The grass knows a word or two.
It is not much. It repeats the same word
Again and again, but not too loudly…
The world stateside on an afternoon in late May is green, green, and more green in southern New Hampshire, with all sorts of greens—light leaf green of the oak trees, spring green of the fern bed, yellow-dappled-green of new birch leaves, darker emerald in the shadows of the trees, a whole spectrum in the dill, basil, oregano, and tomato plants of our nascent vegetable garden. A green without ego or agenda, like swamp maples.
At a rate about 1.5 times faster than usual, my husband is rapidly pushing the mower before his three o’clock house appointment with a visiting lawn care specialist, a secret rendezvous he arranged without telling me. I discover that he’s hoping for advice about fixing the sprinklers, that system of old-looking hoses and broken sprinkler heads which has gradually emerged on our property, bought four years ago, like dinosaur parts surfacing in soil. Michael moves energetically over the near acre in a drugstore straw hat and enormous yellow headphones for sports talk radio. Dust is stirred as the mower meets grassless patches and shucks small rocks. A smell of excavated earth rises when the machine actually scrapes the ground—it drifts into the enclosed porch where I sit with my suspicions—the way freshly dug potatoes smell. The popping sound as he stops the mower to dump grass clippings into the compost pile (safe to do because we don’t fertilize the lawn) followed by the zipper sound as he pulls the engine back to life. I watch him pick up dead magnolia branches and fling them into the swamp maples after he’s stowed the mower in the garage. It reminds me how I take extra care with cosmetics and wear large, dangling earrings when heading to a hair appointment. Both of us want to look our best to the professionals whose job is to deal with the fact that we don’t look our best.
Lawns feel like a uniquely male, uniquely American phenomena. All across the savannahs of the United States, miniature men move on tiny riding lawn mowers, species Americana Lawna, as ubiquitous as the American red-breasted robin or the gray squirrel. I watch the retiree next door straight-backed on his mower, moving like a mini farmer over his property, trimming his half-acre coordinates on the world. It’s like watching a grown man, one who normally drives a supped-up Mustang, in one of those toy cars Shriners steer in crazy circles at parades like drunk houseflies. A quick glance to the left and right at other continents for the most part shows no such sighting. Case in point: although it was summertime when my family traveled in Italy, we hadn’t seen a single lawn mower, including in rural Tuscany, except the evening in Rome when we walked for gelato and discovered a push mower in a shop window amid a display of espresso pots, as incongruous as a De Chirico still-life. That is, until Pisa.
Pisa, Italy, is like a tableside arrangement of the world’s most famous architecture—the iconic tower, the Baptistery of St. John, and the Pisa Cathedral—all set out on a cobalt green tablecloth. I could imagine picking up a building and finding a hole for sharpening pencils or shaking a building and seeing snowfall inside; it felt that souvenir. At the same time, for a scene that’s so classically, so stereotypically Italian that it’s on the cover of all the guidebooks, Pisa also carried a strong American feeling—disorientating until I realized that the source of this vibe U.S.A. was the lawn, which is given its own name, the Field of Miracles. A pamphlet described it as the “best lawn in Italy.” Weed-free and modified, its tough blades were like a multiplication of miniature line-backers.
The Field’s vitality was surprising given the estimated one million tourists who annually step on the grass for group pictures, setting blankets down, picnics, umbrellas, strollers, shoes and heels, cigarettes, and camera stands for the cliché photo of holding-up-the-leaning-tower. The Field’s plushness was attributed to the legendary soil upon which the lawn grew so vibrantly, a shipload of sacred soil brought in the twelfth century by an archbishop in the Fourth Crusade. He transported the soil from Calvary, the spot outside the walls of Jerusalem where it is believed Jesus was crucified—which means Pisa is one of the earliest examples of obsessive lawn care by a man. (Legend has it that bodies buried in this green decomposed entirely within twenty-four hours.) This religious AstroTurf in Pisa, so uniformly and thickly green, was the equivalent of American whitened teeth.
