very where. And people hate them.. One mans weed is another mans flower.. I love this article.. sometimes enough is enough and if your going to put all that effort into anything make it work for you. Compost, garden and enjoy. I think in search of being able to control our universe we stop enjoying what we have built for ourselves and depleating what God has given us. Great article and well said on the ugle b word.. Keep them coming.

    And All Dandelion Protectors Arise.. Callie

  9. Lev said on June 28, 2009

    Thank you for the article. I enjoyed the historical and evolutionary perspective. Someone should leave this article in my neighbors’ mailboxes. It is amazing how many now useless rituals we take for granted. It is time to evolve.

  10. Jay said on June 29, 2009

    This is a great article– I am raising a little boy who as it turns out *LOVES* dandelions and is personally offended that others may consider his favorite a weed and want to get rid of any. He has a secondary interest in edible flowers and at four years old is far more well versed in which flowers are edible than most suburbanites several times his age. (to wit, he has been told by his suburbanite relatives that eating flowers is “gross” and “weird” and “why would you want to do that, thats so silly and strange!” But at home, we keep on, because it may be silly and strange to some but its rather fun to us!) (P.S. I am loving your piece’s title)