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Once in a Lifetime: This is Not My Beautiful Lawn

Lawns and the Nitrogen Cycle

The Emerald CityThe Emerald CityThe other week my friend Wil said, “a weed free, well-kept green lawn is a work of art.” I couldn’t help but agree. That kind of lawn, the kind that appears in depictions of paradise and on real golf courses is indeed a work of art, and science. A “perfect” lawn is a truly human artifact, a triumph of elegance and simplicity, using machines, chemicals and Poa pratensis in its making.

Yet the statement troubled me, and keeps troubling me. For one thing, Wil—son of Mennonite farmers, University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener, founder of the children’s vegetable garden at a local park—doesn’t have a lawn. His inner-ring suburban house is flanked in back by a patch of stalwart prairie plants and in front by an edible landscape of seasonal vegetables, mixed, a la the French potager, with herbs and pollinator-attracting flowers, which I had the privilege of helping to lay out. This installation caused a stir in the neighborhood. People driving by occasionally stop their cars to get out and look. If you visit Wil, when you leave, you’re likely to take home lettuce, basil, radishes or chard, or all four, depending on the month.

“You may ask yourself”

For another, “Once in a Lifetime,” that old song by the Talking Heads (covered many times since), lately has kept running through my head. “You may ask yourself, what am I doing here?” its ironic, existential critique of modern life goes, and I’m asking myself yet again, in part because I have just reread the very succinct, very troubling article, “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” published last year by Nature just prior to the Copenhagen debacle. Briefly, the article states that of nine important, interrelated planetary boundaries that safeguard life on earth, the two most egregiously overrun at present are biodiversity (loss) and, together with the phosphorus cycle, the nitrogen cycle, which has been “significantly perturbed…[through] human processes.” This involves removing inert nitrogen gas from the air and reintroducing reactive forms of nitrogen into the environment. The authors name familiar culprits: fertilizer production and use in industrial farming, with subsequent release of nitrous oxide (a significant greenhouse gas) into the air and pollution of waterways.

The Des Plaines RiverThe Des Plaines RiverIt’s easy to blame industrial agriculture for all this, especially in my home state of Illinois. Organic farms are few and far between. Giant transnational agribusinesses like Monsanto, Dow, ADM, and Cargill call the Midwest home. Illinois is practically tops in the U.S. for synthetic fertilizer use on crops. However, that report missed something. When I, a gardener, think about biodiversity loss and the out-of-whack nitrogen cycle, gardens and, especially, lawns immediately come to mind. Besides the disturbing facts of herbicide and pesticide use, these are places where, in pursuit of the beautiful, many people actively discourage biodiversity and promote unnatural growth through the use of synthetic fertilizers. And chemical lawn care’s impact on the nitrogen cycle (and the linked phosphorus cycle) is massive.

“Same as it ever was”

But it was not always so. When the concept that the lawn was essential to residential landscaping first gained traction in the U.S., synthetic fertilizers didn’t exist. Lawns were a mix of various “meadow grasses” and white clover, weeds were ignored or pulled by hand, and lawn mowers were powered by human muscle. In 1844, A. J. Downing, who did as much to popularize the lawn as anyone, recommended that lawns be top-dressed in early spring with compost “of any decayed vegetable or animal matter.” In 1900, such authorities as the Columbus [Ohio] Horticultural Society recommended spring fertilization, saying that the new chemical fertilizers could be used, but that fine ground bone meal and cottonseed meal would work as well at lower cost. That year, total synthetic fertilizer use in the US totaled 2.2 million pounds.

In the familiar hockey stick pattern of other, related, increases such as CO2 parts per million, resource use, and population, total synthetic fertilizer use went up, slowly at first, to about 8.2 million tons in 1940. After World War II, marketing forces that shaped cultural norms combined with the “Green Revolution” to drive sharp increases in the U.S. Recommendations for lawns increased from one to four applications over the growing season. In 1981, when the Talking Heads often performed their song in concert, total synthetic fertilizer use was up to 54 million tons. But lawns rapidly gained market share: According to the EPA  approximately 13.5 million tons of synthetic fertilizer were spread over American farmland in 2005 and 2006, covering about one-eighth of the continental land mass. Yet in 2004, about 70 million tons of fertilizer were used on U.S. lawns. And while agricultural use has declined somewhat, lawn use continues to increase: lawn acreage continues to expand, and there is more input per acre than on agricultural land.

