Attempt to explore the apparent contradiction of lawns in modern Western culture.
|Ponder the paradox of the lawn. Here is a money drain. Mow it, maintain it, and may God help you if weeds get the better of it. Impulses to control and contain are not new, nor unique, nor necessarily bad. However, when one considers the object being contained, a question arises. A lawn is a little tame piece of nature. Our culture perceives the natural world as something untamed yet beautiful. Forest preserves, wild mountains, sparkling streams, and so on; all these biomes have a quality in common. Difficult to define and easy to recognize, that quality takes us out of the cookie-cutter world in which all but extreme weather and freak geological events are controlled or at least predicted. Communal disconnect is apparent since the natural world does not conform to growth in any regular, “precise” manner. People know this. In light of it all, we obsess over making our lawns indistinguishable from carpets, and no less immaculate.
An affair with order and idealized design permeates our judgment of what is “tasteful” or ambiguously “pretty”. No sin is associated with manipulating our world to practical and aesthetic benefit. The seeming paradox arises when we throw down that little piece of the natural world called grass, and then obsess over it almost daily. Illusions regarding traits of grass are not prevalent; the tendency lawns have to nature go dry, sprout weeds, or otherwise deviate from our idealized perfection is hardly a surprise. Yet we continue. To what effect? Consider the investment in time and money that keeps the lawn nice, neat, and pretty. Same expenditures are spent on other aspects we consider beautiful. Sculptures, two-dimensional art, amusement parks, museums, advertising, airports – whatever perfumes our cities with aesthetic value is given the same attention (proportionally to project scale and cost) as lawns and their flashier cousins, botanical gardens. But then, given the “naturalness” of grass and flowers compared to concrete, parking lots, skyscrapers, and sculptures, it's presumptuous to expect the same conformity to whim from lawns as from other mentioned artifacts. A lawn or garden is basically alive and thus unique among the things we control and configure to our standards of beauty. Would it make the least of sense to allow the natural procession of weeds and somewhat untamed and uneven growth to take place? When absurdity is objected to on grounds of aesthetics, one could retort that changing what is valued for visual appeal is, in the long term, easier than trying to manipulate a growing collection of primitive foliage towards arbitrary notions of order or “perfection”. One comes face-to-face with an aspect of our culture that, in this author's opinion, is nonsensical and logically unjustifiable.
It seems there are two functions realized in the lawn phenomenon. First, to remind us that for all our advancement, for the material benefits, wireless connections, TiVo, space travel, and whatever else serves to inspire... There is an element in the untamed, and of that which does not conform to our notions of design; or perhaps to any notions of design save that of natural harmonies and equilibriums. We have to actively work to keep the lawn in line and unlike pets, it does not submit to commands or promise of rewards. Sorry Pavlov. This element is called flora, and can be absorbed in small manageable doses via a lawn and other landscaping projects that have no real function besides aesthetic appeal. But objects as living plants soon betray their tendency toward reverting to an unbalanced semi-chaos. Weeds grow. Insects and small animals may take up residence. If all that wasn't enough, allergens may seal our irritation with the little piece of nature. It is misbehaving. And one may propose that we don't enjoy rebellion on the part of plants, yet we tolerate it of our own volition. The second function lawns fulfill is a reminder no less relevant than the first – Nature's submission to ingenuity. Images here, and on countless backgrounds, screensavers, websites, and even relatively quaint canvas foundations all contain nature on scales ranging from the subatomic to the galactic. If lawns could reason, it would behoove them to keep a low profile in their slow-motion biological aggression, for we can bend forests and rivers to our whim. What we can capture on film or conceive in art regarding the natural world puts lowly grasses and shrubs into the realm of laughable trivia. Intensities of nature are in perfect submission on digital or conventional media. Mildly irritating in lawn and landscape form, as they nibble on our paychecks in lazy demands for water and trimming.
Realms beyond electronic art and private property hold a different set of cards; the lowly lawn calls upon an unforgiving ally – the natural disaster. Despite our seemingly controlled lives, we are aware of nature's chaos and extremes. Oh, we know of it from our jpegs. Galaxies blaze across display backgrounds. Fractal screen savers mimicking leaf shapes grow indefinitely so that we are aware, if however fleetingly and casually, that there is a mess in the natural order of things that does not lend itself to easy explanation. Wild mountain ranges, rugged steppes, ferocious ocean waves, and of course the freezing confines of the Antarctic continent, where unsettled sub-zero hell reigns supreme and mocks our alleged dominion of the world.
Why do we post these images that cue thoughts of unpredictability, insecurity, and perhaps instability? Why remind ourselves of our limits when we seek to establish omnipotent dominion over our front yards almost daily? Consider our notions of private property, of “development”, and of faith in ourselves and the ability to settle, subdue, and reshape an environment. From within this particular position in the psyche, it appears unsettling and perhaps unpleasant to be reminded of so much that we cannot control and that may easily overpower us. And when it does, life sucks. Recall Hurricane Katrina; never mind the horrors of tsunamis, floods, and earthquakes. Makes one thankful for “just” a brush with poison ivy.
So we arrive at untamed fields and forests in all manners of digital media, while attempting to control several square feet of comparatively docile flora. This disconnect is intriguing – upon mastering the natural world to the extent of digital electronics, bottom-up initiatives and “Nature” screen savers are made to capture images of a world without willful manipulation. Beauty is found in the natural procession of things, frozen with respect to sight with technology that is perhaps the epitome of precision. Such control is attempted in lawn care. Perhaps a more appropriate term would be lawn maintenance, since even people who may care little for lawns are forced to maintain them if one comes with the house. To allow the patch of grass to “regress” into an unordered all-natural mess, without fertilizer or sprinklers usually reflects badly on the owner.
Interestingly enough, the dichotomy of lawns and wilderness screen-shots may not be a function of nature vs. design or order vs. chaos. Ask yourself if you, or anyone you know, have driven to and from the gym so that you could get in some miles on a bike or treadmill. This comical schizophrenia is best captured in the phenomenon of lawn care.