The Lawn: North America's magnificent obsession
by Robert Fulford

(Azure, July-August, 1998)

The North American cult of the lawn looks to some people like the product of a vast collective dream, the taming of nature and its reduction to the cultural level of a billiard table. Seen in another light, the lawn appears to be no more than a neutral backdrop, a stage set for the drama of the suburbs. But I prefer to consider it, first of all, as a moral issue. Not, however, in the environmental sense. Ecologists have rightly accused lawns of consuming vast quantities of water and other earthly goods for trivial aesthetic effect, but that argument sways no one. North Americans now devote about 40,000 square miles to lawns (more than we use for wheat, corn, or even tobacco) and the fury of environmentalists has not reduced that figure by .01 per cent.

What I mean by the lawn as moral issue is its place in human relations and its role in public shaming. In North America today, a lawn is the quickest, surest indicator that the deadliest of the seven deadly sins has attacked from within. As the death of a canary announces the presence of gas in a mine, so a dandelion's appearance on a lawn indicates that Sloth has taken up residence in paradise and is about to spread evil in every direction. And when a whole lawn comes alive with dandelions--it can happen overnight, as many know to our sorrow--then that property instantly becomes an affront to the street and to the middle-class world of which the street is a part. Pretty as they might look to some, dandelions demonstrate a weakness of the soul. They announce that the owner of the house refuses to respect the neighbourhood's right to peace, order, good government, and the absence of airborne dandelion seeds.

This can only breed guilt in those who allow their lawns to degenerate. And among neighbours, dandelions spread another kind of moral blight: they encourage the prig, the tattler, and the common scold. They provide the stuff of malicious gossip, causing people who should be minding their own business to peer through slits in drawn curtains and make vicious phone calls. Eventually they bring a harsh judgement crashing down on everyone: they lower the value of property. A Sunset magazine guidebook, How to Install and Care for Your Lawn, once neatly defined the role of the lawn as moral arbiter: "a lawn has a spiteful way of exposing the lax gardener to his neighbours by turning brown, sprouting weeds, or looking generally shaggy and woebegone." You can fool yourself, your children, perhaps even your spouse; you cannot fool your lawn.

Quite aside from environmental issues, lawns are not universally loved. There are those who find large stretches of grass intimidating, and often they are Europeans, immigrants from countries that have not made lawns central to their culture. Eva Hoffman, a Polish-Jewish immigrant, wrote in her much-admired memoir, Lost in Translation, about her father feeling beaten down by Vancouver in the 1960s. He had endured the Nazis, he had endured the communists, but the lawns of Vancouver were too much for him, he was "confounded by this amiable Vancouver, by its civility and its shaved lawns." The lawns were merely a symbol, of course, but a potent and omnipresent one---in their uniform richness they could make someone feel guilty for the crime of failing to succeed.

In a sense, and it is the worst possible sense, the suburban lawn expresses the persistence among us of English culture. It is, I regret to say, a triumph of the Anglo-Saxons, my people, whose dream of order finds its ultimate expression in the well-rolled lawn. Even those who imagine our families reach back to ancient English kingdoms must acknowledge that the British influence is mixed. Put it this way: at one end of the cultural spectrum, write "Shakespeare," and at the other end write, "lawn."

Lawns go back to antiquity, but it was the British who, in the years after the Renaissance, turned the lawn into a cult and a way of life. Across England, they made immaculate lawns the focus of great gardens and quadrangles. They made lawns the setting for most of their games, notably cricket, croquet, and bowls. As the empire grew, sod followed the Union Jack, and proud patches of greenery spread to the distant shores of Australia and India. (Contrary to popular belief, the English wanted to paint the map green, not red--and in this project they succeeded.) In 1757, even Denis Diderot, that prince of the French Enlightenment, acknowledged in his Encyclopédie that the English were the kings of the lawn and, though the French tried to imitate them, "lawns in France are not fine, nor treated, nor a beautiful green....not rolled or mowed with the care and intelligence necessary..." What's more, it was an Englishman, Edwin Budling, who invented the helical-bladed lawnmower, in 1830.

The lawn was one aspect of British culture that the Thirteen Colonies did not reject when they proclaimed themselves a nation in 1776. In fact, they embraced the lawn with an enthusiasm that made England's lawn-love seem tame. You can still see the evidence of their early enchantment if you stand, for instance, in front of the statehouse in Dover, the capital of the tiny state of Delaware. Laid out in 1717, an ancient and beautifully proportioned lawn embellishes the elegant brick building. In bright sunlight, from the right angle, it tells all you need know of the colonists' passionate hopes.

By this century, lawns had lodged themselves in the mass mind of North Americans. Consider the ad that Vigoro fertilizer published in House Beautiful in April, 1944: "Probably you, too, have a loved one in the service....Wherever he is, he dreams of velvety lawns....he wants to come home to them. Keep them growing their best awaiting that day! They will contribute immeasurably toward a winning home front."

