Historical Achievements and Contemporary Failures: The American Lawn

by Diana Balmori

51OePl1in0L__SL500_AA300_ As a first example of this redesigning based on a new interpretation of nature and history, and on seeking a better model of the coexistence of humans with nature, let us take the American Lawn.

Your backyard, that third of an acre where you’ve lounged, played Frisbee, and let your small children crawl, is your private property and nobody else’s business. The American Lawn, all thirty-one million acres of it, is the nation’s largest single crop, sixty percent of it made up of home lawns like yours, the rest in public landscapes. Between your lawn and those thirty-one million acres lies the new story.

The American Lawn has a notable trait that makes it the perfect landscape to examine. It tells a tale at the very small front-yard-of-your-house scale. And it also tells a tale at the million-acre scale. What emerges from the examination of the relation of each of these scales is that scale itself is what prompts the need for a transformation of the lawn.

The lawn’s rise to preeminence as the American landscape first brings us back to the Picturesque and then to the history of its entry into North America.

Though the French had also used lawn (the “flowery Meade” of tapestry)—in walled medieval gardens as a place for music and pleasure, the American Lawn is a direct descendant of the eighteenth-century English lawn. More than anyone else, the landscape artist Capability Brown was its creator; in the words of the contemporary landscape artist Ian Hamilton Finlay: “Brown made water appear as Water, and lawn as Lawn.” The great inventions that made it Lawn were its scale, sweeping over topography and uniting distant landscapes with its blanket of green, and the contemporary invention of the ha-ha (a dry ditch with a raised retaining wall used to conceal the boundaries of a landscape), which hid hedges or property fences from view and kept vistas open. Thomas Jefferson’s notation on visiting one of these English eighteenth-century estates summed it up: “the lawn about thirty acres.”

Brown razed villages, gardens, and allées to create, as one continuous space, a countryside without views of anything made by human industry. His work places us in the presence of the eighteenth-century shift in the meaning of nature; humanity is excluded from it, and the ideal landscape is one which contains only the non-human, “natural” elements of plants, trees, mountains, rivers.

The change in scale of this new use of grass in England did not require any feat of engineering. It was an easily created extension of grasses already present there, aided by a mild climate with moisture well distributed throughout the year.

The Lawn Comes to North America

When the British colonized the New World, they brought with them their ideas about nature. Cultivated, grazed, and developed over many centuries, the island of Great Britain had no unaltered landscapes left. British landscape design that “improved” a natural landscape in reality only added new artificial dimensions to an existing landscape already highly modified by humans.

Grass played a central role in English agriculture because it sustained sheep and cattle. William Wood, an English traveler, warned settlers coming to New England in the 1630s to seek places where there would be enough grass to feed cattle. In general, grazing land was scarce; domesticated animals quickly ran out of grass, and forestland then had to be cleared to create new pastures. Seed brought from Europe was used, and soon such European plants as bluegrass and white clover, which were adapted to the harsh requirements of pastoralism, began to take over wherever cattle grazed. By 1640, a regular market in European seed existed in Rhode Island, and within one or two generations these plants had become so common that settlers regarded them as native. During the eighteenth century, European pasture plants, including timothy and fowl-meadow grass and legumes such as red clover and alfalfa, were common on pastures throughout the colonies. Thus the pasture, a mixture of grasses, legumes, and other plants, became a common landscape feature in much of colonial America. Pasture was not only a rural feature but also part of many villages and towns, where it covered the central common.

The lawn, carrying the English connotation of natural landscape with it, became a symbol of prestige in nineteenth-century suburbs. Similarly, New England town centers, the old commons which in the eighteenth century had been the setting for such useful activities as rope making, hay growing, military drills, and town fairs, were transformed in the nineteenth century from bare stamped earth, cultivated fields, or cemetery grounds into lawned and treed parks, now called greens. With this grassy transformation, most of the economic functions of the commons were shifted to other places. At least one American writer, J. B. Jackson, has condemned this transformation of true commons into greens.

In 1830, the Englishman Edwin Budding invented the lawn mower. As these machines became available over the following decades, modest householders could keep their lawns tidily cut without the help of gardeners or flocks of sheep. The well-manicured lawn was now within reach of average citizens. Whether they had an acre or just a tiny patch of land, they could tend it themselves and create whatever image they chose for their surroundings.

The lawn became the symbol of suburbia. It was championed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the famous designer of New York City’s Central Park and many suburbs, who viewed the lawn as a sort of community parkland. For Olmsted, the front lawn of a house in a suburb unified the residential composition as one neighborhood, giving a sense of ampleness, greenness, and community.

The curvilinear layout of American residential streets, with houses set well back from the road behind front lawns with informal plantings of trees and shrubs, is a uniquely American residential form, and was first proposed by and built for an industrialist by New York Architect Alexander Jackson Davis (1803-1892) in his suburb Llewellyn Park, New Jersey, twelve miles west of Manhattan. Andrew Jackson Downing, Olmsted, and others popularized this layout. The plan that Olmsted and his partner, Calvert Vaux, created for Riverside near Chicago has become an archetype of this American suburb.

