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Really keeping off the grass

By Melvin Maddocks / July 18, 1983



A lobbying group called the Fruitarian Network is trying to keep people from mowing the grass. So far so good.

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We have long felt there is a strong case to be made against the well-manicured lawn, as follows:

1. It costs too much in (a) time, (b) money, (c) water, and (d) fertilizer that could be used on an edible crop.

2. The putting-green yard can become a silly form of snobbery, valued for its conspicuous uselessness, as Thorstein Veblen first pointed out in ''Theory of the Leisure Class.''

3. Flawless grass, spotless cars, gleaming kitchen floors - such shallow dreams too easily obsess us middle-class idealists into an empty perfectionism that distracts us from doing other things with our life on a summer's day - like sitting in the sun and doing absolutely nothing at all.

But even with our established sympathy for the anti-mowers - plus the lawn to prove it - we're not sure how we feel about the Fruitarian campaign. Ignoring the time-honored arguments listed above, Nellie Shriver of Takoma Park, Md., leader of the Fruitarian Network, bases her opposition to mowing on one curious contention: Mowing is cruel to the grass. ''We believe grass has some sort of consciousness,'' she insists. ''It has feelings.''

We would not presume to speak for grass, one way or another, especially if there is the slightest chance that grass can speak for itself. But we will say this: We saw it coming - this ultimate version of ''Keep Off the Grass.''

For a long time now, there has been a steady upgrading of the civilized status of the animal and vegetable kingdoms. The more mystical botanists have maintained that plants respond to the human voice. The more speculative zoologists have matched the hearing plant with the talking animal, laying claims for the linguistic powers of dolphins and chimpanzees.

Meanwhile, human beings have been just as consistently downgraded by the sociobiologists. We have been advised that, although we may grow more mannerly on the surface, we still come equipped with the same tooth-and-claw responses to danger possessed by paleolithic ancestors. There is much talk of a ''reptilian'' section of the brain.

In other words, the more we seem to be reverencing animals and plants (to borrow Albert Schweitzer's verb), the less we seem to be reverencing ourselves. Ex-humanists who do not believe in God are genuflect-ing as pantheists while despairing of themselves.

There is another oddity to ponder here. Theoretically, the more sensitive we become to the fate of grass - or snail-darters, or whatever - the more sensitive we should become to the fate of our fellow human beings. It doesn't appear to be working that way. A friend of ours who likes to keep count on these matters claims that cars bearing bumper-sticker pleas to ''Save the whale!'' and such cut him off at intersections as ruthlessly as anybody else. Also, cars that announce ''I brake for animals'' cannot - repeat, ''cannot'' - be relied on to brake for people.

We have only our friend's word for it. But we do have an impression that being sensitive to grass (or any other plant or creature) does not necessarily prevent people from behaving toward one another as if they had just taken a postgraduate course in aggression-training.

Are we guilty of sentimentalizing nature at our own expense? Nineteenth-century romantic poets imputed feelings to sighing trees and drooping flowers. This poetic license - giving vegetables a heart - was called the ''pathetic fallacy.'' Certainly you could set to bad verse the soft whimsy of the anti-mower who said: ''I do believe that mowing the lawn is a way of controlling nature. I think that mother nature shoud be allowed to do whatever she pleases.''

There is an overwhelming case to be made for ''environmentalism,'' though please go easy on the ''ism!'' Practical arguments should suffice without too much rhetoric. But in any event, we don't see it as an either-or issue.

Still, don't tempt us. If anybody gave us just one cause - the redwoods or the human beings on the lists of Amnesty International - the trees, with all due respect, would never make it. As for the Great Mowing Debate, we promise to sort out the pros and cons sooner or later. But for this summer at least, the civil rights of grass are just going to have to wait.