Try as I might, I can’t move beyond my feeling that a big green lawn equals Americana, as pumped up or pumped in, synthetic, injected, enlarged, sanitized, whitened, chilled, mega-sized, secured, butt-warmed, and jacked-up as American fruits and vegetables, SUVs, buffet-style dining, cupcake “wars,” spray-on tans, beauty pageants for little girls, beauty pageants for little dogs, canopy-sized T-shirts and giant bras at Wal-Mart, as senseless as people who seal their dogs’ poop in plastic baggies and toss said baggies onto the closest bit of grass.
Lawn Stripe #1:
Greener on the Other Side
Our front yard is comprised of many mini-yards, interlocking shapes inside which dominate less valued yard plants—crab grass (hardy, blades twice as broad as seeded grass, in a florescence reminiscent of aquarium plants); moss; lamb’s ear; clover—as well as patches of dirt and browned moss. The traditional lawn grass to be found seems like hair plugs. Casually inspecting the lawn is like flying low over a savannah. The vegetation is so sparse, it’s like looking at individual shade trees, and I half expect to see a dozing lioness. Instead, I see ant hills, both clean-lined pyramids and looser piles, the remnants of our daughters’ fairy houses, and firecracker papers. Everything is so exposed that a dead mole with a wet-looking pinched mark on its spine looks like a train car covered in dark carpeting.
The lawn’s been in this state since we bought the house short sale, though the original condition is hard to guess. All we know about the lawn prior to our ownership is that a personality Type-A airline pilot in the neighborhood felt so unsettled by the unkempt empty property that he was compelled to mow it himself. The nearly one acre will take a “wicked lot of time” to fix up, according to my husband, who was quoted $8,500 by the visiting specialist to bring the lawn back and another $5,000 to mend the broken sprinkler system, money we don’t have to spend, compounded by Michael’s natural do-it-yourself resistance to outsourcing manual work anyway. (I say this though it is hard to know the verb to use—repair, restore, remodel, change, fix, reinstate—for what he seeks. Mostly, it’s replacing Nature’s version of ground coverage with a human version of green.) All this leaves him with what he describes as “an itch I can’t scratch” every time he gazes outside. I’m betting he’ll succumb to his do-it-yourself impulses. I predict I’ll return from an overnight trip to find our yard scalped of moss, the house looking like it’s sitting on a pile of Hershey’s unsweetened cocoa powder scattered with wheel barrow, sod cutter, and various rented tools.
I enjoy the moss because barefoot it’s like walking on a plush carpet, padded, cool to the sole, practically orthopedic, and because it probably conceals fewer Lyme’s disease-bearing ticks, a real threat in southern New Hampshire. It’s also hard to imagine the covenant of wildlife we experience—coyotes, pairs of bull moose, packs of deer, gangs of wild turkeys, casts of hawks, murders of crows, teams of fisher cats, four-foot long water snakes, raccoons, foxes, mallards, bobcats, possum—high stepping hoof and paw over a manicured lawn. Expanses of idle green feel as pointless as taking down a Dunkin’ Donuts to build a new Dunkin’ Donuts on the same spot (actually happened) or spending federal highway dollars to add another interstate lane when what’s direly needed is a high-speed rail line.
In our neighborhood, lawn care trucks and their flatbeds are a more common sight than school buses. After residents have left for long commutes to corporate-techie-legal-medical jobs in Boston, packs of deeply tanned men in their late twenties wearing knee-length cargo shorts and sleeveless shirts indifferently wave weed whackers or leaf blowers around like magic wands. They bring mounds of red bark mulch with the abundance of chicken salad at a catered event. Truck logos include The Lawn Butler, Lawn Doctor, Lawn Dog, Ground Hog Service, and TruGreen. (The other day, my daughters were waiting for the school bus and watched a truck with a new lawn-care company logo stop at each mailbox on our street to insert flyers—except ours. My older daughter reported how two men in the truck paused briefly, studying the ruins of our front yard, and drove right on.) Lawn work is outsourced—occasionally out-of-state—and I can count on one hand the do-it-yourself men and women I see mowing their own yards on weekends or weeknights. One man called himself “the last of the Mohegans” until late this spring when he was convinced into employing a lawn service. Our property is sandwiched between the showcase yards of two men who actually do take care of their own lawns, come sickness or health, a commentary on perfection my husband is forced to run up against each time he mows. The scholar James Pomerantz has discovered a scientific basis behind the cliché “the grass is always greener on the other side” because apparently very real “optical and perceptual laws alone will make the grass at a distance look greener to the human eye than the blades of grass perpendicular to the ground.” So my poor husband is actually caught twice by green envy—perception and reality.
