Cut the lawn – and the engine

Green-minded suburbanites overlook the harm done by lawn care.

At 8 o'clock on a beautiful Summer morning, I'm walking to the train station in my quiet neighborhood of big trees and elegant houses. Suddenly, an ear-splitting screech pierces the peaceful setting.

My shoulders and neck tense, and I speed up to pass the source of the noise. It's the neighbors' lawn service powering up its artillery of lawn mowers, weed whackers, hedge trimmers, and leaf blowers, preparing to overtake any stray blades of grass that may have encroached on the sidewalk or any tiny, cowering patches of clover that have dared to sprout in the corners of the yard.

This isn't the only town I've lived in where affluent, highly educated professors, lawyers, and other professionals who bicycle to work, drive Priuses and buy organic food nevertheless subject themselves, their neighbors, and the environment to this weekly offensive aimed at taming nature.

"Affluent" is, I believe, a key term here. At some point in the past 10 or 15 years, suburban denizens who could afford it chose to outsource their lawn care, and new standards for "the perfect lawn" were set.

This raised the pressure for the poor schlub trying to fit a quick mow into his or her Sunday afternoon. And if a bush isn't trimmed in a perfectly straight line or a dandelion or two is allowed to appear, well, that can only lead to a slippery slope of tall weeds, falling property values, and children whose admission to Harvard could be in question. A perfect lawn, however, means all is right in the world.

I am mystified by this pursuit of plantly perfection, even at a cost to health and the environment. Friends to whom I have mentioned my puzzlement have hypothesized that, when it comes to lawn care, even people who consider themselves environmentally progressive "just have a blind spot."

There is an unquestionable psychological significance attached to the state of one's lawn. As Michael Pollan put it in his 1990 essay, "Why Mow? The Case Against Lawns," an "unmistakable odor of virtue" hovers over a scrupulously maintained lawn.

Still, the lawn-care blind spot has continued even with increased interest in all things green. Studies have linked garden pesticides to maladies ranging from cancer to asthma, and lawn mowers and other outdoor power equipment emit damaging toxins. In one year, a single traditional gas-powered lawn mower can produce as much air pollution as 43 new cars each driven 12,000 miles.

The high decibel level of leaf blowers has actually been shown to cause elevated blood pressure – not that we needed studies to tell us this, as anyone who has walked by one in use knows that it is akin to standing in the front row at a Mötley Crüe concert.

Yet the message hasn't gotten through. Herbicides are clear-colored, not purple – so homeowners don't see them washing into the streets and sewers (possibly on their way to contaminate the drinking water) and tracked inside on their shoes and on their kids' toys. And there is no trendy "Whole Lawns" equivalent to Whole Foods. While lawn-care companies are increasingly offering organic options, they have not yet caught on with a large proportion of consumers.

It's not that I want to put the lawn-care services out of business. But let's ask them to rake the leaves rather than blast them with a gas-guzzling gale force wind. Ask them to use herbicides only in spots or – I know this sounds like a technique that harks back to the prehistoric era – pull them by hand. We could even just let them be – they're unlikely to overrun the town and take over City Hall.

Some experts suggest planting low-maintenance native grasses and plants, or wildflowers, or even letting a meadow evolve – though one risks violating the antiweed laws that remain on the books of many towns.

It's probably only a matter of time before people who buy organic because they don't want pesticides in their food realize they don't want them on their lawns either. Those trying to reduce their carbon footprint may start to question the emissions of lawn-care equipment.

So I hope we can soon declare a détente with our yards. I want to walk down the street admiring the less-than-perfect lawns, knowing that, even if all may not be completely right in the world, at least we – and the dandelions – are living in harmony.

Susan B. Kaplan is a lawyer and a freelance writer.

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