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Tuttle

The Earth would breathe a sigh of relief if lawns were eliminated

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Lawns are so easy to dislike. When we moved to Tucson, I was stunned to discover there were any lawns at all in the city.

But that was nothing in comparison to my outrage on our first visit to Phoenix. While most Tucsonans have the ecological good sense to use rock and cactus as landscape motifs, Phoenicians apparently enjoy taunting the desert gods with water-hungry expanses of Bermuda, or whatever grass it is that one plants in an arid environment.

As a city kid, I enjoyed occasionally rolling around on a lush lawn, and there is little as heady as the scent of freshly cut grass (especially when free of an underlying odor of fertilizer). But after spending much of this summer in Connecticut--the epicenter of Lyme disease, West Nile virus and endless grass--my lawn-loathing is no longer confined to desert cities that should know better.

Since I grew up surrounded by concrete rather than grass, lawns were a given as a class symbol. Even without doing a critical analysis of the amount of grass acreage in suburban New Canaan compared to the amount in a factory town along the river, any observant kid would have to wonder what it was about lawns. As it turns out, their history is indeed wrapped up in a narrative of wealth, leisure and an emerging middle class striving to emulate the lifestyle of the rich, if not famous.

Before the invention of the lawnmower in the early 19th century, "the greens" were kept trimmed by either grazing livestock or the use of various hand implements such as scythes. This scenario was limited to the wealthy; most people living in rural areas did not have the luxury of dedicating their land to ornamental grass, the time for cutting it or the wealth to hire someone to do it for them. Instead, these folks--if they did anything more than clear it--put their land to practical use by planting vegetables, flowers, medicinal herbs or some mixture of flora deemed of some value.

All this changed when America's Gilded Age, riding the wave of rapid industrialization, ushered in a growing middle class eager to copy the opulence of the nation's most affluent. Lawns, like overstuffed furniture and gold-covered everything, became a status symbol. They remain one to this day.

Within the span of approximately 70 years, lawnmowers went from manual, somewhat clunky devices, to first steam, then gasoline-powered contraptions. But the boom in power mowers took off only about 50 or so years ago, with each year bringing more elaborate (and expensive) devices.

While it is possible to still buy a manual lawnmower, most keepers of the green would no more be caught with one than with a stray piece of crabgrass. Which is too bad, since I'm sure there is a direct correlation between the increasing amount of belly fat the average American suburban male is carrying and the use of gasoline-powered mowers.

Besides providing a great cardio workout, using a manual lawnmower is patriotic: No fuel is needed from those often nasty, oil-producing countries. And the Earth would give a huge sigh of relief once free of the soil, water and air pollutants that lawn care produces.

A better alternative would be to give up lawns everywhere. They surely have no business in the Southwest (including enclaves like Winterhaven that would be wiser to conserve their water rather than squander it on lawns).

There are numerous benefits to going lawnless, not the least of which are the billions of dollars Americans could save by weaning themselves from their weekend obsession. (One estimate puts that figure at $30 billion, more than the entire gross domestic product of some nations.)

Lawn care is a huge enterprise running on fossil fuel. Fertilizer, insecticide and herbicide are the most obvious examples of how petrochemicals have insinuated themselves into every blade of grass, not to mention plastic lawn furniture and kiddie pools. Rototilling lawns across America would put us one step closer to moving beyond our oil dependence.

A couple of miles from where I am spending my few remaining days in humid Connecticut, one homeowner refuses to buy into the tyranny of lawns. The front yard is an expanse of ground cover, vines, bushes and flowering fauna so densely planted that there is no room for weeds. It's a welcoming look, less formal than a lawn, and one that says the resident has better things to do than mess around with trimming grass.

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