Despite appearances at our address, grasses are the most ubiquitous, most successful plant on Earth, surviving in all sorts of climates and able to recover from grazing because their meristems (a plant’s growth cells) are located near the grass plant’s bottom, not near its easily chewed or snipped tip. So maybe it’s not coincidental that American men try to control grass; lawn care is the grand mal conquest of nature, taking on her most prevalent growing form. Nature brings a wide variety of grass types in North America: Kentucky bluegrass, rough bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, annual ryegrass, fine fescues, tall fescue, and creeping bentgrass. They differ as best I can ascertain in terms of their venation (the growing pattern of new blades inside a stalk); a keeled or flat leaf tip; ligules (a bit like a bunch of hair at the base of the stalk); whether the grass blade has an auricle (the collar of its stalk looks like two folded arms); its growth habit (whether an older plant sends a shoot underground, rhizomatous, or above ground, stoloniferous, to form a new plant or whether it stays in one spot and grows in a bunch); and its seed head (whether it looks like a miniature tree, panicle, or a spike or receme). With kitchen scissors, I snipped a piece of our neighbor Earl’s grass and one of our own blades, a mere few feet away though the plants could have been samples from different countries. It appears we both have perennial ryegrass, though our neighbor’s grass blade is twice as thick as ours with one slightly dried strand, versus our two fully dried strands and three dried tips. His root system is more evident as well, and his grass in sum looks like a well-built miniature scallion.
Gadgets come and go, but a green front yard can be a perpetual 4-H Show for adult men. Second only to the male mania for lawn care is the passion for driveway sealant. In New Hampshire, we’re not a congenial porch culture, and it can take twenty years of living on the same street before someone invites the immediate neighbors to a barbecue. Since the houses in this neighborhood are pretty much cookie-cutter, a few design variations between models, the only parts left to show off are the lawns, which don’t come sidewalk sized as they do in more populated areas over the border in Massachusetts. Yards here are called lawns. “Lawn” brings the expansiveness of the “l,” the extensive prospects of the “aw,” and the “n” like a vanishing point in the distance. Every house is a miniature Versailles or Central Park.
I’ve come to think lawns are a way for men to announce that they belong with the group of other men immediately surrounding them, fellow land owners, in a particular cul de sac, gated community, street, lane. It’s a way to show that the man is able to physically (push mower) or financially (TruGreen Lawn Care) make an effort identical to the rest of the men. As far as I can tell, lawns are not necessarily about sexual prowess, but who knows given that this involves males. (I begin to have my doubts when I share this thought with my husband, and he looks out our bug-splattered minivan windshield and drawls, “Well….”) I’ve even known a man to turn down a beautiful piece of real estate because the lawn had too much clover. A software engineer and organizer of the local chapter of New Hampshire singles group asked me to accompany him on his appointments with realtors, which was my introduction to the concept of the McMansion. At one gorgeous house with a movie-set kitchen and bedroom for each of his cats, I found him bending close to the front lawn, not looking for four-leaf clover. He decided to pass on the house because the lawn had too much three-leaf clover for the volleyball parties he hosted.
Lawn up-keep is not really about the approval of people just passing through—not about impressing the pizza delivery man or the mother-in-law who visits on Wednesdays two houses down to babysit the grandchildren. In fact, lawns may be altogether not about women whatsoever. Although this property is technically 50% mine, when it comes to the lawn, Michael looks through and past me to the neighborhood men in the same way heterosexual women keep up a fashionable appearance to send signals to other women. Cross fingers that the fad of the huge green chemical lawn goes the way of low-rider jeans, eyelash extensions, and ombre hair.
