On a corner lot, this yard was filled with dandelions all around. And to compound the issue, two of the next three yards adjacent to this home looked similar.
What does this all mean? Is this a set of households devoted to eco-friendly lawn care? Or, is it a sign that the owners do not care about their property and/or their neighbors?
Remarkably, many of the nearby lots have no dandelions whatsoever. Even as these three lots have helped spread thousands of dandelion seeds, the weed killers used nearby have done their job. The whole neighborhood is not overrun with dandelions. The damage – mostly visual? – is contained to three lots.
At the same time, I could imagine some of the neighbors might not be happy about the situation. The optics of yards given over to dandelions might not play well in a middle-class neighborhood where green manicured lawns are an expectation. What kind of neighbors are these to subject others to this blight? What if someone was trying to sell their home nearby?
Soon enough, the most visible signs of these dandelions will be gone. The seeds will have scattered, contributing to windy days where the air is visibly full of plant matter. Will the neighbors forget the dandelions? Will they be back next year? Is all of this a matter of overwrought suburbanites policing their artificial nature known as a lawn? The grass and the weeds may be more than just that; they are markers of social class and social norms in suburbia.
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…