Week 6: Seeing Space

Readings from Self, Interaction, and Natural Environment : Refocusing Our Eyesight. Andrew J. Weigert, 1997.

Excerpt from Ch 2: “A Comparative Historical Glance at Encultured Environments”

I chose this excerpt for its concise contrast between two dominant modes of how humans have understood the natural environment, informed by historian Max Oelschlaeger (50) and environmentalist Lester Milbrath (52).

Ancient / PaleolithicModern / Capitalistic
– saw nature, including animals, plants, and the land, as sacred
– saw nature as alive and feminine
– understood nature as their home
– sees nature as something to be dominated and used
– conceives of growth and profit as main goals with infinite potential
– arguments over ownership of land and resources are decided by a complex competitive social system

What’s so thought-provoking about these two lists is that they don’t directly oppose each other. Rather, the modern capitalist perspective opposes the paleolithic view of nature as sacred, and the view that nature is only a resource allows the other paleolithic understandings to be dismissed altogether.

Ch 5: “Lawns of Weeds: The American Lawn as Status Struggling With Life”

A lawn mower approaches dandelions and clover in a turf lawn. Photo courtesy of UKLawnCare.net.

Later, Weigert uses Mary Douglas’ idea of purity and danger to understand the lawn as a territory of artificial moral dichotomies. To the monoculture turf lawn enthusiast, the desirable and undesirable qualities are unambiguous:

qualities of a virtuous, respectable lawn

  • grass cropped short
  • uniformly dark green
  • homogenous composition
  • introduced grasses

qualities of a neglected lawn

  • grass longer than a few inches
  • patchy, or any color besides dark green
  • heterogenous mix of plants
  • native plants and grasses

The perfect monoculture lawn becomes a moral object because it signals care and neighborliness, as other studies have suggested. However, there’s also an undeniable element of prestige; the features in the “good lawn” column are expensive to achieve and maintain. These features signal the prestige of having free time and money to pour into the trivial and eternally consumptive project of the vanity lawn (121).

In spite of the ubiquity of these dichotomies, Weigert points out that “a weed is not a real physical thing. It is a plant wrapped in socially constructed meanings” (120). Just as Douglas claims that dirt is just “matter out of place,” Weigert claims that a weed is just a plant out of place. No one gets upset at a dandelion growing in a forest clearing.

Takeaways

Weigert points out that the lawncare industry and its related socioeconomic institutions “[do] the lawnscape ‘thinking’ for us” (127). This made me think: who do we want making decisions about our relationship with our outdoor environments? Should we trust the chemical companies, lawn care businesses, and homeowners associations to make the healthiest decisions for our finances, our spirits, and our planet? I think most Americans would say we have the right to question the ideals and motives of these and other underexamined institutions. I’ll make sure to highlight this point in my project.

Closing Thoughts

Industrial lawns are seen as a tacit symbol of status and a way to prove you’re a good neighbor. At least, that’s the message that homeowners and other lawn managers intend to send. But is that really what their actions are saying? What actual effects do industrial lawn practices cause?

  • Contributing to the breakdown of the life webs that human lives depend on (killing bees, pollinators, birds)
  • Contaminating water with runoff from pesticides and fertilizers
  • Contributing to climate change with maintenance tools that spew CO2 into the air at shockingly high rates
  • Reinforcing a narrow view of what neighborliness looks like, forcing others to fit into a conceptual box
  • Creating home and neighborhood environments defined by a build-up of toxins

All of these negative effects are achieved at a high cost of time and money to homeowners. This is what qualifies a turf lawn as conspicuous consumption. Weigert wonders if we could reframe the turf lawn in light of its negative effects. Instead of praising the lawn as a symbol of pride, maybe we could recognize the industrial lawn as the health risk it is.