Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Scoring some grass

I'm not talking about scoring the kind of grass that Sonny Bono warned about in the film classic "Marijuana," but that classic American cut of green: the lawn.

According to this WaPo article, a growing number of suburbanites feel as Monica Jackson does. She just bought a million dollar house with "two staircases, four stories, six bedrooms and seven bathrooms." It also has a front lawn. A 14-inch-wide front lawn. To which she says

"What's the point of having a big old lawn anyway? I hate mowing and being outside with all those bugs and weeds."
OK, I can understand wanting to avoid pouring buckets of chemicals into the ground, which will pass them down into the groundwater, meaning that you're likely pouring those chemicals into your own water glass. I can understand wanting to avoid pouring gallons of gas into a lawn mower, which will belch that fuel back into the sky as noxious pollutants.

I'm not sure that I understand the whole anti-outdoors sentiment, however. Weeds? She hates being around weeds? Wha? Can she even tell a what's a weed? Actually, if you define weeds as "non-native species," most lawns are nothing more than well manicured weed gardens, so perhaps she's smarter than I give her credit for. But, if that's the case, there aren't going to be many places outdoors that she will feel comfortable in. It certainly rules out golf.

Bugs? Yeah, I hate them too, but come on, they're bugs. A small price to pay for an experience as rewarding as being outside on a balmy summer evening, or in the slight chill of a spring morning, or even sweating behind a push mower in the heat of a summer afternoon, which is how Brother #2 and I--along with our four other siblings--spent many an afternoon. Not as many as our parents were hoping for, but we don't need to discuss that right now, I don't think.

Sure, even our small suburban lawns were a pain in my 10-year-old ass to maintain. They had to be mowed, edged, raked, watered, and patrolled for dog poop. In addition, Dad would fertilize, weed, seed, and aerate whenever needed throughout the year. I'm the first to admit that all those chemicals couldn't have been good for the groundwater--although it wasn't poisoning us, since we drank Hetch Hetchy water, the benefit of a much larger environmental disaster--but the lawns were also an almost endless source of amusement, even though they were far too small for my childhood dreams or ambitions.

I wanted a full baseball diamond, or even a soccer field (Brits, read: "football pitch"), but I could make do on our little tufts of turf. In addition, the front lawn was where one of our two cork oak trees grew, which is where I and my siblings would spend many an afternoon monkeying around. As many kids still do, I loved the sense of adventure climbing up in a tree: the majesty of the view--I can see rooftops!--from a perch in the limbs, and the freedom of hanging out alone in the grasp of the branches and the shade of the leaves.

And, yes, in the company of bugs. Sure, there were bugs up there, but I just brushed them off or, in the case of trails of industrious ants, moved around them. They were just a tiny part of the whole of the outdoors, which was endlessly complex, intriguing, and fun, yet perfectly simple.

So, while I'm not sure whether we'll have a lawn someday, knowing what I do now about their effect on us all, I do want to have a yard for 3B someday. I want him to have someplace outside where he can go and explore, be the king of his domain, rule the rooftops, or even hide in the shade and read a book. Who knows? If he's willing to help me find and plant native grasses, mow, edge, and water the lawn as well as weed and aerate, he may even be able to slumber in the cool grass with Barky. But 3B had better patrol for poop first.

Am I crazy though? Anybody else wish for nothing but filtered air and ficus trees for their kids? Or is there still some value left in the great--or small, suburban--outdoors? (Anthromama has already posted her answer.)

[To see Sonny Bono warn kids not to waste their lives on weed while he's sporting some sharp silk pajamas, get the Fantoma box set. Comes in a swanky lunch box.]


  1. I couldn't agree more. It seems these days that builders and neighborhoods go for huge houses on tiny lots, so that the yard is non-existent. In the little town I live in, we have the same sized lots and a lot less house, but we do have a yard. And I for one, wouldn't want to give it up.
    There's something about satisfying about sitting on the front (or back) porch and looking over your piece of land. And somehow all that hard work just makes it even more satisfying.
    Oh, and a sweet hammock for afternoon naps is great, too.

  2. Oddly enough, I'd rather have a yard than a house.

    I don't mind the condo setup: I don't need to worry about finding a roofing contractor, about when to replace the vinyl siding, about hiring an exterminator, about putting new windows all around. The condo board handles that. (I'm aware that not everyone's condo experiences are the same.) Frankly, I'd also be happy if I didn't have to deal with inside plumbing, rewiring my living room, and countless other chores.

