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When a yard becomes evil and… another Coppola trend?

We’re a country addicted to grass… sorry for the pun, but being obsessed with turf grass might prove to be more harmful than anything you can inhale.

I went through most of my life equating anything green and leafy as good, but an interview last summer changed my view on the all-American front yard.

Upon hearing my subject’s book title- Food Not Lawns– at first I considered it an imbalanced trade of bombs for lawns (Food Not Bombs being the anti-nuclear, anti-food-waste activist group) until I learned that lawns can be chemically-derived resource-depleting environmental weapons.

The case against lawns

  1. They’re big: in the US their area is equal to the size of New York State.

  2. They’re messy: homeowners use up to 10 times more pesticides per acre on their lawns than farmers on their crops.

  3. They’re thirsty: lawn is the most irrigated crop in the country, particularly dangerous given how much of it is grown in areas of severe water stress.

Before my interview with Heather Flores of Food Not Lawns (the organization and the book), I had never considered alternatives to lawns, but when Heather showed me a yard abundant with cherries and pears that had once been simple grass, something clicked. We are wasting our yards.

Other countries don’t have our grass problem

Perhaps I grew up too American to notice that lawns don’t have to be the norm, but once I started to examine it, I couldn’t think about anything else. On a trip back to my childhood vacation spot, Sun Valley (Idaho), instead of experiencing that back-to-nature sensation of my memories, I stared in amazement at all the well-irrigated grass in this high desert region (I shot a video blog as my family and I checked out all the huge lawns on the mostly second homes).

Back home in Spain, I have discovered that hardly anyone has an all-grass yard. My in-laws, for example, have a much more intentional yard than the average American. It’s not big, but everything has its purpose: a huge vegetable garden, a grape-vine-covered picnic table for our family meals, fruit and olive trees, and finally a patch of grass just big enough for the dog, and now my daughter, to play.

It’s not a coincidence that the researcher behind NASA’s massive lawn study, Cristina Milesi, is Italian. Her culture shock upon moving to the US included wonder at the well-irrigated lawns that stayed green even during hot Montana summers when the natural vegetation went dormant.

Milesi explains that in Italy population densities are higher and yards have less landscaping and require little irrigation. “If there is grass in the yard, it is generally a mixture of clover, dandelions, and lots of other so-called weeds, able to survive the long dry summers with little additional water.”

There’s nothing natural about it

In the US, lawn tends to be a battle with nature. Weeds, or “so-called weeds” like clover and dandelions, are the enemy and we spend about $10 billion a year on chemicals to be sure that we eradicate them.

And instead of letting our lawns go dormant in summer- something I have witnessed in the US only in Seattle- we keep watering during the hottest months and even during droughts.

I used to think of grass as natural, but as it turns out the type we plant in the the US isn’t native here nor could it grow without all the water and chemical inputs we feed it.

When Milesi created a model to determine where grass would grow without irrigation or fertilization, she found, “The only places I could grow grass in the conterminous U.S. were a few areas in the Northeast and the Great Plains.

Conspicuous consumption for your yard

So why are we planting something that doesn’t really survive very well in most of our country? Thorstein Veblen argued- in his 1899 book “The Theory of the Leisure Class”- that lawns are an example of conspicuous consumption, a way to prove that you had enough money to waste it on something impractical.

But why today, during a time of high oil prices and heightened awareness of the scarcity of water and risks of pesticides, are we still beholden to our grass and the laws of lawnism: namely, that everyone should have one and that if you don’t keep it up, you will be judged, and even prosecuted (see our story Xeriscaping: brown is beautiful)?

Perhaps it’s simply a vicious circle. Ecologist John Falk who spent over a decade researching lawns says one reason we all want it is because there is so much of it: “We learn to like what we see every day.’ Add to that all the advertising behind a $50 billion dollar industry, and peer pressure (everyone from bestselling author Michael Pollan to my own parents have stories of being forced to mow, or tend their lawn) and we’re trapped in a cycle of turf.

To be fair, we, as humans, show a bias toward grass. Falk interviewed people from the US, as well as countries in Africa and Asia and they all, when given a choice, showed the same bias: “Our deep, innate preference for a grass landscape that stems from our forebears who developed a preference for savanna-like settings millions of years ago.”

