It began sensibly enough. The courthouse square and the schoolyard. The space in front of the house, around the garden, a path to the privy. The younger children would cut some lawn every week or so with the reel mower. Pa and the older boys would scythe the tall grasses in the orchard and surrounding the outbuildings to gather for hay a few times each season. Grazing animals performed much of the “lawn” maintenance too. A century ago, people mowed modestly -- enough for picnics and band concerts and the children to play croquet.
How times have changed! Today we-the-people of the United States mow 30 to 40 million acres of grass, an area almost as large as the state of Wisconsin, about half the acreage our nation devotes to corn. Although urban lawns tend to be very small, suburbanites tend to mow a third-of-an-acre or more, and many exurbanites, non-urban businesses, and retired farmers mow five to ten acres of lawn.
Each year we apply millions of tons of fossil-fuel-based fertilizers and billions of gallons of fossil-fuel-pumped water to make our lawns grow luxuriantly – and then burn billions of gallons of petroleum to pare back the over-stimulated turf! Tragically, many of us use more water and non-renewable fuels to maintain our lawns than most other humans on Earth use to grow food for themselves.
Do our lawns serve a basic human need? Is our enormous allocation of resources to turf justified because lawns provide essential food, clothing, shelter, or protections from dangers or disease? Are 30 to 40 million acres of mowed grass a practical necessity for civilization?
NO! Rigorously-shorn lawns became fashionable a mere century ago, and their tremendous expansion in the last fifty years was made possible by skyrocketing land, fuel, and water consumption. Modest areas of mowed grass for play areas and around gardens and buildings are indeed practical, but we have far exceeded this. Most of our current lawn acreage experiences human traffic only when we (or our lackeys) are doing maintenance.
So what is the present-day mowed, fertilized, pesticized, and irrigated American Lawn? A host for diverse native grasses and forbs? A sanctuary for birds and other wildlife? An efficient watershed that absorbs, filters, and slowly releases rainwater? A source of livestock feed? An opportunity for healthy exercise? A soil-building carbon dioxide “sink” that helps to fight the greenhouse effect?
NO! Most contemporary lawns comprise a chemically addicted monoculture, so very few plant or animal species live there. Birds cannot nest in frequently cut turf. Short grass and compacted lawn soil absorb significantly less rainfall than woodlands or native meadow vegetation. Lawns furnish almost no livestock feed today. Few kids or adults benefit from aerobic lawn-mower-pushing every week; we perch our ever-fatter bottoms on noisy, gas-guzzling riding mowers instead. Given the amount of fossil fuels we use to mow, fertilize, water, and chemically treat our lawns, we actually exacerbate global warming.
Mow has become less. Less wildlife and plant life. Less clean air and water. Less peace and quiet. Less physical fitness and environmental health. Less financial and energy security. Lawn mowing even plunges our nation deeper into debt, since we now import two-thirds of our petroleum. To keep our mowers fueled and this vast acreage faithfully shorn in the decades to come, will we continue to send forth our soldiers to serve as World Oil Policemen?
When it comes to lawns, we-the-people show no more wisdom or foresight than the sheep and cattle which once cropped the grass. It’s time to wise up, one yard at a time -- starting with our own!
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