As I listened to Neil Diboll give the keynote presentation “The American Garden – A Life or Death Situation” for my Wild Ones chapter’s 22nd annual Toward Harmony with Nature Conference, I recalled the article I had read by Elizabeth Kolbert entitled “Turf War.” Many of the sentiments she wrote about a decade ago are still true today and in some ways worse.
So today, I thought I’d recycle my article from July 29, 2016 Turf War by Elizabeth Kolbert:
I first read Elizabeth’s article in 2008. It’s long, but worthwhile. It appeared then in “The Critics” section on “Books” in The New Yorker. Elizabeth Kolbert starts her article on “Turf War” with “Americans can’t live without their lawns – but how long can they live with them?
She goes on to reference Andrew Jackson Downing who in 1841 published the first landscape/ gardening book A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, Adapted to North America which printed 8 editions in 16 printings. In his treatise Downing used good design sense, but failed when he suggesting importing shrubbery of “the finest foreign sorts.” Further he felt that any “perfect” garden included an expanse of “grass mown into a softness like velvet.” This new epoch in social history led to our turf lawns becoming the massive part of suburban landscape that it is.
She writes about the history of lawns as nurtured by British aristocrats and then delves into Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Lorrie Otto‘s crusade to restore her front lawn to prairie (which ultimately led to the formation of Wild Ones). “Between them, Carson and Otto introduced all the main anti-lawn arguments: toxicity, habitat destruction, resourced depletion, enforced conformity. She quoted Lorrie as saying lawns were “really evil.”
As Kolbert winds through the history of the natural landscaping (or no-lawn) movement, she brings up the work of many crusaders, but concludes that Americans’ devotion to turf “doesn’t prove that we care as much as that we are careless.” Don’t hesitate and longer; read “Turf War” now.
“Lawns in the U.S. cover an area roughly the size of New York State; each year, forty billion dollars is spent on their upkeep.”
Neil’s “no holds barred” presentation will be available on Wisconsin Public Television’s University Place later this year. I’ll let you know when.