Reading from The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession. Victoria Scott Jenkins, 1994.
Ch. 6: “The War Between Man and Nature”
Here, Jenkins dives into the ways that 20th-century Americans turned a constructed preference for a certain type of monocultural lawn into a relationship of aggression and destruction. She points out a cultural precedent for this: since the early days of our national consciousness, men have “expressed themselves as sexual aggressors in a feminine landscape” (134) and continues that,
“Wilderness has also appeared as the villain, with the pioneer as hero relishing its destruction. The image of man and wilderness locked in mortal combat has been extremely powerful in our culture, and the conquest of the wilderness has bolstered our national ego.”(Jenkins 134)
Jenkins sees this dynamic playing out on an individual scale on the suburban lawn, especially as homeowners struggled to maintain an unrealistic standard for the turf monocultures susceptible to disease and largely unsuited to the North American climates. One mid-century writer claiming that homeowners resented “Mother Nature” to the point that “revenge is worth almost any price as long as it comes in the form of a real good, drought-tolerant, weed-resistant lawn” (135). In answer, Jenkins points out that “People have built communities on geological faults, in flood plains, and on fragile beaches and expect to be protected from the effects of earthquakes, floods, and storms” (135). Cold War politics were reflected sometimes in the framing of crabgrass as a vicious invading enemy, in spite of the fact that the turf lawns were not indigenous to the continent.
Even after Rachel Carson’s 1962 Silent Spring, which detailed the dangers of an American landscape saturated with pesticides, people held a cognitive dissonance that allowed them to prioritize using these chemicals, sometimes giddily, as a powerful weapon in achieving the desirable ideal lawn (156).
“Gardens Are Us, We Are Nature: Transcending Antiquity and Modernity” by William E. Doolittle, 2005.
In this article, Doolittle focuses on organic relationships between people and their outdoor spaces. Rather than the meticulously appointed and managed turf lawns of the American suburbs, Doolittle takes a broad view and explores the ways that different human groups over time have understood and made use of their constructed environments and the spaces outside them. He posits that gardens, and agriculture more generally, may have started when ancient people realized that plants were growing in the “middens,” the heaps near their living areas where they dumped their trash. According to this theory, discarded seeds may have thrived in the accidental compost of the trash middens, leading humans to experiment with more intentional plant manipulation near their home bases.
Fast forward to modern times, and Doolittle points to case studies from the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s to show that in some warm places, like Guatemala, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic, the home is not cleanly divided into the concentric realms of an indoor living space, an outdoor recreational yard, and the surrounding natural environment. In fact, daily tasks, cooking, visiting with friends, and sleeping are often performed outside, while the building serves as storage and emergency shelter. Likewise, rather than being isolated to discrete fields, domestic agricultural tasks are often intermingled within both the domestic space and the natural environment.
Doolittle suggests that in heavily industrialized societies, the spaces for living and gardening became more separate from the natural world over time, a process which may have introduced the nature/culture dichotomy: “It may well be that the trend toward city life gave rise to the Western and modern notion of nature as being something different and distinct from humans” (398). He goes on to claim that most people are nonetheless wired to maintain relationships with plants, creating mock “natural” settings in expensive areas of major cities and even bringing plants indoors.
I’ve never thought of keeping houseplants as a way for people to reconnect with the plants that they feel are supposed to be around them. Maybe keeping houseplants is not just a hobby or an aesthetic preference, but a way to fill a psychosocial need left over from our less urbanized lifestyles.
It’s fascinating to see the relationships that people have with their “yards” outside the context of the heavily marketed American lawn model. I wonder what American lawns in suburban environments would look like today without that marketing and the concerted effort to organize the outdoor aesthetic. Is it inevitable that some sort of aesthetic consensus must be reached? Or could Americans be open to a certain heterogeneity of form?
Likewise, turf companies claim they are trying to develop lawn variations that are easier to care for, which in theory would give more lawn maintenance time and money back to homeowners. But if the exclusivity of the perfect lawn is what initially attracted Americans to the aesthetic, would an easy-care turf lawn still hold its value? For my project, it’s worth thinking about how people might find value in their lawn in multiple ways. Does higher time and money investment lead to higher satisfaction, or do people place more value on a low-maintenance lawn that allows them to spend their time and money on other things?