“Watching the days go by”

In northern Illinois, a warm, dry, sunny fall has followed an early spring and record-setting hot, rainy summer. As I write, farmers are nearly done with an abnormally early harvest, and the land will be let rest. Meanwhile, hundreds of mini-tanker trucks have fanned out through urban and suburban neighborhoods to give the still-green lawns their fall “feeding.” All across America, public “green” spaces are getting their share too. Weekends, you see people spreading out the granular stuff, though not so many as in the spring.

That Nature article reverberated for a time and other articles appeared, such as this one at Yale 360.org, and this great series at Grist. To no discernible effect. Large corporations keep making fertilizer and forecast industry growth. All that fertilizer laid on all those fields and lawns keeps releasing nitrous oxide. Not only does nitrous oxide help break down the ozone layer, but as the third most important greenhouse gas, 300 times more potent than CO2, it contributes mightily to global warming. Meanwhile, the approximately 60% of applied nitrogen, in the form of nitrates, that plants don’t use, keeps washing through the soil into local waterways.

“Waters flowing underground, into the blue again”

Here in the Chicago region, nitrates flow into the Des Plaines River, which empties into the Illinois and thence into the Mississippi. According to most sources, the Ojibway name “Mississippi” means “father of waters,” or “great water,” but historian M.J. Morgan says an alternative meaning is “river of waters from all sides.” And it is. The river itself stretches from Minnesota to Louisiana; it drains the vast middle of the North American continent, from the Rockies in the West to the Appalachians in the East.

The Mississippi basin functions like a huge continental funnel, carrying the residue from our beautiful lawns out into the Gulf of Mexico where it creates what the Nature article calls an “anoxic event,” familiarly known as “the dead zone,” one of several around the world. Ours, approximately the size of Massachusetts, or 7,772 square miles, blooms like deadly nightshade each summer along the coast of Louisiana. Some sources say that climate change also contributes to anoxic events, so nitrous oxide gets in the game here, too. Do some research on what happens to ocean species. We’ve shut down the BP gusher. The dead zone keeps growing.

“This is not my beautiful house”

Thus does green, green grass become a moral problem. What was beautiful becomes loathsome and vile. What was harmless becomes deadly. In an oil peaked, climate disrupted, biodiversity impaired world, not only is unnecessary use of synthetic fertilizer for ornamental purposes a waste of precious, non-renewable resources, it is actively dangerous. On a planetary scale, it is reminiscent of the nineteenth century use of arsenic to produce a particularly lurid shade of green, popular for clothing, paints—and wallpaper, notably for bedrooms. Fungi in the wallpaper paste interacted with the arsenic to create an invisible gas that poisoned people, especially children, as they slept.

Quite a few people have noticed this problem. Since the 1970s and ‘80s, pressure against pesticide use has grown, and a sizable body of literature critiquing the lawn has developed. Since the early 1990s, journalists such as Elizabeth Kolbert and Michael Pollen and academics such as Paul Robbins have written articles and books that shine a light on what has been called our lawn obsession. Websites touting organic lawn care abound, and professional associations such as such as the Midwest Ecological Landscaping Association have come together. Individuals such as Wil have taken out their lawns entirely. Many lawns in neighborhoods like mine, one full of artists, writers and musicians, enjoy benign neglect and, accordingly, look and function a bit more as they did in the early twentieth century when the houses were built. These all still represent the minority view.

New lawns continue to be “installed,” even in this recession. The cute little tankers continue to roll through too many neighborhoods, and 40-lb. bags remain piled high in the big box stores. Many organic lawn care proponents remain enthralled by the mono-cultural ideal, promising results that are “just as good” as with chemicals. I think we are beyond obsession, which requires some sort of active mental process. No, we are in the territory of path dependent, conventional “thinking” and “values,” those dead planks in the collective eye that substitute illusion for reality and prohibit any vision or thought about what ought to be completely self-evident. Powerful elements of status seeking, class consciousness and what writer Jeannie Thomas calls “folk customs,” mixed with fear of social sanction, come into play: all extremely resistant to change. And then there are those legally binding homeowners’ association covenants.

The White House Front LawnThe White House Front LawnIt gets worse. I’ve noticed that in my town there are progressive-minded folks, especially in the wealthier areas, who give their children organic produce from Whole Foods, the farmers’ market or a CSA grower. They recycle, often drive Priuses, and talk about climate change and sustainability. Yet those trucks still park in front of those beautiful homes, where the drivers spray and leave the familiar stay-off-the-grass signs. Later the yard service comes by, often staffed by illegal immigrants, who use gas guzzling leaf blowers and lawn mowers powered in my town by gas from the tar sands, courtesy BP’s refinery in Whiting, Indiana. I’ve seen houses with organic vegetable gardens out back and chemical lawns in front (including the White House).

