A green obsession

  • Paul Larmer


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 their lawns.

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 summer days.

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 the past.

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 environment.

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.

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