One of my favorite refrigerator pictures is a shot of my father-in-law, Bob Cook. He’s seated atop a brand-new John Deere mowing machine, wearing a grin that could outshine any kid’s on Christmas morning.
Why is this man so
happy? It’s partly the machine, which is one of those fancy,
hand-controlled models that can spin around on a dime. That means
Bob can cut the three acres of grass surrounding his and
Mabel’s farmhouse in southern Michigan as efficiently as a
golf course maintenance crew.
But I think Bob would be
smiling even if he were holding on to an old-fashioned push mower.
The guy just loves to grow and cut grass. And he’s not the
only one: As contributing editor Michelle Nijhuis points out in
this week’s cover story, Americans are deeply in love with
At any time of day between April and
November, Bob is likely to get up from his easy chair and announce,
"I’m cutting the lawn." His family treats this with the same
respect as if he’d said, "I’m off to church." In a
sense, that’s just what he’s doing: For two hours, Bob
will chug contentedly around his yard, far away from the messy
world of phone calls, television and interpersonal communications.
All that exists is the deafening whir of the blades, the
intoxicating smell of gasoline and chlorophyll, and the sure
knowledge that, row by row, one corner of the universe is being put
back in order.
I have also been in love with lawns,
although not necessarily with mowing them. It was on the front lawn
of my parent’s suburban Chicago house that my brothers and I
perfected football pass patterns and diving Frisbee catches. Those
lush green expanses are fantastic places to idle away the long
These days, I live on a small farm in
western Colorado. But my connection to grass has actually grown: My
family now spends countless hours trying to coax two cuttings of
hay from pastures originally carved out of sagebrush and cactus.
It’s a complicated process filled with rituals: burning the
fields, marking them with furrows, setting pipe to move the milky
brown irrigation water, and then trying to schedule the local
farmer to come cut and bale the hay in between summer storms.
Growing hay has sharpened my awareness of my valley’s natural
cycles. I know how the snowpack on the mountain needs to look in
May for a decent runoff. I know that an irrigated pasture develops
its own little food chain, complete with grasshoppers, toads,
snakes, kestrels and harriers.
But I’ve also become
acutely aware of how much water it takes to keep a desert landscape
green. And I know it’s a luxury that may soon be a relic of
In an era of population growth and global
warming, water is the West’s defining issue. As drought
deepens and snowpack melts earlier, we all have to tighten our
belts. The good news is that, when pushed, we human beings are
incredibly adaptable. As Michelle notes, Westerners have already
shown that we can use water efficiently and yet create a satisfying
The Western landscapes of the future will
not be as lush as my father-in-law’s Michigan yard. But if we
can kick our Kentucky bluegrass habit and learn to love low-water
native plants, our yards can still be beautiful places to which we
can escape to refresh our souls.