    But I do wish I had some trees, a little plot of earth where I could put plants permanently, at least a tiny bit of grass I could wriggle my toes in on a hot summer day, and a yard with a fence where I could keep a critter--a dog, say, or maybe a goat or a hog. Or all of those. My tiny outdoor balcony is still the first place I go when I get home from work, to check whether the roses need trimming or the Texas bluebells have gone off yet. I mulch and fertilize and weed my pots and hanging plants.

    My neighbor across the alley the first year I lived here had a terrific back yard where he kept five or six rusted-out old automobiles, including a 1962 Ford Falcon sedan, matching the station wagon in which I learned to drive. He had some kind of hound dog named Isabella who used to crawl up on the roof of one car or another and snooze in the sun all morning--my inspiration in life. On weekends I'd hear him go out in his yard and shout, "Bella! Bella, get down from there!" But on weekday mornings, when I'd go out on my balcony to appreciate the weather and inspect my potted plants, the sun and the air belonged to me and to Bella, and nobody was chasing her down.

    Yards take work, but if you don't do it, you just end up with an ugly yard. Houses take work, and if you don't do it, you end up with a shower that doesn't work. I've had to modify my watering system on my balcony so I can take trips of more than a few days, and I expect I'd do something similar with a yard, as well as putting in low-flow sprinklers and so on. The less work you have to do before you crawl into the hammock or chaise longue to listen to the ice cubes clink against the lemonade glass, the better. And I'd shoot for a xerophilic garden--one that didn't want too much water--because even where the water supply's not tight today, it will be tight over the coming decades.

    (FYI, I believe a more immediate problem with people who fertilize too much is the runoff, rather than the groundwater seepage. Enough other crud seeps into shallow groundwater that for drinking water you generally want to try the second or third aquifer down, below a clay barrier or two, if you can. For some people who have only sandy soil and shallow wells, seepage could be an issue. But yard and farm runoff contribute to river and ocean pollution, feeding algal blooms and killing fish, even when the extra fertilizer doesn't drizzle into the drinking water.)

    But even with the work implied by a garden, I'm still jealous of people who have a plot of dirt that can get overgrown, that can be used to pen a critter, a place where you can crouch for hours in the summer sun pulling weeds (or not). My new neighbor built a garage where my old neighbor's old cars sat out in the weeds, rusting. In my eyes, a tiny something has been subtracted from us all.

  3. Mr. J, that's why I love you. That, and Mom says that I have to.

    But really, that was beautiful. If you don't want to be jealous, you definitely shouldn't go over to Lewis' site and check out his Flickr pics of his garden.

    And Lewis, thanks for pointing out my omission. We never had one growing up, but I did string one between two aspens overlooking the meadow and creek outside the ranger station in Colorado when I lived there. Nice to come home to.

  4. Anonymous9:13 PM

    I have to say I am glad we have a small yard for the kid to play in. I do not however think that we all need our own piece. I think the open space developement my parents live in is really cool. They may not have a lot of space that they own per say, but have access to miles of trails that others maintain. hey and what is wrong with bugs. They are cool and paying my bills this summer, so I am a bit partial to them.

  5. I hear you, DW. When I was at the Forest Service, none of us were happy about the spruce bark beetle infestation that followed our massive blowdown, but it did end up filling a few wallets. Probably still is, especially with the boost that such bugs are getting from global warming.

    Your parents' deal sounds pretty sweet. I agree that we don't all need our own piece, but a piece to use is nice, nonetheless.

  6. The nice thing about the lawns around here is, they're not just grass monoculture. We've got plaintain, dandelions, henbit, even yarrow.

    And because of all this lovely rain, they don't have to do much. It just grows. My So. Cal. self is reeling with all this verdant life...where's the dead brown stuff just waiting to burn up during the Santa Ana winds?

    PS: Thanks for the link Papa! You're the most devoted of my 2-3 readers.

  7. Anonymous11:45 PM

    As much as I love living in an apartment right now at this stage in our life, I do wish we had a lawn. Yeah I know it's a lot of work but I like planting flowers and buying all the cute crap that goes with it. Plus I'm a nature freak and would love some wildflowers and a compost heap. At least we have a nature trail right across the street from our building that leads to a wetland so we can still get our 'hit' of nature, but a lawn would be delicious.

  8. Yards are good. Curly yards are better. No need for the extra effort, trees and pretty grass lawns are not mutually exclusive. Right?

  9. Anonymous4:31 PM

    I guess were the odd ones out.. we have a teny tiny house and a huge back yard... We love it, hubby has a bit of a garden and plenty of space for cookie monster to run all that extra energy out and everything, it's great!!!

  10. What I'm talking about:

    Props to 2BadLadies, whose link got me there.