Sunday, January 29, 2012

Guilted Environment

Warning--this post has no stats, no links, no proof. Just thoughts, experience, belief. Unfortunately, belief is something easily poo-pooed in a culture that more and more is cynical toward groups--whether that be a religion, a bunch of garden writers, or a corporation. We have good reasons for cynicism; look at our federal government / special interest figure heads. Look at your last girlfriend who left you for a Packers fan.

As the conversation over the National Wildlife Federation and Scotts joining to save wild spaces and get kids outside simmers down into more rational emotion, I feel full of guilt. My own, and others. Am I a nut for believing that we have happier, healthier, smarter people if our home landscapes had more wild habitat and less lawn? That depression and anxiety and ADHD would ease? That our kids, following a butterfly or making mud pies might be more creative, abstract, and fearless thinkers in whatever profession they choose? That they'd be more effective leaders? Shouldn't I just shut up?

Do you remember playing in the mud? With sticks? Do you ever sit and play with sticks now? Grab a piece of mulch and pretend it's a bulldozer? Am I the only one? Maybe I played with my Lego sets too long past high school.

Homeowners are guilted into thinking they need a pristine lawn or landscape. Anything wild is wrong, you won't fit in, people walking their dogs will give you the evil eye. Whole neighborhood associations have policies towards stringent landscape appearances of green earth and bulbous boxwood. Where did this come from? A religious-based fear of the wilderness? The Puritanical idea that nature tests our morality? And if it does, we've failed. In our attempt to exorcise personal demons over class, race, wealth, sex, and intense emotions, we do everything we can to recreate the environment to what we need or want, to what our ideal is, pillaging as we go. We've cut down the forest to make it a savanna so we can see the predators coming at us, but now we are even more wary and uncertain. We are even more afraid of each other (who's the predator now?).

I was just thinking this morning about my Mennonite family, burned and torutred during the Spanish inquisition, forced to leave the Netherlands for Prussia, forced to leave again for Russia, then again centuries later in 1874 for America. Each time they relocated they rebuilt their villages and homes in the same way. They kept their culture close to them, and remade the land into familiar ideals that helped preserve their identity. This is why the prairie vanished so swiftly from Kansas and Oklahoma--a sense of home, not of adaptation or patience. And perhaps a sense of guilt, a built in wanderlust that seems innately human. We are nomadic and it hurts us, keeps us from the world and from our deeper selves. (If you want readings on these environmentally philosophical thoughts, look at The Machine in the Garden by Leo Marx, This Sacred Earth by Roger Gottlieb, anything by Lawrence Buell.)

Lawn care companies make us feel guilty for weeds in the lawn, for brown lawn, for not fertilizing and mowing and watering religiously. At the hardware stores it's 50% tools and 50% lawn care products, especially from April to July.

I don't use a drop of chemical anything, and I've only been gardening for four years--I just dove in and went trial by fire. I've created a habitat of mostly native plants, of various sizes and textures and blooming times, and the diversity brings in good bugs who eat bad bugs, insects who feed baby birds, and seeds that feed migrating and winter birds. Everything supports each other. Each year more life rushes in like a broken dam. I know I spend less time in my landscape than my neighbors because I can hear it from inside my house--the guy next door mows 2-3 times per week and waters every morning. The folks across the street mow at least as often, edging and blowing for hours on a once-tranquil Saturday morning, wasting away their weekends. (Do they really enjoy it I wonder? Even when it's 90?)

Maybe you see this as a judgement, but I see it as an opportunity--I spend about 2 days in March cutting down the garden, and that's it for the year. Maybe 1 day I'll top dress with compost. My mulch is cut down perennials. My joy is sitting back on Saturdays, watching the three-dimensional life swoop in and out, crawl around, I sitting in the deck chair sipping lemonade, letting my thoughts take me wherever and grounding me, all the while trying my best to tune out the whirl of fertilizer spreaders, the chug of sprinklers, and the vibrations of mowers spewing exhaust my way. Actually, I don't even go outside on weekends anymore. There's no point--everyone is outside working. I mean relaxing.


Diana Studer said...

Rondebosch Common is protected, a remnant of what the Cape Flats was like before the City of Cape Town spread out. Now we have people from the Cape Flats, who want to claim the Common for housing. It's just used to walk dogs.

Wishing your ongoing battle against lawn every success!

Beatriz Moisset said...

How refreshing! Thanks.

stone said...

Nice mood piece...

How many people that buy into the whole round hedges and one half inch tall blades of grass, do you think, are going to have any feelings whatsoever about NWF's sellout to Scotts chemicals?

I suspect that the people that are concerned are already avoiding the Scotts products... and garden like you.... and me.