Lawn Stripe #2:
American Husband, High Priest
At Home Depot, I wait like a praying mantis in the lawn care section, pretending to read labels on seed bags. If one didn’t want to rely on nature’s green abundance, there’s always man’s manipulation. Home Depot (my young daughters have been known to mispronounce this as “Home Despot”) offers four “Turf Builders:” Kentucky Bluegrass Mix, Dense Shade Mix, Perennial Ryegrass, and Sunny Mix. The range of products in twenty and forty-two pound bags is astounding—moss control granules, “Perfect Pet Repair” which “neutralizes pet spots,” other ways to patch a bare spot, prevent damage from winter road salt, along with promises: “Grows New Grass 70% quicker, 35% thicker” and the disturbing, “Won’t Burn the Lawn, Guaranteed!”
All this condensed engineering of life and growth hangs in the air of the aisle, a chemical reek that reminds me of the detergent section at the supermarket where “ocean,” “lavender,” “freschia,” “fresh air” and “citrus” scents on soaps compete for the shopper’s attention. Along with chemically controlled life, there’s death. On one pile of sacks, an illustration of an underground stage show in which the chief performers are an ant, flea, tick, chinch bug, spider, cutworm, mole cricket, and sod webworm, each like a cartoon bandit about to tip-toe away from a crime scene, though the real homicide is their own. The performance is called “Insect Killer for Lawns,” and it promises to kill “100 Plus Insects above and below ground.” I’m not too comforted by the chipper side remark in italics, “Once treated area has been watered and is dry, children and pets can return to the lawn!” Chemical solutions to lawn enemies are for sale but no traps or other devices, such as the mole traps available online which look like the hand-claw of a sci-fi personification of Evil.
As much as I can’t understand this insect-and-small-life genocide for the purposes of grass, I can understand what it means to deeply value a piece of nature. I would go to the ends of the chemically engineered Earth if a pest threatened our set of beloved oak trees, ten majestic deities standing parallel to the road, in the way the Emerald Ash Borer, a disco-green insect half the diameter of a penny, is decimating ash trees in North America.
When I step over to the lawn mower section, a friendly sales associate named Tim walks me through different models of push mowers—Turf Tiger, Cheetah, Wild Cat, Tiger Cub, and Z-Tiger—with rear-wheel drive, various sized decks, safety systems, and the ability to adjust to individual walking pace. He directs my attention to the least expensive $90 non-motorized Scotts Classic Reel Mower, a “character builder.” The do-it-all-yourself model is euphemistically advertised as a mower whose “manual push design is non-polluting.” Tim hesitates, squints at my face and says, “I hope this isn’t offensive, but I think we’re of the same age.” When I agree—though thinking he’s probably a decade older and wondering if I shouldn’t color my roots—he asks me if I remember how in our classical childhoods, in the 1930s, returning from a family vacation and praying during the car ride that it hadn’t rained during our time away. “If it rained, you knew you had your work cut out for you,” he says about one of these non-motorized models. He adds wryly that nowadays if you give your children this mower, “They’ll appreciate lawn care.” I laughed, imagining what would happen if I gifted my husband the traditional way, with this mower, though legend has it that his paternal grandfather, a Brit visiting from factory-side Coventry, meticulously clipped his son’s front yard in America using a pair of kitchen scissors. (He’s the same thrifty man who would rush outside after a police officer on horseback to collect manure for his window-box tomato plant.)
Back in the grass seed, fertilizer, and pesticide part of things, a truly older store employee, a retiree named Bob, tells me about the importance of appearances. In addition to advising that lawn-care companies be made to wipe their mower blades between customers (to avoid picking up bad lawn situations from a previous client), he says, “Never mow the same way twice.” Apparently, the pattern in which one mows is a fashion statement. Called “lawn striping,” it offers variants such as Basic Lawn Stripe, Checkboard, Diagonal, and Criss-Cross. Lawn striping is a way to compete with your neighbors, and practitioners post pictures of their patterns on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at #showusyourstripes. One helpful online site when I checked later encourages, “with a little practice, your stripes will appear to pass directly through objects.” A Popular Mechanics site offers more Jungian advice on how to form spirals and transform the yard into a crop maze. Bob says he likes it when he drives through his neighborhood and “you can see a forty-five degree cut from down the street one week and then the next week, another way, another style.” Men may hardly notice a change of hairstyle in their partner (or have to be prompted to notice), but they are sharply attuned to the state of their neighbors’ yards.
