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The Tyranny Of The Lawn
For more than a century now, American homeowners have been struggling to remake their small patch of the environment into a soft, green carpet just like the neighbor’s. Who told us this was the way a lawn had to be?
September 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 5
The iron rule of lawns can be expressed as follows: ‘Short, green grass is the only normal, respectable thing to have in your front yard.’
Falk conducted surveys to find out what kind of scene Americans preferred to see when they looked out their back doors. Overwhelmingly his subjects selected shortgrass with scattered trees. So did residents of the rain forest in Nigeria and the desert near New Delhi, India. This suggests to FaIk that even though not every culture re-creates the savanna, people have an innate affinity for shortgrass. Societies as diverse as those of ancient China and Persia, medieval France and Britain, and the Olmecs in Mexico all have cultivated lawns.
But perhaps our love of lawns reflects a more recent past. Until the last century our ancestors were mostly farmers, and it is no coincidence that lawns took hold in the United States after the Industrial Revolution had begun taking people away from their meadows and pastures. Perhaps all the lawn toil and tinkering—the scattering of seed, the mowing, the harvesting of clippings—that spread across the country from the mid-nineteenth century on is really displaced agrarian energy.
There’s also the lawn-as-display hypothesis, which holds that the modern lawn originated on the estates of the British aristocracy and was copied first by upper-class Americans, then by the middle class, and finally by the working class, so that even our tiny cottages and bungalows feature estate lawns shrunk to throw-rug size. Thorstein Veblen touched on this idea in his classic 1899 work The Theory of the Leisure Class .
Veblen explained the lawn as an example of conspicuous consumption. In an age that valued land for its productivity, the lawn’s nonproductivity was the whole point. It advertised its owner as rich enough to own land that he didn’t have to put to practical use. A status-conscious American of Veblen’s time would never have allowed a cow to graze on his lawn; “the vulgar suggestion of thrift” would have undercut the lawn’s purely decorative function.
Even if some or all of the above hypotheses do explain our attachment to it, let’s not overlook the lawn’s obvious pleasures. Some of childhood’s fondest memories are linked to lawns: the tickle of grass beneath bare feet, cooling off under sprinklers, stretching out on the turf to watch the clouds drift by. The lawn’s dense, springy texture makes a good playing surface for games ranging from football to badminton. It feels lush and cool on a hot summer day. It eases some of the worst aspects of development, absorbing noise, dust, and glare. It has a soothing and inspiriting effect on people. Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, University of Michigan psychology professors, cite studies indicating that hospital patients who have a view of grass and trees recover faster than patients who don’t. And a survey conducted by the Kaplans found that office workers who see nature scenes from their windows suffer less stress than co-workers with poor views. Looking at what Stephen Kaplan calls “nearby nature,” including lawns, “improves people’s quality of life, their peace of mind, their effectiveness.”
If you’ve spent any time at all going through gardening books, you’ll have read that the lawn should be picture perfect, a beautiful frame for your home, or words to that effect. The idea that landscapes should look like paintings came to us from Britain. In the eighteenth century British landscape architects rejected the formal landscaping of the Italians and the French in favor of more naturalistic effects. Drawing inspiration from the imaginary landscapes of Claude Lorrain and Salvator Rosa, William Kent, Lancelot (“Capability”) Brown, and, later, Humphrey Repton planned and supervised landscapes that mimicked nature’s irregularities, with winding paths and asymmetrically placed clusters of trees set into verdant lawns.
These naturalistic (not to be confused with natural) effects were achieved with considerable contrivance, including the diverting of streams, the tearing out and replanting of trees, the creation of lakes, and, in one instance, the demolition of a village that spoiled the view. The goal was a romanticized version of the countryside that blended into its surroundings to create a beautiful picture.
Lawns were a prominent feature of these landscapes, particularly in the designs of Brown, whose work, one critic said, “transformed the countryside.” At estates such as Stowe and Blenheim, he used expanses of gently undulating lawn to create a sense of vastness and openness and to offer distant vistas. Brown shocked traditionalists by pulling down walls and uprooting ancient rows of trees to create his uninterrupted swaths of turf. He replaced straight paths and geometric plantings with curving walkways and clusters of trees. In his landscapes one sees the distant prototype of the American lawn: the wide swaths of grass, the lack of fences, the irregularly placed trees, the curving path to the front door.