The lawn, since its invasion of the eastern seaboard, nearly three centuries ago, has spread to every corner of North America. But the lawn arose in the mild, moist climate of England, while North America is a continent with many harsh climates and an enormous diversity in vegetation and soils, from the extreme winter cold of the northern United States to the hot and drought-prone summers of the South.

Through its success the lawn was commercialized, and through entrepreneurialism it was able to overcome naturally occurring environmental barriers. Not only because it was possible, but also because it was preferred and liked by a mass audience conditioned by a long cultural history, the lawn became the landscape of choice from Kennebunkport, Maine to Los Angeles, California.

Through this commercialization and geographical extension we see many basic changes. The beautiful greensward developed to high art by Capability Brown was kept mowed by sheep or deer. A variety of species of grass and of other plants such as clover grew in it. The nineteenth century brought the lawn mower, the twentieth century the electric lawn mower. In conjunction with these changes herbicides were applied to kill all but the two or three species of grass that were allowed to grow in lawns, and nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers were applied to keep lawns at a peak of greenness. In other words, from the 1850s to the 1950s, as the lawn became an industry, it was transformed and became the Industrial Lawn.

Transforming the American Lawn

We need to find new, environmentally sounder and healthier ways of designing our lawns. The new lawn—which in our American Lawn book we called the Freedom Lawn—is meant to meet the small-scale aesthetic, environmental, and economic needs of individual homeowners. We need to move away from the use of fossil fuels, reduce the use of chemicals and irrigation water, and increase the biological diversity of our lawns. These changes all represent our increasing understanding of the connection between the small scale and the large. In other words, the lawn needs to be redesigned.

There are two aspects to this redesign. One consists of the concrete changes necessary to obtain desired results in moving from the small to the large scale (that is, significantly reducing or abandoning the use of fossil fuels, chemicals, and water, and increasing biological diversity). The other is the aesthetic, which necessarily will be modified by the new regime. The new aesthetic will not “result” from the application of those changes. It will be the product of the transforming hand of a landscape artist, much as Capability Brown took the existing grasses of England and made lawn out of them.

Specific ways of affecting the problems inherent in the Industrial Lawn may vary, but they all follow the general outline given above. If we take the example of adding a non-grass species such as clover to the lawn, for example, we can achieve two of these goals (reducing the use of chemicals and increasing the biodiversity of the lawn). Clover, which was historically an integral part of lawns, unfortunately has been all but eliminated from modern lawns. Nodules on clover roots contain Rhizobium bacteria, which are able to “fix” nitrogen from the air spaces in the soil and convert it into a form that can be used by the clover. When parts of the clover die off, this nitrogen, the most important ingredient in the majority of artificial-lawn fertilizers, is added back to the soil, where it can be used by both grass and clover plants. Adding clover to your lawn thus modestly increases biodiversity and also dramatically reduces the need for chemical fertilizers.

Many people have already moved away from the idea of the “perfect lawn.” They plan their mowing to retain patches of naturally seeded wildflowers; they plant ground-cover plants instead of grass; they may replace lawns altogether, with fruit and vegetable gardens. Such actions reveal a new understanding of our relationship to nature, gradually affecting our lawns and gardens.

Landscape forms encapsulate unseen assumptions. The case of the lawn serves as an example. Originally a varied planting of grasses and clover, it was kept short by sheep and deer, which in turn were kept at arm’s length from a residence by means of the ha-ha. The eighteenth-century lawn was used to unify large extensions of land, even extending it to the surrounding landscape. The twentieth-century lawn (cultivated from desertic southern California to frozen Minnesota) contains in its smooth velvety greenness just two or three species of grass, managed by gas-powered machines and the application of nitrogen, phosphorus, and great quantities of water. The Industrial Lawn is in fact an industry, an economically successful industry. It was standard in the 1960s to blame corporations for industrial excesses and for fostering consumerism. In the case of the Industrial Lawn, one would rail against the giants of the lawn industry. But we have become more sophisticated in our understanding of these forces. Industries which promote and support sustainability (even if their interests are purely economic) can be financially successful. We have also come to understand that certain attitudes are anti-nature; consumerism is one of them. Thus many of our own activities, as well as the actions of corporations, can be seen as anti-nature. Viewing consumerism as anti-nature puts landscape on the frontlines of the battle with large economic forces which it now has the strength to engage. The blue planet, that early picture taken by the astronauts from outer space, so beautiful and so finite, has become a mythical landscape. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth has made the public aware of this finiteness and vulnerability, and has revived memories of a sacred Mother Nature. But we should tread carefully in drawing parallels that reinstate past views. Whatever values we attach to this new nature, it is not the sacred nature of our past, since sacrality itself has been transformed and needs to be reinterpreted in modern terms.

Our new concept of nature has transformed the way we look at the lawn, jumping from our front yard to the air, water, and soil around it on a much larger scale, the scale of a city. Freedom Lawns, though ecological, will not be natural landscapes. They will be carefully crafted artifacts that will be natural in the way they work, and will express this in the new forms they take. History and Nature have made their presence known in the American Lawn. The shift from Industrial Lawn to Freedom Lawn represents a shift in paradigm, and it does affect the lawn as admired aesthetic object. Beauty is not free of ethics. We can hardly admire the Industrial Lawn when we are poisoned by it.

This is an excerpt from A Landscape Manifesto by Diana Balmori (Yale Press).

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