Tuesday, February 2, 2010

individuality, capitalism, + lawn care: upon reading ted steinberg's "american green"

Perfection in lawn care is like a spike through the heart of spontaneity.
(pg. 223)

Everything about Ted Steinberg's measured argument against lawns makes sense: they waste water; their grass, far from being part of native ecology, is just another Scotts/Monsanto cash crop monoculture nourished by lazy government and kept on life support by poisonous chemical sprays; the mowers tending them spell injury + pollution. The lawn, this great green enforcer of social conformity, originated from upper class mimicry. Plus it's just a huge chore.

There are tons of contradictions surrounding the lawn — why do so many get so OCD over something so un-fun? — but for me its biggest paradox is that it has become a government-mandated aesthetic. The government tells people how far to set back their property, how much of their yard must contain grass, when they can water, and so on, and everyone's kinda...okay with it. Normally when the government tries to restrict things like our speech, mobility, or sexuality, we protest with great vigor — but when it comes to our homes, we tacitly agree to what is effectively a municipal dress code. Where are the angry chants against big government? Or are they being drowned out by leafblowers?

To be more specific, I'm utterly baffled by setback requirements. Let's say I work hard for years, save money, and finally buy land of my own. Hallelujah, land at last — no more landlords or HOAs. And yet part of that deal is to say yes, I will make sure my home is at least yay far from the street and will have a front lawn. Yes: I will dedicate this area to a single plant with no functional purpose beyond serving as a magical talisman to appease the capricious spirits of property value. It's a strange, arbitrary sort of sacrifice, reminiscent of the random (but passionate!) credos in the movie Idiocracy. In real life we have a whole population reflexively mowing the lawn with no real memory of why or how they got there in the first place.

Being a space- and utility-conscious narrowphile, I obviously wish people could be freer to do what they wanted with their land. Wanna plant a front-yard tomato garden? It's your land. Wanna build right up to the property front edge? Go ahead — it's your land. As long as you don't threaten the neighborhood kids with (say) overtly phallic topiary, feel free to make the most of your little kingdom of individuality.

Individuality, that most American of traits, is a squirmy, hard-to-define bugger that takes on all sorts of unpredictable shapes + sizes; it's also fundamentally at odds with that another most American of characteristics known as capitalism, which paradoxically relies on identical forms in order to function. From cars, to insurance, to computers, to homes, our economic system relies on standardized attributes as a basis from which to derive value. For how else would you compute the property values of a pink treehouse next to a neon geodesic dome next to a beige ranch house, all on the same street? And how do you categorize Mr. Ngyuen and his ridiculous cactus garden? Comparing apples to apples is much easier when all the apples are roughly the same.

But that makes me dare to wonder: does democracy exist? Does individualism exist? Granted, our notion of individualism is unavoidably defined by the dominant vocabulary, and the dominant vocabulary of lawns + modern homeownership is skewed by laws + marketing favoring big lawn interests — interests that in turn define property value standards. What troubles me is that these standards seem to have little patience for front-yard fun like horseshoe courts or dandelion fields. These standards, I fear, only leave us with a pale illusion of self-determination amid the roar of two-stroke edge trimmers.

Mr. Steinberg has crafted a solid, thought-provoking read. His book's available at Amazon. Go grab a copy.

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About the Photographer

Los Angeles, CA, United States
Writer, designer, and urban planning geek.

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