By Dan Kempner, Managing Editor, Valutus Sustainability R.O.I.
One pleasant afternoon there was a knock on our door. Several little neighborhood children looked up at me hopefully and asked, “can we play in your grass?” Just then the cat pushed past me and dove off the front porch, disappearing in the tall stalks with only a rustle and a quiver of stems to mark his passing.
I nodded and the kids also dove off and disappeared, though squeals of delight betrayed their whereabouts.
Later that afternoon the knocker sounded again, but it was a different delegation this time. These were not supplicants wanting to play, but a deputation of those same kids’ parents come to demand we do something about our lawn.
The backstory is simple. My family had rented a house on a half-acre of hilly grass, dogwood trees, and bushes in a suburban town 40 miles north of New York City. Bucolic, a little stagnant and — with the exception of my parents — quite conservative. The rental included the use of a small riding mower and it was my twelve-year-old task to unplug from Crosby, Stills and Nash or King Crimson and tromp outside to mow the lawn every week.
One day something went ‘sproiing!!!’ under the chassis and I had to push the damn thing down a high berm and into the garage to await repairs. I reported in but my folks were commuting to the city and working late so they never quite got around to fixing the thing.
At some point my dad said, “Ah, the Hell with it, let’s just let it grow,” and in a few weeks we had a summer field three or four feet high, making our property an excellent candidate for a crop circle.
Bees, grasshoppers and many more small-fry made full use of it, and I found it pleasant to walk through the semi-wild landscape on my way to the driveway or my best friend’s house across the street. Field of Dreams it wasn’t, but it would do until Shoeless Joe or James Earl Jones came along.
But community pressure goosed us into getting the mower working, and I spent the next few days choking the blades trying to cut a channel through the brush, but no joy: The darned stuff was too tough, and our mower couldn’t manage. So my dad and I got in the car and trundled down to the local hardware store to buy four scythes, a type of instrument I had never beheld until that day.
It is interesting that the scythe has not changed one iota since the bronze age. Neolithic man could step out of his stone hut, take one look at a modern implement, heft it, and stomp off to cut wild grain. But it took us a while to get the hang of it, used as we were to things that went on-and-off with a switch.
Over that weekend we looked like a family newly tossed from Eden. There the four of us were – two highly educated and sedentary middle-class adults and two would-be hippy teenagers — ranged in a line, bent slightly at the waist, sweeping our arms back and forth, back and forth, until the lawn was mower-friendly once again and we were racked with aches in muscles we didn’t know we had. We were far more tired than suburbanites usually got.
Eventually the grass was down in pungent, unruly piles. The cat was thoroughly confused, and the neighborhood kids disappointed but order — and property values, apparently — had been restored.
We bagged the stuff up in 75-gallon black-plastic bags which, incredibly, are still on the market. There were stuffed sacks everywhere, looking like the giant sandworms of Dune, until Yours Truly hauled them to the curb to be swept away by our regular garbage truck. The neighbors would not have approved had we left it in fragrant heaps to compost itself.
Now, it never occurred to any of us that the clippings might be better left so. That natural lawn was perhaps better than manicured. That the habitat it provided was exactly what was needed for fauna already being pushed to the edge. We were worried about tigers and whales, and never dreamt we were on the brink of losing a million species: that Monarchs and honey bees and birds and the less-glamorous creatures that made up most of the world’s fauna were also in trouble — in part due to lawns like ours.
In fact, aside from an address reading ‘Windmill Drive’, we weren’t thinking green then at all: we were just lazy. And yet for all that, we were way ahead of our time.
We’d allowed our lawn return to its natural state and we’d turned to an old-world, non-mechanical, Pharaonic-era tool to cut it when modern machinery broke down. And maybe that’s the right course all around. Perhaps wild lawns — not even needing the scythe other than to swath from door to driveway, house to garden and porch to mailbox — are a step towards restoring our lands and soils.
“According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, 12.6% of the Earth’s land surface has been converted to cropland. A further 0.6% is covered with artificial surfaces such as cities,” etc., which puts us under the limit currently. Yet, as we’re seeing in the Amazon, Borneo, Vietnam, China and most of sub-Saharan Africa, forests are being denuded — cut or burned — for croplands and orchards at a terrifying rate. We’re certainly on pace to blow through that limit soon.
As for lawns — which are technically considered croplands — they occupy some 30-40 million acres of land in the U.S. alone, according to the Earth Institute at Columbia. That’s about 62,500 square miles, just a tad smaller than the entire state of Wisconsin.
Now, grass plants themselves take up carbon, but lawnmowers account for some 5 percent of the nation’s air pollution, making lawns a significant carbon source. It’s actually worse than this because, as National Geographic reported last year, “More than 75 percent of Earth’s land areas are substantially degraded… according to the world’s first comprehensive, evidence-based assessment.” This means less carbon storage, less water, fewer nutrients and on and on.
Why not let them go to seed or, as many in the American Southwest do, allow only native plants in their wild state?
Second, why not revert to hand-held, non-mechanical tools that can cut where necessary with no fuel spills and an excellent workout in the bargain? Even a push-mower needs no fuel and — as I recall all too well from other homes — offers tremendous exercise.
And third, leave the cut stuff lying there. Let it manage itself and return nutrients to the soil.
Two interesting concepts fall into my little protocol nicely. One is a movement towards farming front lawns rather than seeding them with pretty, but non-native and essentially valueless, grasses.
The second is carbon farming, a trend towards buying carbon-offset credits by paying ranchers in the Western U.S. to sequester carbon in their soil by plant husbandry rather than using it for grazing, allowing some company a bit more flexibility with their environmental footprint. In this way we can restore enormous tracts of tamed pastureland to a wild and carbon-storing state. These aren’t lawns, per se, but the local effect would be the same.
Organizations like the Western Sustainability Exchange are giving ranchers a chance to make money by sequestering the very carbon that is making standard ranching highly problematic. Here’s a link to an article from Montana Public Radio (MPR) on the topic.
I now live in a country where there are virtually no front lawns, and jungle flora riots from every chink and crevice. And yet the scythe is well-known here, in many smallholders’ rice fields. It’s a country of slender, hard-working, industrious and happy people. Frugal by necessity, many of them would love to have a tractor, but a scythe is within their means while a tractor is not.
Perhaps it’s not too late to learn a thing or two from them, and to realize that continuing with lawns as we’ve known them in my home country, is not living within our means.
Thanks for reading. Your comments are very welcome.