America's obsession with that green patch in the yard
An environmental historian ponders the cultural significance of the lawn in suburban America.
It is that time of year when a quiet conspiracy sweeps the nation. It will not cause journalists to call for the President's impeachment and it probably won't influence the national debt. On the plus side, it may actually help to decrease the nation's obesity problem.
But it is a conspiracy all the same, one that saps the time and resources of millions of Americans. I speak, of course, of the summer months - complete with a lovely balance of moisture and heat - that (in many areas of the US) create a period of lush growth for all that is natural. Bah!
Lest I sound like the Grinch of the cul-de-sac, let me explain that I love to watch the emergence of the buds, leaves, and blooms as well as the return of migratory birds; my disdain is reserved only for swiftly growing grass. Grass that we homeowners must maintain appropriately or face the wrath of neighbors, relatives, community boards, or spouses.
Of America's 58 million lawn owners, I am not the only Grinch. But I fear our numbers are dwarfed by those of many lawn obsessives. "As bizarre as the lawn fanatics may seem," writes historian Ted Steinberg, "their behavior is just a slight exaggeration of what has come to be seen as normal."
Steinberg finds in each of our lawns (and his own), a view into the soul of something particularly American. His careful study of this pseudo-nature that covers 40 million acres of the United States makes American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn an insightful read for suburbanites who face the start of a season of mowing. Additionally, though, Steinberg's sense of humor makes "American Green" an enjoyable read even for apartment dwellers and lawn-o-phobes. His insight turns this book into a fascinating window on some of the deeper meanings of this most peculiar portion of Americans' ongoing relationship with nature.
Steinberg is an environmental historian who possesses a unique insight on the cultural role that nature plays in the lives of Americans in the past. "American Green" refrains from asking big questions about the lawn's ecological significance in an era of increasing American artificiality. In fact, at times, Steinberg seems to go far out of his way not to condemn our lawn habit. In his account, the preference of Americans for this managed natural form that is not native to North America has been an elaborate construct of the culture of conspicuous consumption that dominates our lives in the second half of the 20th century.
In its natural form, our Kentucky bluegrass, actually, is not deeply rooted. Its role in our cultural history, though, clearly is. Although "American Green" is part environmental commentary and part cultural history, Steinberg appears most comfortable when recounting the lawn's 20th-century history and accentuating it with his startling wit.
He specifically ties the lawn aesthetic to roots in post World War II conformity and consumerism and spends very little time discussing the lawn's roots in 19th-century gardening. In fact, his story entirely emphasizes the cultural history, eschewing the horticulture, planning, and architecture that informs other scholars' treatment of the lawn.
When read through this cultural lens, lawns become an instrument of planned homogeneity. As Americans sought to fit in with one another during the cold war, writes Steinberg, "...what better way to conform than to make your front yard look precisely like Mr. Smith's next door?"
Just having a lawn was insufficient; the quest was to have the perfect lawn. "Perfection is elusive," says Steinberg. "And it constantly creates the need for people to return to the hardware store to buy more chemical inputs.... ."
This conformity was made achievable and perpetuated through technology (chemicals, biotechnology, and mower technology) and marketed through sporting activities (sports fields and Astro-turf as well as golf and the sales of Scotts Turfbuilder). Steinberg attaches engaging stories to each portion of the lawn's history.
In his story of the lawn, the social and ecological factors often worked in coordination. Perfection became a commodity of post-World War II prefabricated housing such as Levittown, N. Y., in the late 1940s. Mowing became a priority of the bylaws of such communities.
"By keeping the grass from flowering and going to seed," writes Steinberg, "mowing forecloses on sexual reproduction." Instead, the plants send out a web of underground shoots. "The result is a thick carpet of grass otherwise known as a lawn." Less a natural element, though, Steinberg persuasively argues that the high-energy American lawn (requiring significant inputs of petroleum, water, and human energy) is more like manufactured products such as fast-food meals than to natural forms.
The story of our quest leads Steinberg to an almost inevitable conclusion. By the last chapter, Steinberg sings the praises of "brown," unkempt lawns and the homeowners who are willing to defy cultural mores. "Ultimately, the perfect lawn, like the perfect body, is an illusion," he writes,.
In the end, though, many of the cultural questions raised by Steinberg have no easy answers. Simply, many Americans would never consider ridding their property of grass. Clearly, though, the immensely readable and enjoyable "American Green" helps us to better consider the questions we ask of one of the most ordinary portions of the American landscape.
• Brian Black teaches history and environmental studies at Pennsylvania State University.