One of the great rituals in suburban America is mowing the lawn. A manicured lawn seems to say that the house is well cared for, that it belongs to the neighborhood. Great Lakes Radio Consortium commentator Ed Herrmann wonders whether this obsession for the perfect lawn is worth the effort:
One of the great rituals in suburban America is mowing the lawn. A
manicured lawn seems to say that the house is well cared for, that it belongs
to the neighborhood. Great Lakes Radio Consortium commentator Ed
Herrmann wonders whether this obsession with the perfect lawn is worth the
(sound of evening insects)
It’s a late summer evening and at last I can go outside and enjoy the
sounds of the neighborhood. There’s a little breeze, the air is cooler. The
chorus of insects is soothing, gentle but insistent, an ancient throbbing
resonance. Much better than during the day…
(roar of lawn machines)
Summer days in the suburbs are the time of assault, when people attack their
lawns with powerful weapons from the chemical and manufacturing
industries. Anyone who uses the words “quiet” and “suburbs” in the same
sentence has never been to a suburb, at least not in summer.
It takes a lot of noise to maintain a lawn. Besides the mower, you’ve got edgers, trimmers,
leaf blowers, weed whackers, core aerators, little tractors, big tractors, slitting
machines. I don’t know whatever happened to rakes and hand clippers. One
thing’s for sure. This quest for lawn perfection wouldn’t be possible without
the industrial revolution.
So where did we get the idea that a house should be surrounded by a field of
uniform grass kept at the same height?
Well, with apologies to the Queen, I’m afraid we must blame the British. It
seems that, along with our language, our imperial ambitions and our
ambivalent morals, America also gets its notion of what a lawn should look
like from the English. Of course, the estates of the English aristocracy were
tended by a staff of gardeners. England also has a milder climate, and the
grass that looks so nice there doesn’t do as well in North America. In the
1930’s the USDA came up with a blend of imported grasses that would
tolerate our climate. Since these grasses are not native, they need help, and
that calls for fertilizers, pesticides and lots of extra water. Since normal
people can’t afford gardeners who trim by hand, that means lawn machines.
American industry to the rescue.
(mower starts up, fades under next sentence)
A quick Google tells me that today we have 40 million lawn mowers in use.
Each emits 11 times the pollution of a new car, and lawn mowers contribute
five percent of the nation’s air pollution. Plus more than 70 million pounds of
pesticides are used each year and over half of our residential water is used
for landscaping. Don’t you love those automatic sprinklers that come on in the
rain? Add to that all the time that people spend mowing and edging. Of
course the two billion dollar lawn care industry is thrilled about all this
enthusiasm, but I gotta ask, “Is it worth it?”
Call me old fashioned, but I actually prefer the looks of a meadow with mixed
wildflowers and grasses to the lawn that looks like a pool table. My own lawn
is somewhere between. It’s mowed, but it’s what you might call multicultural.
There are at least five different kinds of grass with different colors and
thicknesses, plus clover, dandelions, mushrooms, a few pinecones, and a
rabbit hole or two. There’s also some kind of nasty weed with thorns, but even
that has nice purple flowers if it gets big enough.
Clover, by the way, used to be added to grass seed because it adds nitrogen to
the soil. Now we just buy a bag of nitrogen fertilizer, so who needs clover?
And what’s wrong with
dandelions? You can eat them, some people even make wine out of them,
they have happy yellow flowers; yet to most people they indicate your yard is
out of control. So I’m down on my hands and knees pulling dandelions. I’m
not sure why, but I hope it keeps the neighbors happy.
One thing I won’t give in to, though, is the chemical spraying trucks, painted
green of course, that roll through the neighborhood.
I can only hold my breath. (sound of trucks and mowers) Try not to listen. And
wait for the evening. (evening insects)
(air conditioner starts up)
Although, with all these air conditioners, even the night’s not too quiet.
But that’s another story.
Host tag: “Ed Herrmann is an outdoor enthusiast living in the
suburbs of Detroit.”