On grass

Originally published in the Northern Agrarian, July/August 2008.

My back yard has never been in danger of winning any awards from glossy design magazines. Plantain rules a few patches where I let the ducks graze too freely. The old garden bed the dogs use for naps is grown up in weeds that are fascinating in their diversity and virulence but neither productive nor conventionally attractive. And one corner is littered with the detritus of a series of projects and incidents, planned and unplanned, that beset us last year. To wit:

  • The wooden structure that used to shelter our ducks, an open frame of two-by-fours with a roof of plywood and tin. For several years after we moved the ducks to better quarters it stood under our second-story deck and kept bales of straw dry, but when we had the deck rebuilt last summer I took it apart and moved it, figuring I’d reassemble it as soon as the new deck was finished. I didn’t. A tarp keeps the straw dry, and the structure lies in pieces in a shady and unused corner of the yard.
  • Three foot-diameter logs from a tree blown down across the fence; I sawed it up but the logs were too heavy to move any farther.
  • A metal pole that used to hold up one end of a clothesline, still attached to the block of cement that held it in the ground before it was dug up to make room for a new septic tank.
  • A stack of white plastic chairs, beneath which the grass has grown unmowed since early spring. (I don’t remember my excuse for leaving the chairs there.)

All of this would appear to the casual observer to be junk, but it’s hidden from the street by a post-and-rail fence and, at the moment, a half-dozen tomato plants, and the casual observer has no business standing in my back yard for a closer look. I have a vague gnawing Calvinist guilt about it, and one day I’ll clean it all up.

In the meantime, my excuse for leaving the mess is that the dogs love it. They snuffle under the chairs at whatever is hiding in the tall grass. They walk across the tin roof several times a day for no reason I can discern — that corner of the yard is far more easily accessible — except to hear the metallic rattle. They use the logs as balance beams. They seem happier, in short, to have all this mess to explore.

If you go to zoos, of course — modern, progressive zoos with open habitats instead of cages — you’ll see that a lot of energy and expense goes into keeping the animals mentally stimulated. They have flowing water, rocks to climb, multiple perches, ropes to swing from, indestructible balls — whatever will keep them amused. Animals are happiest in varied environments. So, logically enough, are my dogs.

Somehow we rarely think to apply these lessons to ourselves, but something similar seems to be true of humans as well. I’ve noticed that among our neighbors there is an inverse relationship between the amount of perfect grass in their yards and the amount of time they spend actually using it. The manicured lawns sit vacant like princesses while the half-tended, half-wooded lots teem with children and conversations. Not that working in the yard precludes enjoying it; some spend time and money on flowers and shrubs and then sit or walk among them, but the yards where the shrubs are most vigorously pruned and brought to order are sadly silent. The family in the Scott’s commercials — the kids running wide circles on the fairway-clipped grass, the parents cheerfully sipping lemonade in expensive wrought-iron chairs from which they survey their scientifically guaranteed domain — doesn’t exist. At least not around here.

I’ve read a number of articles and books lately about why the traditional big American lawn is bad. It provides no habitat for native insects and wildlife, it requires chemicals and gas-powered equipment for maintenance, it uses too much water. All true, but maybe there’s a psychological reason we should scrap the “perfect” lawn: Perfection is inhuman. It’s something to be worshipped from afar; up close, it’s off-putting and probably boring. The great suburban lawn is your grandmother’s white sofa on which no one was allowed to sit, the cake so beautifully decorated that no one will take the first slice, the leggy blonde no boy dares ask to dance. It’s no wonder we spend all our time inside: If we went out, we might mess up the lawn. And what is there to do on it, anyway?

At the same time all this mess was accumulating in our back yard last fall, on the other side of the yard I had to plant grass. I had never in my life planted grass — I’m happy with weeds and moss if it’s free and low-maintenance — but the installation of a new septic tank reduced a third of the yard to bare clay, and I had no choice. I bought pickup-loads of topsoil, bags of fertilizer, and grass seed; fenced off the new lawn, bedded it down with straw, and waited for spring.

Now it’s a broad, soft, even expanse of lush green in which any self-respecting suburbanite would rejoice. It’s also the least-used part of our entire property. My daughter plays soccer and croquet in the tiny front yard, blows bubbles in a half-cleared bit of woods, or runs down the nature trail building fairy houses from bark and pine cones. My wife and I sit in the clearings or walk the trail. This week we spend the better part of an afternoon in the woods looking for interesting fungi that have emerged in the recent wet spell. (And let me tell you: North Carolina has a lot of fungi.) The dogs get the back yard, and they, as I’ve said, thoroughly lack appreciation for the achievements of modern lawn science. We go out there to play with them, and that’s about all. The lawn looks nice from the new deck, but honestly, I’d rather see the fireflies whose grubs were destroyed when the old wiregrass was dug up. We have a few this year, but not as many as before. They don’t seem to think much of the new lawn, either.