Growing up, I spent a good portion of many of my weekends mowing, edging, and weed-eating my family’s suburban lawn. My father believed that such activities taught me the value of hard work, and, more importantly, he did not want to do them himself. That said, he spent a fair bit of time and money on other lawn related tasks including applying fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides to the lawn as well as watering it, but for the actual weekly maintenance, he was happy to delegate that to me, and later to my brother, who I suspect enjoyed it less than I did.
At no point was the purpose of having this carpet of grass questioned. It was simply what one did in the neighborhoods we lived in, and no alternatives were known to us. It was generally assumed to be a point of pride to have the greenest, and most uniform lawn on the streets, free of any brown spots or empty patches. This was of course something rarely if ever achieved, as we lived in a place where turf grasses are neither native nor well-suited to live. As a result, keeping our grass alive and looking it’s best required a great deal of water and chemical treatments as well routine trimming and disposal of the clippings.
As the one who did much of the yard work, I had to wonder why we were doing this. I recognized that on some level it looked nice, in an uptight, hyper-conformist, homogenous, nature-conquering, Stepford suburb kind of way. I also recognized that it provided a place for us kids to play, though if we played as rough as we often did, it would tear up the grass and upset our parents, but it still seemed a bit absurd to me. It was as though I was a farmer, out harvesting a crop of grass clippings every weekend, with the sole purpose of throwing it away. We certainly could not eat the clippings, nor did we use them to feed any animals, or make anything with them. On some level, my family was engaged in this whole labor-intensive ritual for no better reason than because everyone else on the block was doing it, and no one wanted to be different.
I do recognize that there were some people in the neighborhood who did seem to enjoy the lawn mowing ritual, as though they were vicariously living some sort of agricultural fantasy of working the land. I also recognize that there were some who seriously seemed to enjoy the owning the equipment used in it, as though owning a large powerful mower was just one more means of having a large powerful machine to show off to one’s friends, but at the end of the day the whole thing seemed ridiculous and I saw little to no point.
After all most of these were men, who spent much of their weeks working at jobs they felt ambivalent about at best. Then they would come home and spend a great deal of their time off engaged in lawn and other forms of house maintenance. In my opinion this is a pointlessly slavish and conformist existence. This of course is not to mention the amount of money they were spending on the various lawn mowers, edgers, weed eaters, water and chemical treatments for their lawns. It struck me that by conventional standards the individuals were very well-off, financially, and yet they spent their time and money on the lamest activities. It may have been a manifestation of the American dream, but it still seems like such a waste of time and resources.
I now live on a piece of land that is largely covered by native trees and plants, with a few gardens that grow foods that we can actually eat. I find this more aesthetically pleasing than the grass lawns of my suburban youth. The native plants also benefit some of the local wildlife, which is quite nice as well. Prior to living in this location, I lived in the deserts of the American southwest, where grass lawns simply are too costly for most homeowners. In these places, homeowners often use rock gardens or cactus gardens instead of lawns. The later option was very appealing to me, since it made use of unique local plant life and once in place required little to no maintenance whatsoever.
I know of people in the Midwest who have found another alternative: native prairie grasses. While these may not appeal to everyone, my understanding is that they require less maintenance, they benefit local birds and they do not need the chemical inputs associated with conventional lawns. All of which are good things. It also has come to my attention in some places there are organizations, such as Let’s Go Chicago, that allow people who enjoy gardening, but do not have land of their own to make agreements with homeowners to produce fruit and vegetables in the homeowner’s yard, in exchange for portion of what is produced. This certainly appeals to me, since as I pointed out earlier, the more we produce for ourselves the less we need to rely on the drudgery of conventional employment or government welfare programs for food. It also has the obvious benefit of allowing that portion of the homeowners yard to be worked by someone who actually enjoys it. If you do not have such an organization in your area, you can start one or at the very least make a similar arrangement with someone you know who either has the needed land or the needed gardening ability to make it work.
It is my hope that I continue to explore alternatives to conventional grass lawns as I get older. I found that there are many out there and that they do have potential to save us from having to spend time and money on routine lawn maintenance and in some case actually have benefits above and beyond that of conventional lawns. It is also for these reason that I oppose zoning or other laws that prevent the exploration of these alternatives, but that may be a matter to explore elsewhere.