MOWED LAWN GRASSES seem oddly perverse. Their ideal state is timeless, unchanging, eternal; they grow and grow and grow and never mature. The telos, the genetically programmed desire, of plant life is to mature and reproduce itself. Nowhere in nature do grass blades grow upward to a two-inch height, and then chop themselves off, making themselves perpetually preadolescent botanical castrati. Nowhere in nature do grasses — if not interrupted by acts of God — not flower, go to seed and propagate.
The current definition of a good lawn, according to cultural historian Virginia Scott Jenkins’s The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession, is “a plot with a single type of grass with no intruding weeds, kept mown at a height of an inch and a half, uniformly green, and neatly edged.” To maintain such a lawn demands that on a weekly basis the life cycle of lawn grasses be interrupted. Slicing off the blade’s chlorophyll-rich photosynthesizing tip diminishes the grass’s ability to make and store food, which in turn means fertilizer must be applied. A lawn is rather like a brain-dead ten-year-old, kept alive on an IV-drip.
In the United States, as of 1991, some 45 million home lawns, more than 50,000 square miles, about the size of the state of Illinois, were trying to go to seed and being frustrated in that attempt. Home lawns — plus parks, golf courses, and lawns surrounding public buildings and cemetery markers and separating freeways — from coast to coast have replaced forests, deserts, wetlands, and meadows with savannahs composed of turf grasses not native to America.
The grass lawn is so common a part of the American landscape that a youngster easily might believe that God seeded one after another of these sharply edged green turfs during His seven-day creation frenzy. But He didn’t. According to historian Jenkins, the lawn as we know it is recent and peculiarly American.
The definition of lawn, writes Jenkins, has changed several times during the last 400 years. In the 16th Century, when Francis Bacon observed that “nothing is more pleasant to the eye than green grass finely shorn” and the lawn mower was a sheep, the word lawn, from launde or land, referred to an open space or glade in the woods. In the 17th Century a lawn was a stretch of untilled ground covered with grass; when this grass was cut, men armed with scythes did the cutting. By the 18th Century lawn had come to mean a portion of a garden or pleasure ground covered with grass and kept closely mowed.
Before the Civil War, few Americans other than the wealthy kept front lawns. Most grass growing near a house was rough pasture. Grasses indigenous to North America did not produce good lawn; they were rough after cutting and green only during the growing season. Houses in American towns tended to be built close to the street and fronted by a small fenced garden. Farm houses and out-buildings were surrounded by pasture, fields, or gardens and a packed dirt farmyard where chickens pecked at insects and the farm wife tossed the “slops,” or kitchen garbage. In the South, swept dirt or sand, covered with pine straw, surrounded houses. In the Southwest, adobe houses were built around cool interior courtyards, the more luxurious of these courtyards graced by a fountain. In the 1830s an English textile engineer recognized that the machine used to shear soft nap away from carpets could be rebuilt as a machine that cut grass. The engineer fabricated a reel mower. The mower was not produced in quantity, because little demand either in England or the United States existed for it. What grass-cutting got done was still done primarily by sheep or scythesmen.
Jenkins traces the development of the post-Civil War single-family house surrounded by grass through three major suburban movements. Suburban communities, founded between 1850–1880 near Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and New York, were made possible by expansion of rail- road, street car, and trolley lines. These late-19th- century suburban communities, built for upper- and upper-middle-class families, were modeled after parks and frequently given the name “Park,” as in Tuxedo Park in New York or Takoma Park near Washington, D.C. Some excellent descriptions of these suburbias can be found in Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and E.L. Doctorow’s newest novel, The Waterworks. In the latter, Doctorow writes:
The War of Secession made us rich. When it was over there was nothing to stop progress — no classical ruins of ideas no superstitions to retard civil republican ardor. Not so much had to be destroyed or overturned as in the European cultures of Roman towns and medieval guilds. A few Dutch farms were razed, villages melded into towns, towns burned into precincts, and all at once block and tackle were raising the marble and granite mansions of Fifth Avenue. ... Almost a million people called New York home, everyone securing his needs in a state of cheerful degeneracy. Nowhere else in the world was there such an acceleration of energies. A mansion would appear in a field. The next day it stood on a city street with horse and carriage riding by.
As Jenkins indicates, no single person so strongly influenced the aesthetic of early suburbias as Frederick Law Olmsted (1822–1903). Best known as designer in 1858 of New York City’s Central Park, Olmsted’s ambition was to adapt the 18th-century informal English garden to an American setting, particularly in parks for public use. Olmsted had toured England in 1850, visiting Liverpool’s Birkenhead Park, the first landscaped park intentionally laid out for public use. Olmsted recorded his journey abroad in his 1852 Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England, noting about Birkenhead Park that “in democratic America, there was nothing to be thought of as comparable to with this People’s Garden.” (In California, Olmsted was principal landscape designer, in 1888, for Stanford University’s campus.)
In 1868, Olmsted was commissioned to design Riverside, outside Chicago, one of America’s first planned suburbias. Olmsted recommended that each house be set back a mini- mum of 30 feet from the sidewalk. In spite of the Tory Anglophilia exhibited by many among America’s new monied classes and their longing to recreate in the new America the old country homes of the English aristocracy, Olmsted’s design forbad high surrounding walls and hedges that surrounded these English houses. He believed these walls and hedges made city neighborhoods appear “a series of private madhouses,” and further, were “selfish” and “undemocratic” features, not to be encouraged in America. The required 30 feet would be put into lawn, and each home’s lawn would merge into his neighbors’ lawn. These green expanses, Olmsted hoped, would create the impression that all families in these new suburbias lived together, sharing one central park.