Thursday, January 8, 2009

Subversive Elements

Mowing the lawn is an inescapable part of the American dream, right? We thought so when we diligently cut our half-acre of grass every other week at our first house in Maryland. But Michael Pollan, one of our favorite garden and food writers, takes a different tack. In his book Second Nature, he talks about carrying on his father’s legacy of refusing to care for the lawn in the traditional way.

Pollan posits the lawn as part of the social contract. Pollan is a guy who was nominated only half in jest to be the next Secretary of Agriculture by his peers, so he knows something about something. Every god-fearing, red-blooded American McMansioneer strives endlessly to attain that elusive, glittering grail: the perfect manicured lawn. Or as Pollan puts it, “The front lawn symbolizes the collective face of suburbia.” We strove to participate and failed miserably.

We never felt the need to battle it out with the dandelions and wildflowers, or as Mark puts it, to eradicate all invasive plant species from our property in favor of a single nitrogen-hoarding alien monoculture. We’ll get to that mouthful of 25-cent words another time, but we also started realizing that lawns aren’t very good for the environment, not least because people devote so much water and so many toxic chemicals, as well as the gasoline and exhaust from the lawnmower, to maintain the traditional, neon-green buzzcut.

People who don’t mow their lawns—or heaven forbid, replace them with something else—are breaking the contract. Some people realize this and use it to their advantage; hence the trend of guerrilla gardening. Others try to turn their front yards into gardens and are stymied by local laws that actually mandate a lawn or harassed by horrified neighbors who want everyone to mow in lockstep.

If you learned anything from being forced to read Jack London’s agonizing story “To Build a Fire” in junior high, it’s that humans are ultimately on the losing side when we attempt to enslave nature. A war against unwanted plant intruders is a lot like a certain War on Terror we’ve been hearing a lot about lately. Nature has time on her side, not to mention limitless resources. I dare you to lay down the Roundup and mothball your John Deere tractor for a year, and then see if you can even recognize your own property.

In a sense, we came around to permaculture when we started thinking, If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. We’re not revolutionaries by any stretch, but every year we turn a little more grass into usable garden space, which gives us more veggies, fruits, herbs, and pretty flowers, and every year we get a little more of our food locally and organically. This year the big change was Genesis Farm, which now provides most of our vegetables, eggs, milk, and a wealth of knowledge.

We’re still novices, but with the enthusiasm of new converts, we think we can actually produce some vegetables by recruiting nature as an ally instead of trying to tame it. (Get it? PRODUCE!)


edsh said...

To Build a Fire is canon and Jack London is an American Genius. To read the word "agonizing" in any context relating to the man, other than "I am agonizing over which Jack London story to read next," is troubling and the mark of a subversive element.

On topic and unitalic, I want to add another reason to kill your lawn: phosphorus. Perfect green lawns require fertilizer, much of which contains phosphorus.

Phosphorus makes its way into tributaries and streams, creating bad blue-green algae. The blue-green algae coats the top of the river, killing the plants that root in the riverbed. This removes a habitat for the bugs that fish feed on. Starves fish.

When the riverbed plants die, along with the blue-green algae that eventually sinks to the bottom of the river, silt begins to build up (additionally, oxygen begins to deplete, also bad for fish). Silt clogs the rocky bottoms of streams where bugs live. Bugs can't survive, and again the trout have nothing to eat. Then they die. Which makes fishing less fun, among other things.

It's not just rivers that are affected, either. Ponds and lakes, too. If you see blue-green algae mucking up a pond or lake, you can thank the neighbors with the perfect green lawns. Them and all the Canadian Geese.

Kate said...

I heartily agree with you about the phosphorus. About Jack London, however, you're lucky I don't go back and edit the caps off that "American Genius" business in your comment.

Michaela said...

You should see our front lawn. And our backyard.

Viva la revolucion!

(Now tell our landlord this ... )

Kate said...

Michaela, I am currently working on a stimulating PowerPoint presentation for your landlord.