Sunday, April 30, 2017

Lawns: American Dream or Waste of Time?

6 Minute Read

It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is, what are we busy about?
-Henry David Thoreau

Out for a few jogs recently, I've observed massive amounts of manual labor in pursuit of beautiful lawns. Pausing to take note of the machinery, fuel consumption, man hours, and monetary considerations, I've become increasingly curious for the following reasons:

  • Aside from being nice to look at, lawns are objectively worthless. We don't eat them, don't graze animals on them (for fear of trampling and ruining aesthetic value), we don't harvest our grass clippings and sell them at a farmer's market, and many lawn owners forbid people to even set foot on them.
These policies are often enforced by snipers

  • I'm fairly certain our hunter-gatherer ancestors never gave a rat's ass about lawns, nor did anyone have a lawn around the entrance to their cave.
  • At some point in human history, we collectively agreed that a well-kept lawn was to be desired, and that a poorly-maintained lawn was good reason to believe ol' Gil Carruthers had been laid off from the hat factory again, and that his wife probably left him for good this time.
  • So where did all this come from? Why do lawns dominate the landscape despite a bewildering amount of upkeep and an equally bewildering lack of objective value?
History of Lawns

The concept of beautiful, worthless lawns at the entrances to private residences and public buildings dates back to the late Middle Ages in France and England. Back then, no peasant could afford to waste land, time or energy on grass, so lawns were reserved for aristocrats interested in showing everybody up. A rich, manicured lawn in front of the chateau shouted to every guest and passerby, "check me out, bro. I ball so hard I can just waste a bunch of land and have my serfs do all the labor."

Built in the early 1500s, Chateau de Chambord (roughly 200km south of Paris), is credited with originating the lawn as we know it.

During the ensuing centuries, we Homo Sapiens grew to associate lawns with power, wealth, and social status. As the Industrial Revolution gave rise to the middle class and provided it with mowing machines and automatic sprinkler systems, suddenly millions of people could afford to cultivate a home field and let all the neighbors know what time it was (metaphorically).

King Francis I? Nope. Kenny Powers.

We tend to think of the destruction of animal habitats as caused by industry, agriculture, oil pipelines, and republicans, but don't lawns do the same thing? According to this article in the Chicago Tribune, roughly 95% of land in the lower 48 United States has been developed into cities, suburbs, golf courses, and farmland. Lawns account for more land usage (over 40 million acres) than corn, wheat, and fruit combined. In fact, a whopping 20% of the land areas of Massachusetts and New Jersey are lawns. 

Meanwhile, the honey bees that pollinate our food are dying off at troubling rates, monarch butterflies are nearing extinction, and the global ecological balance grows increasingly out of whack with every new subdivision.

Some more fun facts:
To be fair, I'm aware that there are people who pride themselves on their lawns, that genuinely enjoy lawn maintenance as a meditative hobby, and that possess limitless wisdom when it comes to various sods, fertilizers, and edging techniques. If this makes them happy, of course they are free to mow.

But it is also true that one in five Americans rates lawn maintenance as his/her least enjoyable chore--below raking leaves, folding laundry, and even emptying the dishwasher (easily the worst one). Perhaps Washington Post columnist Christopher Ingraham was on to something when he wrote, Lawns are a soul-crushing timesuck and most of us would be better off without them.

But what would go in their place? Field turf? Japanese rock garden? Having spent the majority of my life around homes in cities and suburbs of the American Midwest, I've had a hard time picturing a front yard without a lawn. What would that even look like?  Out for a jog earlier today in my native Plymouth and Canton, Michigan, I found two contrasting properties:

Hanford Rd., Canton, Michigan

Gyde Rd., Canton, Michigan

Which of these properties is more visually appealing and which is a more desirable place to live are both debatable. However, there is no debate when it comes to which requires more time, money and energy to maintain. The average American spends 70 hours per year on lawn care and that's including people who live in apartments AND those who don't enjoy that household responsibility. For those in charge of their lawns, that number is certainly much higher. 

Time is a non-renewable resource. Are lawns worth it?


  1. Great read Sean. I never thought about how much waste/environmental damage was involved until seeing your statistics. For that I thank you for the knowledge my friend.

  2. It's funny, as I was weeding my well manicured lawn two days ago, I was thinking these same thoughts. Yes, I love to garden, yes, I love looking at my yard, but what a waste! Our sub used to be a farm. How many people in our area alone go hungry every day? How much time does it take to maintain? Could I plant a forest in the yard, let the yard go natural, plant a garden, turn it into a community garden space, get it by the neighborhood association? More likely, I'll wonder and just enjoy the serenity of my 'estate' and pay someone to continue to mow, supporting the local economy.

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