“You may ask yourself, am I right...am I wrong?”

I thought this was just an impression, a local observation—but according to Paul Robbins and Julie Sharp, studies have shown that it is indeed the people most aware of the effects of chemical lawn inputs who are most likely to use a chemical lawn care service. Meanwhile other folks get those bags of synthetic fertilizer, or some fertilizer/herbicide/pesticide combination, to put down. Some, while ceasing pesticide application, continue to fertilize. People, educated, affluent, know exactly what they’re doing, and succumb to conventional “thought” and “values.” People teaching their children that we should save the rainforests or the polar bears ignore the contribution their own immaculately manicured subdivisions make to the global predicament.

And it’s not just at home. Committed environmentalists sometimes work in buildings surrounded by artificially maintained lawns. University professors who write widely read articles and books on biodiversity loss or climate change might ignore the landscaping practices on their own campuses. CEOs show off their sharply groomed corporate campuses. Medical staff and patients walk into hospitals surrounded by chemically enhanced landscaping. Many folks get out in nature by playing golf.

When I talk to people about lawn care, responses vary. Sometimes they’ll say, smiling, “oh, I canceled the lawn service a while ago,” or “we’ve gone organic.” Most often I get blank looks: people wonder why I would mention it, when there are so many big, important environmental issues to think about. At a conference devoted to “green” university campuses, a director of facilities, rightfully proud of his LEED-certified buildings, said they “hadn’t solved that problem,” and things had to “look nice” to satisfy entities such as donors and the board of trustees. Other responses have been along the lines of “but we need to be able to sell the house;” that organic lawn care is too “expensive” or “too much effort;” or “facilities and maintenance takes care of that;” and “this is a public institution and must look the part.”

The latter are all conventional-thinking responses. In the U.S., conventional thinking and values tend to be those of Wendell Berry’s “boomers,” who set up shop to suit themselves, use up a territory and move on when they wreck things, who put the culture’s entrenched, superficial values ahead of the deeper requirements of time and land. What we need is more post conventional thought and values, closer to those of Berry’s “stickers,” who settle in, stay around, build community and nurture the land because they have a sense for the necessity and value the continuity of living in one place through the generations.

“You may say to yourself, my god what have I done?”

Environmentalism has been disparaged as a kind of religion, in part because of its expansion of ethics to include the natural world. Yet adherence to the ideal of the chemical lawn shows magical thinking and totemism not unlike that of the Easter Islanders. This ideal puts landscaping in the wrong category, as a manifestation of invisible, cult-like ideology rather than of cultivating the beauty in living systems. There is something platonic in its insistence that the artificially maintained lawn can exist somehow separate from nature, like one of Plato’s Forms. Alternatively, maintaining a sharply delineated, level, bright green, weed free lawn can be considered a purity-cult practice that draws clear boundaries to keep the impure—nature—out, literally beyond the pale. And then there is the magical thinking involved in the unspoken cultural belief that a perfect lawn will somehow protect against the poverty, decay, change and disorder that would surely enter with the weeds. Idolatry, for sure.

Post conventional thinking and values don’t get rid of the lawn entirely, just the inappropriate lawn. A greensward, as H.C. Flores asserts in Food Not Lawns, is pleasant and necessary—in its proper place. Where else would we play games, have picnics and sit during outdoor performances? Where else would children run about and what else serves so admirably as the sunlit center of a garden full of native flowers, shrubs and trees? But a lawn should also help strengthen the biotic community, not function as its own little dead zone in front of the house. My small lawn gets its top-dressing of homemade compost each year, native violets bloom in spring, bees visit the white clover, northern flickers probe for ants, and bunnies nibble on some of the tastier weeds. My husband mows according to growth rate, not the calendar.

We may ask, like the ancient Athenians, what is “the beautiful?” We may ask, shouldn’t our definition of art include nurturing life rather than dealing death? We must ask, how can humans live on the land without wrecking it? Organic food won’t save our children if we persist in valuing false beauty over planetary health. We need post conventional, non-magical thought that will give rise to different aesthetics, to different beliefs and ways of being in the world. We need an aesthetic sense that an ornamental landscape's beauty isn’t only about visual effect, but about holistic function—about how the landscape contributes to the biotic community, to the ecosystem’s health. As winter settles in, fertilizer-induced, reactive nitrogen flows into the air and through the land and waters of the U.S. will decrease. The dead zone will shrink. What happens next spring is up to us all. What are we doing here?

Note: Readers can watch the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” on YouTube. The original MTV music video is here, and a live performance is here. I suspect they were completely aware of the irony involved in using resource-intensive modern technology to critique resource-intensive modern life.

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