There's a kind of madness behind that passage, the suggestion that parents stop thinking of gunfire and death and turn their minds to seeding and sodding. The same lawn madness reaches grander heights in the deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, and California, where private lawns and golf clubs have come to be considered basic human rights and gated communities for the retired and the affluent are built around vast golf clubs that are kept alive by water brought from far away at great expense. Making the desert bloom has been a human aspiration since Biblical times, but south-western Americans carry it to excess. The relentless spread of artificially maintained grass amounts to a perverse form of aggression and at the same time a fabulous display of wealth. Only the richest society could spend money so casually, almost unconsciously. In this context, a lawn becomes a boast of power, a proof of how much space a landowner can waste without discomfort.

Today we can keep up with such matters by reading Lawn & Landscape Digest, a journal that considers basic philosophical issues ("Which Northern Grass Fits your Lifestyle?"). What I enjoy most about it is the poetry in the names of grasses: Bermudagrass, St. Augustine, centipedegrass, zoysia, buffalograss, and--my favorite--Turf Type Tall Fescue. One must ignore a certain perversity in the naming (Kentucky Bluegrass comes originally from Europe and Asia, whereas Bermudagrass originated in Africa) but there are many compensations. Lawn & Landscape Digest will inform you, for instance, about a disease with a beautiful name, St. Augustine Decline, otherwise called SAD: "older lawns that have SAD can be improved by planting plugs of the new SAD-resistant strains."

Lawns are never far from the minds of people who own houses, but they only occasionally attract the attention of academics and museums. One such occasion is the appearance of a major exhibition, The American Lawn: Surface of Everyday Life, at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, from June 16 to November 8. This last of five CCA exhibitions, together called "The American Century," comes with a catalogue, published by Princeton Architectural Press, in which Georges Teyssot assembles a platoon of scholars who have apparently read everything ever written on the subject of lawns (and from whose labours this essay gratefully benefits).

A lawn expresses the imperialist personality; more than any other form of growth, it satisfies that part of the human soul that longs for control. A few years ago, Robert J. Samuelson, columnist for Newsweek, responded to the ecological critique of lawns with a piece called "The Joys of Mowing," in which he declared "In an era when almost everything is beyond our control, our lawns are not. We are a better country for our lawns, and we need more--not less--grass."

Lawn-making is the art that conceals art: it is, in fact, the only aspect of gardening that hides both the work done and the nature of the plant life itself. A lawn that achieves perfection ceases to look like plant matter and resembles a fake version of itself. It has no bumps, no weeds, and no variations in colour: from a distance, the perfect close-mown lawn is indistinguishable from Astroturf. Seen in that way, Astroturf was an inevitable development--since lawns are in essence artificial, why shouldn't there be totally ersatz versions? Various grass imitations went on the market in the 1960s, and in 1966 Astroturf was installed in the Houston Astrodome. While fake lawns cost more at first, they never require watering, rolling, or cutting, and gophers do not dig holes in them. Of course, not everyone enjoys them. Athletes may find them hard on the feet, and in the early days there were embarrassing incidents. In 1971 the Poly-Turf in the Miami football stadium turned blue in the sunlight; that might not have been so bad (what the hell, it was the Orange Bowl), but when the sun melted the fibres, the field turned slick as ice. In Tennessee, a faux-grass football field turned black, which everyone agreed was a bit much.

Bogus or authentic, the green of the lawn is more than ever a part of our lives today: it fills much of the picture plane as the background for thousands of hours of television sports. In that distant form it becomes merely an echo of the original lawns that inspired the green carpeting of the continent. In the original lawn, even in its standardized suburban form, there was a sweetness, a yearning, that John Cheever catches in his short stories when he speaks of the quiet hissing of sprinklers in the evening air. I've always found one quality of lawns attractive: they are most evocative when being cut, their smell rising for a moment to flavour the air--it's a brevity not unlike the short-lived loveliness of cherry blossoms, a major cult among the Japanese. In The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds of Small Extent, published in 1870, Frank J. Scott offered a poetic explanation of his affection for greenery on suburban lots: "Whoever spends the early hours of one summer, while the dew spangles the grass, in pushing these grass-cutters over a velvety lawn, breathing the fresh sweetness of the morning air and the perfume of new mown hay, will never rest content again in the city."

A recent issue of Newsweek brought the news, indirectly conveyed, that this cult remains vividly alive. In April, Pete Barthelme wrote one of those self-celebrating stories about moving away from the pressures of urban civilization to an isolated place in the country, in his case a coastal fishing area in Texas. He told us he's now isolated from movie houses, he gets one TV channel intermittently, the grocery store is four miles away, there are no neighbours for half a mile, and he's happy. But then, inadvertently, he slips in the fact that he has a lawn. In his old life he employed a lawn crew, but he's now replaced them with "a very fine riding lawn mower with a full 11.5 horsepower, which happens to be fun to use." He doesn't tell us why, in the middle of nowhere, he maintains a lawn. He doesn't imagine that the question would occur to us. He knows that even among those who abandon urbanism and "go back" to nature, the lawn remains a necessity. Without it, they would feel incomplete.

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