Lawn-chair theories of personality

What does your lawn say about you? Plenty, says a Canadian observer of grasses and gardens.

Very neighborhood has them - the lawn junkies who spend hours mowing, sowing, and fertilizing; trimming crisp edges with a pair of scissors to make certain theirs is the best bloomin' patch of green for miles around.

And then there is that other house - where mud-caked toys peer out from knee-high grasses and a haphazard assortment of flowers in pots wait weeks to be planted.

Canadians are among the world's most enthusiastic lawn lovers - Montreal's Canadian Centre for Architecture mounted an entire exhibition devoted to "The American Lawn" in 1998. And now a Toronto scholar has gleaned deep psychological significance in the grass: Your yard, concludes York University sociologist Allen Greenbaum, tells the world about you.

In his grandly titled 600-page doctoral thesis, "The Lawn as a Site for Environmental Conflict," Mr. Greenbaum connects the classic "manicured" lawn with political conservatism, and "natural" yards with a leftish perspective.

The two types represent "two competing views of 'virtue,' " Mr. Greenbaum says. Those who meticulously patrol their green patch see themselves as contributing to a "safe, comfortable, pleasant community." And so, a weed is like graffiti, or a broken window.

To the wildflower faction, the manicured lawn, primarily a male domain, is "stultifying conformism," Greenbaum says. The rebels revolt with riots of native plants and other alternatives.

The lawn-chair scholar has attracted considerable attention with his thesis. Mention it to gardeners here, and the response is often an appreciative chuckle.

Toronto landscapers, however, are reluctant to go out on a limb when commenting on their clients' yards. Yards, after all, are serious business in Canada.

A manager at Humber Nurseries in Brampton, Ontario, who asked to remain anonymous, did acknowledge that some yards bring out their owners' tendencies to be "a bit of a control freak.

"We have people who come in wanting plants that don't drop their leaves," he said. "Can you imagine? What plants don't drop their leaves?"

Greenbaum's research was inspired by Toronto's efforts in the 1990s to formulate a new lawn-care ordinance that would be more enforceable than the ban then in place on "excessive growth of grass and weeds." Toronto's ordinance, of course, is just a drop in the garden bucket as far as the whole of North America is concerned. The Montreal exhibition noted that North America's lawns occupy more land - about 32 million acres - than any other "crop," including wheat.

On a recent tour through his neighborhood, site of much of his research, Greenbaum analyzed the character of various lawns.

"Sociologically neutral" is how he defines a basic green yard without the aggressive maintenance meriting a label of "manicured." One lawn he identifies as a "freedom lawn" - actually full of weeds, but not so unruly as to run afoul of city authorities. Traditional flower beds are maintained by women as a general rule, he notes.

"Natural lawns," with a mix of wildflowers, grasses, and other plants seem to be "less gendered," Greenbaum comments, pausing at a flower bed abuzz with bees."The natural lawn is part of a post-gender culture."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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