“The midnight streetlight illuminating
the white of clover assures me
I am right not to manicure
my patch of grass into a dull
carpet of uniform green, but
to allow whatever will to take over.”
“Against Lawn” by Grace Bauer
In mid-April, the distant ritual buzz of lawn mowers droning in the early evening has begun. The other day, right on cue, a lawn service provider knocked on my door to point out the many problems with my hilly lawn. The mowed weeds, the tufts of mismatched, drought-resistant grasses, and the horror of yellow patches of grass not yet sprouted green for the spring. Was I not concerned about the state of my lawn, he asked?
He thought he would find a willing participant in his lawn-shaming sales pitch since my patch of grass is not a lush and verdant oasis chemically managed into a color and state that is not found in nature. Instead of lawn perfection, my little parcel offers up patches of clover, wild violets, and some dandelions, all flora considered ‘weeds,’ yet the wild violets feed butterflies and the dandelions aerate the soil and prevent erosion.
“No, thank you,” I said politely, before closing the door. “I’m happy with my lawn the way it is.”
The thing is, I don’t see why more environmentally conscious people don’t just let their lawns go. We use seven billion gallons of water for landscaping a day, according to the EPA’s WaterSense program. When I lived in Tucson, Arizona for a couple of years, it was initially foreign witnessing lawns made up of prickly pear and saguaro cacti, the magenta flames of bougainvillea, rocks, and manicured sand. Eventually, I found it odd as I biked through the wealthier neighborhoods closer to the University of Arizona campus which had highly tended lawns. Why? Why have a lawn in the Sonoran Desert? Why have a lawn anywhere, really?
Why we insist on imitating the predecessors of the first lawns, whereby only the wealthy could maintain their large swathes of land by scythe, is a bit of an anomaly. Sure, human beings benefit from green space, both mentally and physically, but green space still happens if it is not manicured and controlled by humanity. Native plants and animals benefit from letting our lawns just exist, without cosmetic tinkering.
And when I write the phrase “let your lawns go,” I don’t mean you have to lose pride in your little (or big) plot of land or never mow it or tend it or think about its composition, but rather why not plant native species of grasses, plants, and flowers that require less water, no pesticides or chemical augmentation, and promote biodiversity, especially for pollinators such as bees, birds, and butterflies?
Each spring, I routinely plant milkweed for the monarchs, nurture the perrenial purple coneflowers and salvia for the bees, and cultivate fist-sized dahlias in pink and orange for myself. My imperfect lawn becomes a backdrop to a riot of flowers from June through October, and, as a result, there is never a shortage of butterflies, hummingbirds, bees, and rabbits.
But here is the funny thing about my stereotypically ‘ugly’ lawn: Last summer a little girl, maybe seven or eight years old, walked by our house with her mother. The girl remarked, loud enough to be heard through the open window, “I wish our lawn had purple flowers. Their lawn is so pretty.”
Anyone who was older than the girl would likely think otherwise about wild violets, a common weed. She, however, saw beauty in letting go, in not caring about tending a patch of grass with more money, water, time, and chemicals that ultimately do very little to support human or animal life.
What the girl saw instead was a lawn full of color, not of weeds or a refusal to tow the subdivision line. Somewhere, though, many of us fall in line and forget the unforced, uncomplicated existence of natural beauty.
*Title of the piece after A.E. Housman’s poem