Science. Technology. Nature. Lawn.

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An advertisement from Frank Scott's company (as reprinted in Ted Steinberg's American Green). Talk about religion and nature--Scott thought it was un-christian not to keep a manicured lawn.

Our lawn finally came in this year after three years in this house. We hadn't put much of an effort into it, I'll admit, though the original builder sought to. Our dirt is awful, just god awful. Ask my dad. He, the ardent gardener, is astonished by how poor the soil is. But this year the crabgrass grew in. And it looks good, real good. Plus it's helped prevent erosion from the occasional torrential downpours and for the most part it manages itself. So, yeah.

One of the more fascinating things about lawns, to my mind, is that people keep writing about them. Just look at me. Here I am. Elizabeth Kolbert recently did too in The New Yorker, although it isn't exactly clear what the occasion for the essay review was. (Incidentally, I hear someone may have taken notice of the cover on that issue.) Perhaps she'd been rattling the topic around in her head for a while and finally reached critical mass. She makes note of "a new tradition in landscape writing," and cites a series of books (I'll list them at the end here) and, even though I just shaded my sentence a few back to make it seem like I was being critical, this is a fine mini-essay on the topic of nature, culture, and the values of our modern world. By virtue of the place of the lawn mower we also get a touch of the history of technology in there; by virtue of reference to botany and horticulture (be it direct or indirect) we get a touch of the history of science too.

I just read the late Philip Pauly's Fruits and Plains: The Horticultural Transformation of America. (I had to, it was on my summer reading list. A fine book, I was glad I did.) His central thesis is that American horticulturalists "sought to exclude or exterminate undesirable plants and plant pests. These activities fundamentally altered not only the vegetation, but also the economic activities, social relations, and common experiences of Americans. They shaped the identity of the United States." It's a bold claim, and he knows it. So he follows his set up to say that horticulture is far "more than an ornamental subject," more than gardening or aesthetic (though those are part of it) and more deserving of a fuller historical work-up. Horticulture is, more properly, a prominent example of human activity in the non-human natural world, an activity that in the nineteenth century was akin to today's biotechnology. He makes a fair case. Kolbert wasn't able to work Pauly into her essay review. In a future revised edition she might well do so, thus broadening her review of reviews of lawns in history with further curiosity about science and technology and then sticking the landing with environmental history.

Here, then, is her bibliography:

Michael Pollan's (1991) Second Nature (1991)
Sara Stein's (1993) Noah's Garden (1993)
F. Herbert Bormann, Diana Balmori, and Gordon T. Geballe's (1993) Redesigning the American Lawn
Sally and Andy Wasowski's (2004) Requiem for a Lawnmower
Ted Steinberg's (2006) American Green
Heather C. Flores's (2006) Food Not Lawns
Paul Robbins's (2007) Lawn People
Fritz Haeg's (2008) Edible Estates
Plus the Pauly book above (2008)
And for good measure, this cultural and environmental history, Jennifer Price's (1999) Flight Maps, one chapter of which addresses the cultural history of environmental sensibilities about lawns and the plastic Pink Flamingo.

Now to cap this off, because where else would this poem fit?, is Robert Frost's "Mowing":

There was never a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.
What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself;
Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,
Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound--
And that was why it whispered and did not speak.
It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,
Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf:
Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak
To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows,
Not without feeble-pointed spikes of flowers
(Pale orchises), and scared a bright green snake.
The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.

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We spent last weekend ripping up our (grass) front lawn to put in plants that don't need to be mowed. The article in the New Yorker definitely spurred us on, but our inability to waste water on grass and our guilt at lawn mower emissions had a lot more to do with it.