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Know the West

Rants from the Hill: “Lawn Guilt”


“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.

Henry David Thoreau’s neighbors generally thought of him as a lazy, confrontational, sanctimonious pain in the ass. They might be interested to know that he turned out to be right about nearly everything, from his strident support for the abolition of slavery, to his scathing exposure of the injustice of the Mexican-American War, to his embracing of then-new evolutionary theory, to his claim that the American relationship to nature was becoming commodified, superficial, and exploitative. Perhaps the best example of Thoreau being right ahead of his time is offered by his vehement condemnation of the American lawn. In his remarkable 1862 deathbed essay, “Walking,” Thoreau wrote that “Hope and the future are not in lawns.” Instead, he imagined establishing his home on a plot of land covered with wild plants and trees. “Why not put my house, my parlor, behind this plot,” he asked, “instead of behind that meager assemblage of curiosities, that poor apology for a Nature and Art, which I call my front yard?”

Calling his neighbors’ front yards a “poor apology for a Nature and Art” is the sort of sarcastic face slap that cranky Uncle Henry specialized in, and it tells you something that one of his final utterances before leaving this world was a condemnation of lawns. As usual, he turned out to be right. Riddle: considered acre-for-acre, what is the most pesticide, herbicide, water, labor, and cash-intensive crop grown in the U.S.? Right. Your lawn. In America our turf grasses, which are non-native, cover 21 million acres (think the state of Maine), cost 40 billion dollars per year (more than U.S. foreign aid), consume around 90 million pounds of fertilizer and 80 million pounds of pesticides per year (which sometimes end up contaminating our ground and surface water), and drink an inconceivable eight billion gallons of water per day (here in the West, where we can least afford to squander the liquid gold, as much as half of all residential water use is associated with lawns and landscaping).

Satellite image of the Ranting Hill, with tiny lawn, surrounded by juniper-dotted sagebrush ocean.

All this is before we reckon the colossal time suck that lawns represent: each year Americans spend an average of three billion hours pushing or (even worse) riding mowers, most of which pollute at a rate ten times that of our cars. In fact, if a lawn were a car, it would be a hummer: a resource-intensive, plainly unsustainable luxury item that looks pretty good but isn’t especially useful. As for biodiversity, forget it. Lawns are exotic, barren monocultures. While they are sometimes referred to as “ecological deserts,” this characterization is an insult to deserts, which are often remarkably biodiverse ecosystems. Then there are the unhappy symbolic connotations of the lawn. As food writer Michael Pollan points out, the American lawn is the ultimate manifestation of our culture’s perverse fantasy of the total control of nature. As Pollan put it so memorably, “A lawn is nature under totalitarian rule.”

Now hang with me while I descend from my eco-soapbox to offer this surprising confession: I have a lawn. I’m a westerner. A desert rat. An environmentalist. Even an admirer of Thoreau (though it does chap my hide that he’s always right). But I have a lawn and I love it. Of course my dual status as arid lands environmentalist and lawn-watering dolt has provoked in me a serious identity crisis, one that reminds me of another Thoreau insight (this one from Walden): “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand does.” Am I proud of my lawn? Hell no! I’m completely ashamed of it. I have a terminal case of lawn guilt. But at the risk of having my membership in the Wilderness Society revoked, it is time to come clean about my immoderate love of the lawn I have planted here on the Ranting Hill.

For me the first challenge is squaring a condition of brutal lawnlessness with fond memories of my suburban childhood, in which the grassy yard provided the most immediate respite from concrete and asphalt. Lawns were our play zones, the part of the vernacular landscape that could be experienced with all our senses, and one of the few suburban spaces not specifically designed to accommodate cars. Even if your old man was on his hands and knees pulling crabgrass every Saturday morning, for the rest of the week the lawn remained the sovereign province of children—a little patch of freedom that functioned as a clean, green canvas that we kids painted with our imaginations.

Trio of coyote pups denning near the Ranting Hill.

Like a lot of suburban boys, I also experienced the lawn as the first significant site of labor. Before I reached age 16 and landed a job stocking the beer cooler in the local drugstore, the lawn was the only game in town for an enterprising kid who was willing to work hard and needed a little cash. I built a pretty decent side biz as a mower, and in this sense the American lawn bought me a new bike, a fishing trip, and tickets to some memorable rock shows. As I got a bit older, lawn mowing even functioned as my French Foreign Legion. I spent one summer as a mower for a small company comprised entirely of guys who had been recently dumped by their girlfriends. My mowing partner that summer was a Harley dude named Chaos who somehow survived on a diet consisting solely of Schlitz beer and corn nuts. Sometimes Chaos and I would knock out 20 lawns in a day. Between yards we’d crank up Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on the battered old truck’s cassette deck and lament that we’d been cast away by girls who, we told each other, just didn’t have their heads on straight. When I later got my own head on straight and went to college, so revered was the lawn that my school had a world famous precision lawnmower brigade that routinely stole the show from reputable marching bands during parades.

