“A lawn is nature under totalitarian rule.” ~ Michael Pollan
I often loose myself in thought when mowing my lawn. I can’t really help it; the monotonous drone of the mower lulls my sleep-deprived consciousness into auto-pilot as the gyrating blades hypnotically obliterate all uppity vegetation in my path. When I’m zoned-out in lawn mode, the sun bakes my brain a little and I sometimes imagine myself to be ruling a tiny suburban kingdom. It’s quite empowering and even cathartic. Pushing my trusty, battle-tested war machine, I am lord over a vast demesne; a wild tract of untamed land. My conquering rule subdues all my weedy enemies at my feet as I bring swift order out of overgrown chaos. But what am I doing, really? As I labor and sweat to maintain a tidy lawn for the kids to play on (or to avoid neighborly criticisms) just what exactly am I achieving here? For what reward are all suburbanites toiling in their yards? The way I see it, America has become a nation of grass farmers. I use my property and income to grow grass. Lush, inedible, useless grass, from which I’m separated for most of the day and therefore cannot enjoy for most of the day. And this is no small-time operation grass farm. I’m spending no small combination of money and time achieving this glorious end, weekend after wasted weekend. And there are millions of people with the same inane goal as me. Consider the following:
To raise such a frivolous crop of grass, I first need a lawn to mow, which is part and parcel of home ownership. This costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, an expense for which nearly everyone goes into debt to achieve, and for which we will all expend the remainder of our lives working pay off. Home ownership is laudable however, and is a preferable option to simply handing rent money over to a landlord indefinitely with no prospect of ever owning anything in return. (Ironically, even homeowners never truly own their own property so long as they are required to pay property taxes, which effectively reduces any landowner to an indefinite renter, but I digress.) Having a lawn now to mow, I must purchase a gas-power push mower, which can cost anywhere from the $100 range for a new push reel or gas-rotary mower, upwards to over $500 for some models. If my backyard kingdom is especially large and savage, I may even require a ride-on mower, in which case the prices can top over $4,000. Yet no engine runs without fuel, and I can expect my gas-powered mower to require regular fill ups according to local gas prices. Paying for gasoline to fuel your lawn-cutting addiction might not seem like that much but consider that in 2008, the fearful prospect of soaring fuel costs actually drove the price of some non-engine push reel mowers up by 60-70%. People simply didn’t want to pay that much more for even the limited amount of gas required just to mow their fruitless lawns. But the costs go further: depending on whether you mulch or not, all of your grass clippings must go somewhere. I usually fill three or four (purchased) paper lawn bags to completely mow my front and back yards, which is a mere .15 acreage. To boot, I then pay my garbage men to haul away the clippings, as I don’t really have the space to compost.
In sum: I’m working against the ecosystem’s default forest environment as I expend time, money and gasoline to produce nothing edible or useful in return, save for the virtues which a lawn provides, which I do for the sake of giving my children a play area and increasing the property value of my home. The fruits of the land’s fertility and my labor are weekly hauled away, and what do I receive? Aggravation at the sight of too many dandelions in the spring. Dog poop on my lawn. (Another depressing cost-benefit analysis.) Am I being pessimistic? Yeah, probably. There are a few who see it much differently than me, and they may be entirely right. A lawn provides many unseen benefits which I’m purposefully overlooking: good visibility (and thus a measure of protection) around your home. A well maintained lawn prevents trees from growing too close to your house, which would otherwise endanger it. Lawns are amazing at absorbing water, preventing soil erosion, and producing tons upon tons of oxygen for you to breathe. And as stated earlier, lawns are perfect for providing a safe, visually pleasing surface on which to play, and raises the value of your home. Every medieval lord had lawns around the castle, and we modern suburban peasant kings are only doing well to imitate in microcosm the elites of yesteryear. So here’s to another summer of yard work and day dreams. Thanks, lawn. Mowing you sure beats going to the beach. What?