Liberate Your Lawn From the Legacy of Masculine Science
Every neighborhood has The Neighbor. You know him — and he’s always a him — by the 6 a.m. sound of his weedeater and the 10 p.m. sound of his sprinklers hitting your bedroom window. You measure the changing of the seasons from winter to spring by the snap, crackle, and pop of his oversized bug zapper. His motion-activated flood lights bathe the neighborhood in harsh halogen light at all stray-cat-wandering hours of the night. He is the lord of his fenced-in fiefdom, a patch of lawn and carefully corralled annuals, hard-won at the cost of having the same job for his entire adult life complete with health insurance. And if he can be said to have a vocation other than the ascetic pursuit of backyard perfection, it is the judgement of those around him who fall short of his heights. He is The Neighbor, and his crabgrass kingdom is the avatar of America.
In Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, Kenneth T. Jackson shows that the American Neighbor’s attachment to his lawn, since its takeover of the suburban consciousness after the Second World War, is the result of the affluence and financial security that the lawn represents. The lawn is a simple status symbol that signals to the little-n neighbors that The Neighbor has achieved a level of economic comfort that affords him both the money to pay his exorbitant water bill and the free time to mow thrice weekly in the summer. I think, however, if we want to break the American Neighbor of the lawn — and we should, because it’s not good for the environment that 2 percent of the land in the U.S is taken up by monocultural swathes of ornamental grass — we might consider that the lure of the lawn is deeper.
The economic signifiers of lush lawns only account for part of The Neighbor’s haughtiness and his sense of absolute authority in the realms of suburbia. I think that The Neighbor actually sees himself as The Scientist, and the project of his yard as a long-running experiment animated by the heady feeling of submitting nature to his own human will. Perhaps such a Neighbor imagines himself a miniature Gregor Mendel, poring over his peas; except his peas are overbred shoots of Kentucky bluegrass and the breakthrough he seeks is making the next door neighbor feel bad about being too busy to uproot individual dandelions by hand, each quickly wilting weed a testament to The Neighbor’s superior place in the Great Chain of Being.
The science of lawn care is a real thing. It’s part of the marketing of pesticides and plant foods, but the organized, rigorously scientific management of the backyard encompasses the Farmer’s Almanac and the exchange of knowledge in the Republic of Letters that is the gardening aisles of the hardware store. The scientific management of domestic life has been an actively cultivated feature of American life since the 19th century, in which women in particular were encouraged to track their time and motion to make their housework more efficient. Surely, the masculine realm of yard work is no exception. The Neighbor tracks his progress each season, making calculated adjustments to his watering and mowing schedules, testing new pesticides and aeration techniques, and spending long hours in silent observation from deck chairs. The most dedicated Neighbor is, like a diligent technician in the laboratory culturing bacteria or deadly viruses, rewarded with lush, unbroken carpets of green. Unbesmirched by weeds or bald patches, the lawn is the better living through chemistry that has been promised to every family dog and every grandchild lucky enough to be born just outside the city limits.
The creation of a perfect carpet of grass is in large part more about preventing things from growing — weeds or errant species of grass, and the excessive growth of the desired species that must be cut back — than it is about nurturing plants to health and bounty. Lawns seem an increasingly irrational pursuit in a world on the knife’s edge of climate catastrophe, but perhaps that is the point. Maybe The Neighbor, like the men of science of the past, is merely exorcising his anxieties about what seems to be the mysterious capriciousness of nature in an ancient struggle for control, gnashing his teeth and clenching his fists as he is drowned in a great wave of dandelions.