The lawn ranger

I have a confession to make.

Today, I mowed my lawn. This actually entails two confessions—one, that I actually own a lawn, and two, that the patch of grass gets regularly mowed with a gas-powered Toro. (Note the intentional use of passive voice—he who regularly does said mowing is currently out of town.)

Why the confessional tone? Lots of people mow their lawns, and those who don’t are frequently the subjects of neighborly dismay or hostility. But I am one of those in the growing anti-lawn movement spreading across the country. I agree with critics who see lawns as ecological wastelands, sucking up vast quantities of clean water and oil-based fertilizers and herbicides to maintain some vestigial fantasy of the wide-open grasslands. You know, the ones destroyed to make way for our relentless suburban sprawl. Oh yeah, and don’t get me started on the gas-powered mowers themselves. Outside the purview of most clean-air laws, mowers pour several times more pollutants into the air than automobiles.

Not that I’m a fan of the rockscapes that started replacing lawns in the 1970s. Those heat sinks are devoid of even lawns’ limited redeeming qualities, like the ability to process carbon and cool the houses around them. But the xeriscaping design advances of the past two decades have generated some truly lovely alternatives to the lawn or the gravel pit. In my backyard, the previous owners completely replaced the lawn with planting beds and meandering decomposed-granite paths. Even better is the resurgence of edible landscapes—like the old kitchen gardens in Europe and the East Coast—permaculture designs creating biodiversity, food and loveliness with a fraction of the water use and none of the petrochemicals.

My ideas about lawns put me squarely at odds with my dad, who, other than this fixation, is an intelligent and funny man. For him, though, lawns are no mere aesthetic matter. They signify broad moral codes: responsibility, discipline, stewardship. In our arid West, a well-watered and manicured lawn is an oasis in the wilderness. A neighborhood is easily read by the number of well-kept lawns.

Wrassling with the Toro this morning, I reflected on this lawn-o-philia, which I hazard to say is a peculiarly white-guy passion. My dad was never big on mechanics, being much more of a thinker than a tinkerer, but I think he always did get a big manly thrill from getting that old engine up and running, sweating through a hot afternoon of ground-cover subjugation. I remember being told as a child to stay very far away from the lawn mower in action—a rock could shoot out from it and nail me square between the eyes. Which probably helps to explain my own distaste for the process of lawn mowing altogether. I wonder if the inherent danger of lawn mowers isn’t part of their perverse appeal for some guys. They are certainly plastered all over with stern warnings and graphic depictions of potential dismemberment and other deadly hazards. I discovered it’s true, as environmental journalist Michael Pollan and others have speculated, that controlling a lawn mower feels like a diminutive re-enactment of the Western conquest—harvesting grain to feed the masses, or what have you. But it is one thing to consider an idea in the abstract and another thing to experience it physically. I’ve been avoiding having to deal with the lawn in front of the house—basically pretending it isn’t there, as I go about my business, puttering in the back yard. As with so many other dimensions of life that require change, it takes that direct experience to move from thought to action. So now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to buy a push mower.