Friday, December 14, 2012

An essay against lawns

We would walk in Porrit Park, in the evenings. We would cross the bridge over the stream and wander beside it around the sports fields, following the tree line, and then through a spinney and across the car park - and there - over the rise - there was the view. We would look down to the river, and the paradise shelducks and the houses on the other side, and the mallards would call, and we could hear voices and music from the houses, and we would be at peace. We would breathe out. We would know where we were.

It was of course a completely unnatural environment. The river itself was drained and tamed swamp. The park with its trees and swards of lawn was for rugby and hockey. The trees were planted in lines. The rise of land that gave us the view of the river was made for the purpose. i write it all in the past tense because the park is now destroyed by the earthquakes, riven with deep cracks and awash with liquefaction. The river has spoken. It has told us it will no longer be confined. But at the time of walking, it was all redolent with rightness, speaking to us of our own deep history.

There is a view, held by thinkers like EO Wilson, my favourite ecologist and a world expert on ants, that humans and their predecessors evolved for park land. We like to stand on a rise and look over a landscape with water, grass and trees. Water for food and transport, trees for shelter and food, grass for running down prey and the rise to spot our enemies. It feels right, even in suburban Christchurch.

Our love of park land may be one of our undoings, because it has lead to a mass taming of the land around us, and a narrowing of our aesthetic sensibilities about the natural world. And even more so because park land is costly to the environment.

Modern park land reaches its creative nadir in the lawn. i am against lawns. Lawns are two dimensional, monocultural, and above all bourgeois. New Zealand housing tended to follow US models, which is why we have bungalows for example, and stand alone houses with sections. We colonised the place as if there was endless room, as if every family could have its own little patch of land, which for a long time, it could. That's very American. Lawns in their modern form are also American, designed first in the nineteenth century as the middle class grew and wanted to show their new wealth. The idea was to present a street frontage that was uniform, in tune with the whole neighbourhood, and that displayed the house and its accoutrements. Now, turf grass is the most common cultivated and irrigated 'crop' in the USA. Lawns rule even in the sandy Floridian soils and the rocky old Rockies. Here we have followed that trend, although with less expansiveness. Even here though our lawns cost a fortune in water and labour and turf-related products. They are environmental dead weights. Somehow also the state of your lawn maps onto your social status. Stop mowing the damn thing and find out what your neighbours really think of you.

Meanwhile, the vegetable garden became relegated to the back of the house, if it existed at all. At some point mid last century, we decided vegetables were aesthetically unpleasant. Perhaps we did not want to be reminded of the production of food. We wanted to separate ourselves out as consumers and producers. We wanted to think of food coming to us packaged, presented - no wonder it is called 'produce'.

i'm not that great on gardening. i wish i liked it. There's something about being a middle aged woman that you're supposed to like gardening. Gardening strikes me as more bloody postivism. You dig and tame and distort the earth, and haze it with chemicals and shove things into it that were meant to thrive thousands of miles away. Personally i think older women get our hands into the soil as a precursor to putting ourselves in there. We experiment a little with the grave as we dig and turn it over.

i have however reached some sort of rapprochement with my patch of land, a bit of give and take, some sensitivity at last on my part. For a start, anything that gets me out of the horrible supermarket and making some choices about my food has got to be good for me. Gardening is a blow against the empire - or at least a tiny chink the armour of Birdseye and Unilever and the forty odd companies that run the entire global food system. And the more edible stuff i grown the more diverse my patch is and the more fun. i have containers full of dwarf beans instead of flowers. i am attempting more berries, and how lovely is a blueberry bush with its pretty variegated leaves, its sweet white flowers and its healthful fruit.

There is a bit of an anti-lawn movement. Michael Pollan wrote an article called The Case Against Lawns in the New York Times in 1989 and it's worth a look for its commentary on US social history as much as anything else. Since then he has blogged on how he has gradually developed his land in more useful, three dimensional ways, and he has sparked some good debate.

Me, i still have some lawn although we would not make House and Garden*. i do pick up the dog poo and my husband the Archduke dutifully mows it with a hand mower. The lawn, that it, not the dog poo, at least not intentionally.

* We're terribly House and Garden
at Number 7B....
Why not take those ordinary little metal bottle tops and nail them upside down on the floor, thus giving the impression of walking on ...little metal bottle tops nailed upside down to the floor!
Just take an ordinary Northumbrian spokeshaver's coracle.......
While 7B is madly gay
It wouldn't do for every day
We actually live in 7A
The house next door!
                               - Flanders and Swan

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