My day today included a scythe, a push mower, and the digging of garden beds by hand. I also made a REAL pound cake: butter, sugar, eggs, flour, one pound of each. I added a pinch of salt to the flour and a splash of lemon juice. No baking powder – it wasn’t invented yet when the pound cake came into existence. (I wasn’t sure about the lemon from a historic perspective.) Leavening comes about from the air beaten into the butter, sifted flour, the protein of the eggs, and magical chemical reactions therein. Our great-great-grandmas must have had wicked-strong arms! I had to call in the second-string (read husband) to finish the egg beating… although I had been hefting garden equipment and dirt all day, so maybe that had something to do with it.
I didn’t really come to talk about pound cake, though. I came to talk about the lawn. Or perhaps, The Lawn. Not *my* lawn, really, since large swaths of my yard are allowed to grow to full height, produce flowers (?) and go to seed. Nonetheless, I make a token effort to mow some portions, as a minor concession to having started a farm in what is essentially a cottage/suburban district. I don’t want people to be afraid to pass my front yard because they’re expecting shotguns and banjos. See, though? Right there, that’s about the expectations of The Lawn. It’s all part of keeping up appearances. And in this case, the Appearance that is supported by the lawn is that of affluence. The Lawn, per se (oooohhh… ahhh… you know it’s going to be a good argument when it includes Latin), that is, the monoculture of grasses, clipped short, well-contained, devoid of weeds and brown patches… THAT Lawn requires the expenditure of vast amounts of energy, either in the form of labour, or in the deployment of chemicals and fossil fuels, or both. The Lawn (I found myself thinking as I spent a lovely Saturday morning attempting to mow something like half an acre with a 14-inch push mower) is about creating the illusion that one has an army of servants at one’s disposal.
Oh, historians, you may scoff at me now, because I’m not even going to bother with Wikipedia to back up my claims; I’m going to resort to the scrambled recollections of childhood visits to formal gardens in Europe. Vast perfect lawns rolled before me, replete with signs to “Keep off the grass”. Oh, the cruelty of the perfect yet untouchable carpets of green, which begged for the wiggling toes of little bare feet. Nothing comparable had appeared in my world. We had fields at the summer cottage which were mowed on a regular basis, but they were full of weeds, and occasional thistles pricked at our feet. In the acid clay soil of the province I grew up in, grass didn’t grow well, and the parks we went to had bare patches in the sod, weeds, and the horror of dog poo! But Hampton Court, Fontainebleu, and London (especially near the palace) had these perfect lawns. The part of the world that I grew up in (small urban working-class Canada) did NOT have perfect lawns, and (perhaps as a result) they are not something I have ever bought into. So here is my radical and not-very-supported claim: “Normal” people didn’t used to have lawns. They may have had gardens (if they were lucky enough to have land). They might have had a small patch of grass; I don’t actually know about that. But I am quite sure that there was a time in history when the majority of people didn’t have a large patch of grass that was supposed to be maintained so that their neighbours weren’t offended.
The Lawn is about several things. It represents a particular aesthetic that was once the exclusive purview of the Very Upper Class Indeed… now writ large upon the canvas of the middle class. It is an aesthetic of control, uniformity, and above all, the ostentatious use of resources. It is decadent to have access to a large patch of land on which you don’t need to grow food. It is more than that, in fact; shorn grass is only good for leisure activities. For the true upper class, with the aforementioned army of servants, it is a site for play and nothing else. For the rest of us, it is part of an illusion backed only by access to cheap energy: the illusion that we have access to infinite resources, the power to control the world around us, and the ability to defer, delay, deny, and outsource our biological needs.
It is difficult to keep nature at bay; life is insistently chaotic, messy, fecund, and diverse. The world outside our lawns is full of plants, birds, bugs, hail storms, floods, acidity, clay, seeds, vines and rhizomes. Things biological continually encroach and predate upon the grasses we attempt to maintain. The grass spreads into neighbouring garden beds (which in this world must be kept clear of said grass). The ability to override nature and put everything in its place is a technical accomplishment indeed… it is a small scale triumph over the world around us. But it comes at a cost.
When we moved onto our current plot of land, we left the lawn mower behind in Ontario. I don’t remember why; I think it had been a freebie and we spread the love by donating it to our neigbours. It might have contained a tank of gas that we didn’t want to deal with. It might have been one of the things we just walked away from after three straight weeks of packing when we ran out of time and brain power, and had to get to our new province. However it happened, we arrived on a property with 1-1/2 acres of established grass with no lawn mower. As soon as we moved in, our elderly neigbour across the road dropped by on his ATV and started yelling at us. He wasn’t angry, he just has no volume control, and he is very used to having things his own way. (Okay. Read the next part very loudly and mumble, with an obscuring east-coast accent. If you can also imagine the ATV idling in the background and the smell of a two-stroke motor, you’ll be close to the full experience.) Seems that he “carved this property out of the swamp, put in that grass there. Spent a fortune on it! Got to keep it mowed! No, no! Can’t buy a regular mower. Not for this much lawn. Need a ride-on. Get a tractor, that’s what you need for a real lawn. Save you hours! Go to this guy! Tell him Morris sent you!”
Not wanting to cause waves, new to the place, come-from-away sort that I am, I set out to find a tractor, used, good condition, blah, blah, blah. And I discovered a couple of things: 1) I was looking at a $3000 outlay and 2) it was going to use about 20 L of gas every time I mowed. I’ve been fairly on top of this global-warming problem since the mid-nineties, and that sort of use of fossil fuels for something as frivolous as flat grass was just Not Cool. Not to mention that $3000 will buy an awful lot of swimming lessons, musical instruments, and other things that Good Middle Class Parents are expected to provide. It also happens to be the price point for a decent hoop house, a trip to visit our parents, or the car that I am currently driving. So I said, “Who wants to learn to use a scythe?”
So here was the radical nature of that act: I denied The Lawn access to the resources of my household to which our society agrees it is entitled. This agreement is so assumed that it is enshrined in law. The only reason I have gotten away with denying The Lawn is that I live in the country, and my property is zoned “Rural”. If I were in the city, I could make this choice, but my neighbours would have the right to overturn it because aesthetics are sites of negotiation. I may love watching the waves of wildflowers and the abundance of wildlife that have reappeared since we started neglecting the lawn, but they seem to make people uncomfortable. We have snakes, rodents galore, and a wide range of pollinators that weren’t here our first summer. I can name dozens of species that live in and around my backyard that I didn’t put there. Socialized aesthetics hold fast though. Truth be told, even I think that my property looks a little ‘scruffy’. It’s a little too vibrant, a little too alive, a little out of control. Obscenely biological, to take out of context the words of a dear old friend of mine.
I am tempted to relieve this discomfort, to replace the lawn with landscaping, a controlled simulacrum of what arises naturally, but that takes resources, time, and effort. We have chosen to focus on the development of food garden beds, chicken coops, a writing studio, and a failed attempt at a greenhouse. The lack of landscaping points to at least two discomforts simultaneously. We are biological (mortal!) creatures, and we have limited resources at our disposal. It is possible that in our prevailing society, the hardest thing to accept is the fact that there are limits: we have only so much money, so much time, so much energy, and it must be rationed. Our non-lawn is part of our frugal lifestyle, but it is only accessible to us because we had a) the money necessary to escape to the country and b) the education necessary to question the primacy of the lawn aesthetic. And still I squirm, and find myself trudging up and down the yard with my push-mower when there are eggs to be collected, beds to be tilled and cakes to be made, servant to my Lawn and the pretense. Oh, well… At least I’m getting some exercise and some thinking time while I do it.