I have heard our male neighbors gossip about a neighbor several doors down who’s gone natural. This other neighbor has planted wildflowers and inserted decorations of dragonflies and pixies like a sort of hairpin. Or there’s the other man who’s gone Mower M.I.A., never home and never mowing. Thorstein Veblen also noticed this call to lawn conformity—how visible maintenance is required so the owner can “conform to the established usage, to avoid unfavorable notice and comment, to live up to the accepted canons of decency.” It might also be as Michael Pollan says, “The land is too important to our identity as Americans to simply allow everybody to have their own way with it.” Virginia Scott Jenkins in her study The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession points out how the rhetoric of lawn care—generated by governmental and business interests—made the keeping up of green a social mandate mostly between men. Despite shortages of water and of eligible males to mow during times of war, directives about lawn maintenance have never experienced shortage. Jenkins cites an edict from a 1969 Life magazine: “Let a man drink or default, cheat on his taxes or cheat on his wife, and the community will find forgiveness in its heart. But let him fail to keep his front lawn mowed, and to be seen doing it, and those hearts will turn to stone. For the American front lawn is a holy place, constantly worshipped but never used. Only its high priest, the American husband, may set foot on it, and then only to perform the sacred rites.”
(Side note: I’ve just been informed that apparently I have no right to speak on lawn styling since I was raised in central Maine. Ours was not a tribe dedicated to lawn care, with its aesthetics at its most infamous in the 1980s in the craze for cutout figures of women bending over whilst presumably gardening. Who else beside a Mainer would showcase wide rear-ends, expanding waistbands, and plumber’s cracks? When my father operated his rusty secondhand riding mower, it was with a more perfunctory “get her done” attitude, a chore squeezed between supper and closing hours of our convenience store. What he did to our 2-acre yard was more like giving it a crew cut, more like mowing a field—plenty of that happening in nearby acres.)
Lawn care is such a serious interest that it’s also infiltrated higher education. Whole degree programs, “Turfgrass Degrees” with “Turfgrass Science Majors” are offered at American universities, usually in the same department which offers degrees in Golf Course Management. When I share this insight with my husband, he doesn’t look surprised. It’s amazing what you can learn after eleven years of marriage because it turns out that Michael had considered majoring in Turfgrass Science.
After a few minutes more at Home Depot, two men, one middle-aged and the other a late teen, approach the grass seed section where I’m waiting for them, pretending to read labels on seed bags. When I tell them about my project, revealing my gendered agenda by asking clumsily, “Are you two by any chance lawn guys?” the older man wordlessly stalks off toward hose nozzles, but the younger man lingers. After a few seconds of surprise and a never-thought-of-it-that-way look when I explain my topic of men-and-lawns, the younger man seems to want to get something off his chest. He quickly and quietly starts telling me how his father (not the other man, apparently) was obsessed with their lawn after they bought the new house and how he made the son (speaker) spend all of his time mowing until things changed (“things” left ambiguous…marital, financial, health, not specified, just left a dark hint)…And I’m struck again by how a lawn may well be the measure of a man’s well-being. When a mower starts up this summer, my daughters and I perk up, heading to a window to see if it’s our neighbor Earl. Earl, on his knees planting tiger lilies or a new dwarf tree, maintaining his lawn, ever patient and non-judgmental of our yard and its state of failure. The depth of his pleasure in yard work had been so evident it made the grass take on, for a moment, a different sheen even for me. At Stage 3 then Stage 4 lung cancer, a hoodie covering his balding head, he works in ever smaller stints, often at odd hours, a monk in his increasingly baggy jeans, away from the gaze of the neighborhood, including us, I’m sure, with our once or twice calls, “It’s Earl! It’s Earl in the window!” We turn downcast when his college-aged son or a female relative are discovered instead at the mower. Today, the broad stripes of someone else’s mowing at the property line look like a car repeatedly veered off the road.