Of course those are memories from another place and time, and rationalizing turf grass here at 6,000 feet in the Great Basin Desert is another matter entirely. Still, I’m willing to attempt a modest defense. To begin with, our lawn is quite small, is on only one side of the house, and is surrounded by the rest of our property, 49 acres of wild desert that we have deliberately left undisturbed. I never use herbicides on the little yard, the fertilizer I apply is slow-release and organic, and the watering regime is strictly limited and carefully timed for efficiency. Outside the lawn, almost every tree and shrub I’ve planted is a local or regional native, most of which are hardy and xeric. The lawn keeps the dust down, and has also reduced the number of scorpions and rattlers we encounter immediately outside the house. Having the lawn also helps to cool the place in summer, working in tandem with our passive solar home design to make it possible for us to exist here without air conditioning.

Unlike a suburban yard, our lawn functions as a kind of oasis. This is the only patch of green anywhere around, and is in fact the sole moist spot between here and a seep that is 1,000 feet above us and three miles to our west. In an area that receives only seven inches of precipitation each year—and most of that in the form of snow—a little water makes a lot of magic. Modest as it appears, our patch of grass sustains a bumper crop of insects, which has in turn made our home a haven for Say’s phoebes, western kingbirds, mountain bluebirds, scrub and pinyon jays, and many other bug-eating birds—and also a refuge for seed eaters like collared doves and California quail. The insects have also made this a terrific place to be a lizard, and we’ve seen an increase in our populations of both western fence and leopard lizards. And the lawn is cropped so constantly by cottontails and big, black-tailed jackrabbits that I hardly ever have to mow!

Hannah and Caroline cartwheeling on “the firebreak.”

All these insects, song birds, lizards, and small mammals have of course made this a prime location for raptors and coyotes, which have been quick to take advantage of the food chain reaction triggered by our damp spot. In fact the coyotes denned nearby this year, and for a month this spring we had the daily pleasure of watching three tiny pups peering out at us from the sage. The lawn has also become an oasis for our young daughters. I suppose Hannah and Caroline did fine playing in the alkali-encrusted caliche hardpan that existed here before I installed the lawn, but they now seem encouraged to play more games and do more handstands, not to mention enjoying the childhood rite of passage that entails running through the sprinklers after staining your tongue red or blue with popsicles.

I recognize that this defense of my lawn amounts to little more than morally feeble equivocation, which is why I make sure to keep handy a bourbon-barrel-sized load of guilt about it. Wallace Stegner wrote that we westerners need to “get over the color green,” but my challenge has instead been to get over having gotten over the color green. Driven by my shame to desperate measures, I recently had the bright idea to rebrand the lawn “the firebreak,” which is a concept everybody out here on this wildlands interface understands and respects. This is disingenuous on my part, since I maintain other firebreaks that function perfectly well without being lined with water-guzzling, non-native turf grass. But it just sounds better to say “firebreak,” so much so that I now insist that we all use that term and that term only, and in fact I fine the girls a quarter each time they say “lawn” by mistake. The family is pretty well retrained now, and so it is common for little Caroline to say, “Daddy, I’m going out to do cartwheels on the firebreak.”

Of course Henry Thoreau would have seen right through this turf grass apologia, and he would have instantly called horseshit on my cowardly rebranding of the unsustainable indulgence that is my lawn as a “firebreak.” But I do have a longer-term plan to mend my ways. When the girls go off to college (hopefully one with a brigade of precision lawn mowers to bring laughter to those boring parades) I’ll bring in three end dump truck loads of sand and bury the lawn completely, making a nice little beach up here in the heart of the sagebrush ocean. In the meantime, I’ve decided to ditch Thoreau and instead go with Walt Whitman, who in Leaves of Grass testified that “a blade of grass is the journeywork of the stars.” Journeywork of the stars just has such a lovely, ennobling, poetic ring to it. It isn’t as lyrical as “firebreak,” of course, but for now I’ll accept any substitute for that unspeakable, four-letter word: L***.