Watching Grass Grow

Posted on September 14, 2011

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I’m going to start this post by bragging a little bit: I’m currently getting settled in Edinburgh for a year of grad school, and on my way here I got to take a short backpacking tour of England. The whole thing was pretty touristy, and I’m not going to bore you with a riveting acount of my experience on the London Eye. There was, however, one part of the trip that gave me some blog-worthy thoughts. I spent the last few days of my mini-vacation in the Lake District, famous for inspiring the poetry of William Wordsworth.  After doing a few hikes in the area, I can certainly see its appeal to an English romantic. Most striking to my Canadian perspective were the lawns. Here are a few photos I took:

What is remarkable about the grass in the lake district is not just how much of it there is, but how effortlessly it is maintained. The Irish Sea, just a short distance to the West, serves up an almost endless supply of water to keep the grass growing healthily, and tens of thousands of sheep to trim the weeds, keep the grass far shorter than could be reasonably done with any mere lawnmower, and continually recycle the grass’s nutrients back into the perpetually fertile soil (I regret to say that I removed a few of these nutrients on the soles of my hiking boots). The result is a stunning abundance of naturally trimmed greenery, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wish to have the same thing back home in Canada. Unfortunately, we can’t. The huge suburban swathes of North America generally have neither the rainfall, nor the nutrients, nor the convenient fauna required to maintain such luxurious fields of green. Canada is further cursed by a cold winter. Here are two random Google Streetview photos of a front lawns near my hometown of Markham, Ontario:

They look particularly abysmal in the winter, but even in the summer they are patched with weeds and just don’t achieve the same effect that can be enjoyed in the British countryside. And this is after a considerable amount of effort. Such a mediocre end-product requires a considerable amount of sodding, mowing, weeding, and fertilizing. This should come as no particular surprise. North America is not Britain, and it’s absurd to think that the same horticulture can be carried out with equal ease on both sides of the Atlantic. That simple fact doesn’t stop the proliferation of North American lawns, however. Neighborhood organizations and property devaluation lawsuits have made lawn maintenance virtually mandatory in many parts of both Canada and the United States.

So why am I blogging about this? Because anything which consumes a large amount of labour is likely to also consume a great deal of resources, and lawns are no exception. Between 50 and 70 percent of American residential water use is sprayed over lawns in a desperate attempt to keep them green in a dry climate. Meanwhile, several American states are already experiencing water crises.

The solution is obvious: Give up the North American lawn. Unfortunately, marshalling the political will to do this will be extremely difficult. English North America defines itself by its cultural ties to Great Britain and this encourages a desperate attempt to maintain a superficial appearance which resembles that of Great Britain. Canadians and Americans are therefore unlikely to allow their residential properties to grow wild anytime soon.

Here’s the scary part: this story has played out many times before. I reviewed Jared Diamond’s Collapse a while back, and one of the most dramatic stories he tells is that of the Greenland Norse, who arrived from Iceland around 1000 AD. Proud Europeans that they were, they immediately got to work eking out a European existence in the warmer and more fertile fjords of the island. They grew grain, raised sheep, and dismissed as savagery the far more adaptive lifestyle of the Inuit who lived nearby. It was the Inuit, however, who got the last laugh. 600 years later, when the climate took a turn for the worse, the viking settlers starved to death while the natives managed to survive. Diamond convincingly argues that the Norse downfall was brought on by their stubborn insistence on exporting a European pastoral lifestyle to a place that could not support it.

Am I saying that lawns will cause us all to starve to death? Probably not. I’m going to be an optimist and say that contemporary North American society is sensible enough to implement water use restrictions before lawns deplete our farms of irrigation water and thereby deplete us of food. But the American front lawn is a symbol of the same cultural stubbornness that eventually did kill the Greenland Norse. Sustainability means placing the demands and contingencies of your habitat before more flexible things, such as your identification with a faraway culture. We ignore that fact, as the Greenlanders did, at our own peril.

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