Rants from the Hill: “Lawn Guilt”

 

Page 2

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***.

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