Our energy could well be better spent fighting suburban bans on wildflowers, the NWF seems to have little interest in anything more than fundraising.

Maybe instead of protesting these corporations who probably deserve each other, we should all band together and start a real wildlife / native plant, protection group...

laveta'splace said...

I really enjoyed reading this post, since most of what you wrote is how I feel. My little garden looks wild and untamed and I love it.

Christopher C. NC said...

I wanna know who mows your remnant resale piece of lawn, with what and how often?

No you're not crazy to feel this way. Children should play in the dirt, more than their parents.

Desert Dweller said...

I don't think anything is wrong for wanting to get beyond lawns and chemicals. But the culture needs to think first why they want what they want, and discern between wants and needs...and then refine their wants. Seeing the power of their ecoregion, and then expressing that more, is also beneficial.

When I was a kid in the early 70's, we lived where bluegrass actually *is* native...western Europe. Where did my friends and I play on our military base home the most?

The woods. Large public lawns were for kicking a ball or throwing a frisbee; small yards when we had to stay near our homes. At least there, they required and had no irrigation.

We can do better.

Dawn said...

I agree! Lawns take a lot of work, and around where I live, most people pay a service to take care of it because they are working and commuting. I only have a little grass and a lot of woods and a meadow that I'm slowly losing to Purple Loosestrife. I wish it looked a little more cared for than it does, but I love all the wildlife that thrives around our house! We have seen foxes, raccoons, owls, hawks, all kinds of songbirds and butterflies and dragonflies, and of course woodchucks and ticks. But....I prefer it to the dead zone of a manicured lawn! And yes, I made mud pies and played with sticks when I was a child.

Benjamin Vogt said...

EE--Geeze, to walk dogs? Fight the good fight.
BM--You got it!
ST--I always hear about highway prgorams that plant wildflowers on the edges, but always see them mowing edges and never see flowers. Could you imagine if that were habitat?
LA--And the wildlife loves it too. I'm preaching to the choir again.
CNC--I mow it, about once a month, with a cordless electric black and decker. I watered it once last year (for the trees mostly).
DD--I think the culture needs to be told what to do. It's just not fast enough for me. Look, there are fast food restaurants every 2 blocks, that's kind of choosing for us. So at Home Depot, no chemicals for sale, just compost and someone telling the good word about native ecosystems taking care of themselves and being cheap.
DP--I feel trapped in my house on weekends with all the lawn noise. These are small lots, under 1/4 acre. My neighbors mow towards sunset when I'm done with dinner and want a relaxing stroll in the garden. Instead, I get noise and air pollution. As do the birds, frightened away.

Christopher C. NC said...

I figured that would be your mowing practices Benjamin. Without extra water and fertilizer there is no need to mow 3 times a week or even once a week.

There is a block of old houses in Hazelwood, NC that I drive by regularly. The grape hyacinth and violets have run amuck in the tiny "lawns" of the poorer looking houses for a good stretch of the block. In the spring those lawns are the prettiest thing you can imagine. The rest of the year they're just grass.

Learning said...

Thanks so much for your post! I often wonder why pristine green lawns are the ideal. I know at our last house we had to take care of the lawn because we knew we wouldn't be staying long. For re-sale value it seems important to keep a decent lawn. I'm really looking forward to our new house that we plan to stay in a long time. We hope to have as little "green lawn" as possible, and not use fertilizers on that portion.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Learning--And no no fertilizers ANYWHERE, right? Come on, go all the way with me. I always wonder how much leaches in under the fence from the neighbors. This is why I fling seed over the fence--hey, Id' had wildflowers pop up in my lawn.

Shyrlene said...

Benjamin - you made my day! I just spent the last 3 days (skipped "school" on Friday) planning on how I was going to remove more 'lawn' (which is really mostly clover and misc. greens), expand my gardens and made a list of Midwest natives for the extended gardens.

"Gladys Kravitz" next door hates my 'prairie' garden style, but as I look at the plastic kid toys in their backyard and listen to her husband weed-wack at 5pm on Sundays or spray-fertilize - I just smile. My plants will get tall enough soon, and with the natural screening it won't matter.

Shyrlene said...

P.S. She calls my yard a 'field', oops - she meant 'field of dreams' (quote/end quote).

Benjamin Vogt said...

Sh--tell her that those plastic toys off gas and poison her kids, and that the chemicals on her lawn are doing even more damage. Maybe spell it out with coneflowers in your garden? I wish I knew the answer to educating without coming off as some hippy didactic jerk. I'm too passionate about the evils we reflect on the planet, and that come back to us even tough we think the earth is a sponge.

Heather Holm said...
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