Lawn Stripe #3:
Watering the Green
I listen to the news about water shortages and think to myself that this whole back-and-forth with my husband about the future of our yard, one which I am sure to lose within a year because a fake green future seems inevitable, may be a long-term victory for me. The days of manicured green may be ending. That said, I’m probably at my most Eco Green in my stance about lawns because, as it is often pointed out in our household, I take very long showers and commute sixty miles one way.
As I start this essay, Governor Jerry Brown instituted the newest water ban in California to deal with the severest drought since the Gold Rush, including prohibiting residents from watering their lawn with potable water “within 48 hours after measurable rainfall” and limiting municipal and state offices and private companies to two days a week of watering. Water use was restricted in other ways, including not offering customers complimentary glasses of water if not requested (seems a bit parsimonious) or reminding hotel customers that they can reuse towels and bedding (seems redundant—bedside cards have said so for years). It’s believed that the restrictions on lawn watering are the toughest part of the new measures because lawns comprise 44% of water use in California. I live in a relatively verdant area, Rockingham County in southern New Hampshire, which sees an annual rainfall of 44.1 inches (compared to the national average of 36.5) and snowfall of 56.8 inches (national average of 25 inches). Water appears to be abundant, cheap, if not free. People are beginning to talk about water usage even here. Concern for water is already addressed on bags of grass seed at Home Depot which list water use percentages—“30% less water! Absorbs 2 times more water!”—in the way food packaging discloses sodium or fat percentages.
The social stigma of artificial grass—and here I do mean plastic made to resemble grass—is changing and sales and installations have increased, with some environmental concerns about impact on biodiversity and landfills. Heavenly Greens, a company specializing in synthetic grass, offers two types, with jargon sounding more academic than garden-supply: Low-Infill Thatch System and Traditional Monafilament System. Both combine dark green blades with yellowing ones, and the first type contains a scraggly lower layer suggestive of old growth. In Massachusetts, the company Foreverlawn sells a synthetic grass especially for dog owners, K9Grass, which has an “exclusive Flow-Through Backing ™.” Other options include painting a concrete surface lawn-green, using drought-resistant plants, or landscaping with small rocks. I mention these choices from more arid climates to Michael and suggest that we don’t even have to take those measures. We could just let our yard persist as it is now, mossy and variegated. How simple is that?
By the time I’ve finished this essay, California has received high grades for its reduction of water usage. Back in New Hampshire, it seems we may have made progress toward going “New Hampshire Gold” in the way Californians have been encouraged to think of their change in lawn culture as going “California Gold.” One evening in late August, we’re taking a walk around the neighborhood, and Michael remarks how many of the yards, even ones usually most strenuously manicured, have gone brown this arid summer. Kicking at a bit of crab grass near the curb, he says, “It looks like my moss held up better,” though I know his drive to have a manicured lawn—green and boisterous—has not changed.
I’d like to flip out a perfectly benign, low-toxicity expanse of green, the way carpet magically falls in one fell swoop in a commercial for a local rug-installation company, incongruously to the jingo for State Farm Insurance in my head. I’d like to select the green option for him, as in the green he wants, not necessarily what I want. I do admit that the yard near our mailbox, where the sun falls most heavily, has the look of a drought zone. I wish I could see the prospect of a chemically-engineered yard as simply a continuation of the work he’s already done in the house, the beautiful wood floors he’s hammered into place and the kitchen cupboards he’s built by hand with my father-in-law. After all, why can’t increasing the amount of green outside be equivalent to painting a kitchen wall or putting down tile? I really wish I could. I wish I could be that type of green, but it’s like being forced to live with shag carpet, a material that doesn’t care what I think.
Material used in this piece originates from the Penn State Plant Science Page, Popular Mechanics, the New York Times, Virginia Scott Jenkins’ The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession, Michael Pollan’s Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, Charles Simics’ New and Selected Poems, 1962-2012, and Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class.