Thursday, August 24, 2006


I have never understood the fascination with lawns. I am hardly the only person to feel this way and many scholars have recently studied the phenomenon, including historian Ted Steinberg who has written American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn. Although I've heard good things about this, I haven't yet read it. But this is a weird and I think particularly American phenomenon. I once drove across rural Tennessee with an Australian friend of mine and she was amazed by the massive lawns. People build their homes and then take down every tree between that home and the road, sometimes 50 yards away. They might plant a little tree or two that will eventually provide some shade. Then they plant grass over the entire swath. My friend couldn't understand why someone would do that and I honestly had no answer. My Dad in Oregon is the same way. We had a much smaller house but my God that man loves his lawn. Why? Who knows. I was just noticing this phenomenon again on my trip to Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee. Why would you destroy all those beautiful trees to have a damn lawn? I suppose some of it has to do with the desire to be master over one's own domain--the long view is something people like. Part of it may also have to do with the conveniences of modern heating and cooling--you don't actually need those trees to shade the hot summer sun when you have central air.

While I find this phenomenon disturbing everywhere, in the American West it is disgusting. Michelle Nijhuis' article in the August 21 issue of High Country News explores the lawn in the West (sadly available by subscription only). Westerners love their lawns as much as anyone else. But they live in a place that cannot sustain them naturally. Thus, they use a ton of water and fertilizers that runs into water supplies. If they stop doing this, the lawns will die quickly. But they are going to have their patch of green no matter what by God. Lawns in the West show how completely disconnected people are from the environment they live in. This is a place where no one should grow grass. If you are going to live in the West, you need to understand the limitations of the land and climate. But most people willfully ignore this and it's leading to increasingly significant consequences as water supplies in states like Nevada and Utah are under serious strain--in many cities in these states outdoor water use accounts for 2/3 of residential water consumption.

Here in Albuquerque, most people are much better than the average westerner when it comes to lawns. You hardly ever see lawns and when you do, the grass is usually a variety of Bermuda grass that only greens up when it rains naturally--you rarely actually see a sprinkler. Some people don't get it of course, but the average Albuquerque resident does way better than their contemporaries in Phoenix or Las Vegas. Some of the worst violators seem to be large agencies. The University of New Mexico is a fascinating case--here you see one patch that is growing with native plants and another that is watering the hell out of a patch of lawn. My understanding is that this discrepancy has to do with the desires of people in power when the landscaping was put in and the grass by God constituencies that work next to these grassy areas. This isn't so surprising--urban planning in the West is haphazard anyway.

Luckily, some people are moving away from the lawn. In Albuquerque lots of people xeriscape their yard--using native plants that are drought-resistance and don't need special watering. I have seen some truly beautiful yards using cactus, shrubs, and other native species. These yards are easily as beautiful as any lawn, although they don't have the functionality that the lawn does--it's hard to hold a barbecue when there's prickly pear and cholla around. Could get unpleasant. But any long term planning in the West is going to have to deal with people and their lawns.