A review of a new book about weeds mentions the work of a geographer who calls lawn-happy Americans “turfgrass subjects”:
Mabey shows how attitudes to “weeds” reveals so much about human society, most notably perhaps in the nightmare of the American lawn – a toxic monocultural sward, saturated with chemical weedkiller and fertilser (more used per acre than on any crop) that occupies from 50,000 square miles (about the size of Iowa) and on which more than $30billion a year is spent. Mabey explains the origins of suburbia with Frederick Law Olmsted, a landscape architect established one of the first planned communities in 1868, laying out rules saying that each house had to be set 30 feet back from the road, and any exterior divisions were banned. Mabey notes: “The sociologist Paul Robbins has coined a term for the suburban victims of the combined pressures of national tradition, neighbourly prissiness, commercial gardening pressures, and the insistent identity, the integrity, of the lawn itself. He calls them ‘Turfgrass Subjects’.” Mabey notes how this is taken to extremes in Houston, Texas, where by-laws make any weeds “illegal”, defined as “‘any uncultivated vegetable growth taller than nine inches’ – which makes about two-thirds of the entire United States’ indigenous flora illegal in a Houston yard”.
We subject ourselves to tending our lawns, through thick and thin. Is it all really about feeling like we have some mastery over (a very very small piece) of nature?
It would be interesting to consider further the war metaphor that is used regarding weeds: we wage war on weeds in order to emerge victorious. In the long run, can we win the war on weeds? This may not really matter for our lawns but it could have a huge effect on agriculture…
Robbins has a full book about the lawn: Lawn People: How Grasses, Weeds, and Chemicals Make Us Who We Are.
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