When the sun comes out in Beaverdale a cacophony of mechanical low frequency humming wafts through the neighborhood. First from the north, then from the east, then south, then west. All around, the symphony of yard work has begun.
It is the sound of lawn mowers. It is the sound of America.
Our 2006 move to Iowa came with many surprises. We bought our first house, also with a few surprises of its own, and, because we now had a yard to keep up, we went to Sears and bought a lawn mower. My husband argued for the old-fashioned, manual push mower. But I remembered a childhood filled with the pain and agony of push mowers. I also remembered that he was starting medical school and hated yard work and that mowing the lawn would ultimately fall onto my list of duties.
Being environmentally sensitive people, however, we were clued in to the rampant pollution conventional mowers exude. So, we opted for an electric mower. And while the majority of Iowa’s electricity comes from coal-fired plants (an environmental nightmare all its own), we figured we were making the best decision for the planet, our neighborhood and ourselves. It was such a big decision, in fact—the act of buying a lawn mower said so much about who we were becoming—I announced the purchase to all of our friends and family in an email dispatch. The purchase signified our arrival in suburban America. It may have even clinched our share of the American Dream. Who doesn’t want their own patch of turf to greenify their lives?
Soon after we moved in I noticed a chorus of mowers begin each time the sun shone on a weekend. Saturday afternoons, sometime around noon, the neighbors would rev up their engines and get to work “cutting the grass.” Everyone seemed to have the same sort of mower—gas fueled with a canvas bag to catch the clippings. They would carve out neat little stripes on their lawns, and all of a sudden their front yards would look like it could be on the cover of Better Home & Gardens (which incidentally is published in Des Moines). It seemed quite a social experiment at the time…how much time does one household spend a week tending to their lawns?
Plenty. Two neighbors, in particular, probably spent half of their waking hours re-seeding, fertilizing, de-weeding, mowing, edging and aerating. In a place where a green lawn grows with nearly no maintenance (like mine) because of ample rainfall, it seemed a bit insane to dedicate so much time to lawn perfection. Other places, such as Tucson or Phoenix, where there is no rainfall and the native species include succulents and cacti, it seems plain stupid and arrogant to have a lawn.
Soon, though, I was enlightened by a book review in the New Yorker explaining Americans’ obsession with their lawns. In short, it was all about status and leisure. According to the article, lawn maintenance and landscaping were reactions to the “slovenliness of Rural America.” A velvety lawn was an essential element in a perfect garden. And now, this mainstay of suburban life is part of a billion-dollar industry, and is not so much a leisure activity as a weekend ritual, and even a chore for which we hire gardeners or neighborhood boys to do for us.
Except for my neighbor across the street and another one three houses down. Both are single men. One in his thirties, another in his forties or fifties. Both are obsessed. They groom their lawns as a monkey would groom its kin. It’s a fascinating observation to see these two men—both living alone on a quiet tree-lined street in the middle of the country—developing their lush lawns. Neither of them spend time relaxing on these lawns, enjoying the fruits of their labor. Their enjoyment must rest in their labor. As soon as the ground thaws in early spring both are outside sprinkling patch material onto barren spots. Then comes a day of re-seeding. Then the first mow of the season. Then more fertilizer, possibly some pesticide, and then some more mowing.
It’s not that I am amused by their fastidious attention to their lawns, I am becoming more aware that my own lawn may be an eyesore to them. I am becoming aware that my disregard for lawn maintenance may be a thorn in my neighbors’ sides. I’ve let weeds take over the back and front lawns. I mow irregularly. I don’t fertilize. I don’t re-seed. I let the lawn do its thing. I refuse to become lawn obsessed. Still, I feel pressure. Pressure to conform, to have a perfect, green, velvety lawn.
I have heard of people rebelling and putting vegetable gardens in their front yards and forgoing lawns altogether. I have heard of others refusing to mow, letting the “weeds” and native plants take over and allowing wildlife to make homes in their natural landscape yards. It all sounds revolutionary. A reversion back to the time of “slovenliness.” I don’t know if I have the chutzpah to go up against the guardians of the suburban lawn in my neighborhood and completely let my weeds take over. But every time I hear the symphony of mowers strike their first chord on a Saturday afternoon, I feel a pang of guilt and think about mowing the lawn.