This “savanna syndrome” may be hereditary, but now that we no longer need these short grasses to help us spot our prey, shouldn’t we be capable of evolving?

Conquering nature with turf

Michael Pollan, in a 1989 article for the New York Times magazine entitled “Why Mow?”, suggests we need lawns to prove our conquest of nature. “We superimpose our lawns on the land. And since the geography and climate of much of this country is poorly suited to turfgrasses (none of which are native), this can’t be accomplished without the tools of 20th-century industrial civilization: its chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and machinery.”

To further ensure our supremacy over nature, we don’t even choose grasses native to North America (i.e. Buffalo grasses) for our lawns, but instead opt for turfgrasses like the Kentucky bluegrass (Europe and northern Asia), Bermuda grass (Africa), and Zoysia grass (East Asia) that require more water and maintenance.

While our need to grow turf may be part of a deeply entrenched Lockean tradition espousing that land left natural is wasteful, not everyone sees this American custom as innocuous. Lorrie Otto, “the godmother of natural landscaping”, holds the humble homeowner responsible.

Maintaining a lawn is one of the most evil practices of the upper and middle classes. It is flagrantly wasteful of drinking water and nonrenewable resources, irresponsibly destructive of our native plant and animal species, and dependent on the defiant and dishonest use of chemicals, which are far more threatening to human health than any weed pollen.”

Otto has a right to such harsh talk since her move to anti-lawnism was instigated by an act of local authorities- in the 1950s city officials mowed down her “natural” front yard-, but I, who grew up on grass and wasn’t even aware of its harm until a year or so ago, feel a bit self-righteous telling people to rip out their lawn. Though I am trying.

The “evil” in our yards

I have been talking to my parents about the “evil” in their yard and they, too, are convinced it’s a drain on resources. My mother has been subversively shutting off the sprinklers when they go on vacation, much to my father’s chagrin, since letting your lawn go dormant is not an option in their homeowners’ association. Currently, ripping out their lawn is on their list of “should dos”, but it’s been there for a year and I can’t imagine it’s easy studying native plants, as well as the list of allowable plants under their homeowner association’s rules.

Back in the US for the summer, I’ve been in culture shock looking at all the grass and power mowers (which burn the equivalent in an hour of driving your car 350 miles) and irrigation water running down the sidewalk and I wonder how we’ll ever change.

But then there are days, like last week, when my mom came home to tell me that her neighbor- in the community- is xeriscaping her backyard. She had had to ask her neighbor what the word meant, but the next day her friend called offering to bring over pamphlets on this increasingly trendy way of landscaping with little or no water.

While there are still high profile examples of cities prosecuting residents for not watering (e.g. the “lawn lady’s” arrest in Orem, Utah and the Sacramento couple who were just trying to be a bit greener during a drought), cities are also beginning to offer incentives for xeriscaping, as well as fining residents who don’t follow strict drought-imposed watering schedules.

A brave new lawn-free world?

Last month, I opened Vanity Fair and witnessed- for what I believe was the first time- an advertisement that didn’t pay homage to a lawn. In a spread for Louis Vuitton, Francis Ford Coppola and daughter Sophia lounge, not on well-manicured green grass emblematic of a Ralph Lauren layout (both Gisele Bunchen and Penelope Cruz have struck a pose on turf for the brand), but instead, the filmmakers pose for Annie Leibowitz on a brown, dry, Argentinian savanna grass.

Perhaps it’s an accident of timing given that Francis Ford was in the country shooting his latest movie, but there are plenty of Argentinian polo fields that would have provided a more “civilized” backdrop. Instead, I’d like to think it was all part of something bigger, after all, the Coppola’s donated their salaries for the shoot to the Climate Project.

Maybe this is just part of a movement begun by people like Lorrie Otto a half century ago. If so, there might be hope that our millions of acres of turf can be converted for environmental good. Or as Otto described her brave new lawn-free world: “if suburbia were landscaped with meadows, prairies, thickets, or forests, or combinations of these, then the water would sparkle, fish would be good to eat again, birds would sing and human spirits would soar.”