Lawn People

In the book Lawn People: How Grasses, Weeds, and Chemicals Make Us Who We Are by Paul Robbins, the lawn and a “myriad of other objects of daily life, constitute who we are” (p 15).  Our modern concern with appearance and social status is reflected on the appearance of our lawns.  Robbins argues that there are several influences that turn someone into a “lawn person”.  Of these are political and economic forces rather than free choice, culture, and consumer demand.

  1. The modern lawn cannot be an expression outside of political and economic history in which property, citizenship, and proper consumer behavior are conjoined.
  2. Lawns (not necessarily grasses) must at some level require the inputs invested in them by people, and these demands must enforce human practices and behaviors.
  3. Chemicals for lawns must represent real problems, ones born of a risk society where hazards and the burdens of risk calculation are shed downwards and outwards.
  4. Input-producing firms must be compelled for broader economic reasons, to eschew lower-input alternatives and to shift risk ecology to consumers.
  5. The lawn cannot be something that people simply say “no” to and switch off as a kind of consumer preference

So, after looking at these influences of creating a ‘lawn person’, can we actually say that lawns are an “expression of American culture”?

Many genetic and natural explanations have been brought to the table as to the historical origin of lawns.  For example, tracing the lawn back to an evolutionary outcome of savanna-dwelling.  However, the lawn is most certainly a recent development “specific to certain places and times, and most certainly not natural, hard-wired, or inevitable” (p 19).  Near the turn of the twentieth century, a broadly accepted aesthetic expectation for the private lawn emerged.  It combined the aesthetics of the English Landed gentry and the budding sensibilities of the rising middle class.  Altogether forming a new set of landscape goals “centered on grass” (p28).

As suburbs began to emerge, so did manicured lawns.  “More people became familiar with the lawn as a classed and moralized landscape (with its specific rules and standards) and with the assumed connectino between a type of landscape and a type of person” (p 29).

“Wealthier, largely white residents of the urban frindge are more likely to spend more time tending to the lawn or paying for its management, and to invest more mental and emotional energy negotiating the complex desires and anxieties that are tied to lawn care.” (p 31) — Why is it that this demographic is so interested in maintaining lawn care?

What was very interesting to me is that, because we care so much about our lawns,  our insecticide usage – though it only represents 17% of the total US input, expands dramatically with increase in lawn coverage.  Basically, residential users apply more than three times the quantity per hectar than agricultural producers do.  On top of this there are numerous other chemicals and lawn inputs that make up the explosion of a complex and diverse group.  As we continue to try out new chemicals, we are finding more and more of them to have detrimental effects.

As these effects are brought into the public’s eye, many companies are blamed.  But is it truly their fault or are they simply meeting the demand of the population?  Robbins argues that those who believe that chemicals used are “taking care” of the environment are those who idealized the values from “pull” advertising – a concern in their neighbors’ values and feelings.   “The central contradiction of lawn people portrayed at the outset of this book, therefore, is reproduced in the representations pursued by the industry” (p 95).

We live in a relatively free society in which we are able to make choices.  Do lawn people make a choice to have lawns from a range of different alternatives? Or are there no alternatives?  To Robbins, lawn people do not simply ‘choose’ to maintain their lawns but are instead under the burden of reconciling a range of contradictions in both community and economy.  Within the existing lawn economy, Robbins questions how effective alternatives can be if following the current logics of modern free consumer choice and moral citizenship.  The current values that brought us to the ideology of a perfect lawn cannot help bring us away from it too.  In that, he suggests a change in values.

We can reject our current lawns and focus on more divers and healthy lawns.  Lawns that do not harm the environment but are extensions of it.  Safe Lawns is a non profit organization that advocates for this same reason–stating the importance in” educating society about the benefits of environmentally responsible lawn care and gardening, and effect a quantum change in consumer and industry behavior.” (safelawns.org)

In the movie Fun with Dick and Jane, a couple’s lawn is taken away when they are unable to pay their bills.  In a fit of desperation, Dick decides to “steal the garden back”.  As he looks around his neighborhood, he focuses on all the beautiful lawns.  He steals patches of grass only from those ‘perfect’ lawns that we are familiar with – graveyards, golf courses, those neighbors (which I’m sure we are all familiar with – see above)

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