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Brown Is the New Green

Brown Is the New Green

Making inroads against the prevailing dogma of grass.

“In which lifetime?” I blurted out. The offended look on Irene’s face was brief but unmistakable. I had responded to her saying, “I still picture little kids running around on a patch of lawn.”

I had been away for a few weeks back East, so I missed out on the transformational hubbub next door. A livid green expanse of new turf replacing what had been Rita’s horticultural motley was more than disconcerting; it was brute shock. I saw and heard a future of droning machines, the inevitable accessories to lawns. Also, hadn’t Irene heard about the drought? Perhaps she believed that when she transplanted herself from western Oklahoma to take care of her father, she left the Dust Bowl in the dust.

I could have offered her some sobering news: that this supernatural green would revert to ordinary unless given industrial strength feeding; that oxalis was going to pop up through the sod in November like acne on a teenager’s cheek; that raccoons with the midnight munchies would uproot slabs of sod in a probably futile search for snacks since little or nothing will live under that sterile carpet as the chemicals leach out. In three years her patch of prairie will not look that much better than mine, brown hardpan freckled by industrious weeds.

I did no preaching. Humility comes from the same root as humus. After you’ve gardened for a long time, you become less inclined to ride high on the turnip. My own garden is fertile ground for criticism should someone want to waste his breath. Take a look at la dame aux camelias, what’s left of her, plunked in a black plastic pot on the deck. I rescued her from Vikki’s garden where she had been singing her swan song for a decade. I think her name is “Loretta Feathers.” I may have given her to Vikki. Neither of us remembers. I am confident Loretta Feathers, like Sleeping Beauty, will wake up if I water her daily and restore her will to live. Noble, isn’t it? Why do I feel guilty? Because she is just one among dozens of desperate cases. The deck is a horticultural infirmary, an epidemic of mixed metaphors. Admire the little spruce, plucky thing, in line for a suitable position in the upper ranks of the garden. There will never be a suitable position.

Not paradoxically, feelings of righteousness are enhanced by failings, my lapses of sense and taste rather darling whereas Irene’s lawn is a threat to the planet.

“I know, I know, you don’t have to say it. You don’t like lawns,” Irene said. The way she put a flounce on like wasn’t endearing.

And it wasn’t true. I like lawns in parks, such as the ones in Golden Gate Park, vast meadows with English daisies and clover and gophers, and, yes, children. I love them, too.

Suburban lawns, not so much. In a Holiday Inn outside Philadelphia last week, the thick curtains made it seem like 2 a.m. when I was awakened by what I thought was a vacuum cleaner in the next room or the hall. The droning, I soon figured out, was coming from outside, and I opened the curtains. A story below, a riding lawnmower scuttled over a rectangle of lawn, each swath covering about a third of the width. Kansas boys are used to the mowers you sit your fat ass on, but this operator stood on a platform behind the blades, almost as if he were managing a team of horses. Perhaps the erect position was thrilling. Something was going on because he kept going over and over this little patch of lawn, as if there could be a green blade or two that may have dodged decapitation. When mercifully he made an exit through a privet portal, the edger guy appeared. He was followed by the blower guy. Ah, the sounds of summer.

The most frightening thing about modern machines is the level of perfection they demand. There were five or six recalcitrant leaves dodging the windy blasts, and the blower guy would not desist until they gave in. He waved his wand. The machine is a giant strap-on.

At last they were finished, yes? No. The edger guy returned and made another pass, which meant so did the blower guy. It dawned on me: Fundamental to the enterprise was this crew was under contract, and had shown up to be showing up. The lawn didn’t need mowing; the sidewalk didn’t need edging. A total energy suck, human and otherwise. Insignificant, except when multiplied by thousands of crews and millions of farting engines. Without this insanity, we’d have full reservoirs and fuel surpluses. (We can dream, even if our sleep is cut short.)

The anti-lawn movement, like all new religions, has a core of devoted followers, and is making inroads against the prevailing dogma of grass. The result of the front lawn’s disappearance is not always a visual improvement, but in theory, it will be more eco-friendly. The pushback against grass is real but weak and won’t be truly felt until the industrial parks and Burger Kings and Holiday Inns in Denver or Atlanta or Philadelphia forego the grassy addiction.

When I checked out of the one in Philadelphia, there was a distinct smell of herbicide, or perhaps a combo herbicide-pesticide, in the air. I sealed myself in my rental car and headed toward Longwood Gardens. One would have thought the friends I met there and I were the most devout of tourists as we toured the garden, directing repeated exclamations of astonishment to the Deity. Longwood Gardens take perfection to a new level. In some underprivileged places, there are such things as larvae, mold, fungi, sowbugs, and gales, but not here. What happens if a leaf frays? There’s an understudy in some hothouse ready for her close-up. Mortality has been not only eclipsed but obliterated entirely and isn’t that what gardening is about? After you’ve harvested your beans and carrots, I mean.

Like all collisions with perfection, the effect of my visit to Longwood Gardens was buoyant but contained a seed of despair, which germinated as soon as I stepped foot back in my garden. What a mess. I nipped dejection with the thought; it’s a glorious mess, a righteous, exuberant mess. This rationalization worked in the past.

“Naturalness, no doubt because it gives a glimpse, through human artistry, into nature itself was the one quality my grandmother preferred to all others, whether in gardens, which she disliked if, like the garden at Combray, their plots and flower beds were too regular…”
Marcel Proust, from In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower

A prostrate veronica. It sounds religious, but that’s what I have colonizing the lawn, and I am hoping it turns out the perfect weed, nature’s ingenious solution. It’s green, seems to take some to drought, and has purple flowers as a bonus. I’m ignoring the probability that it is doing well because water has trickled down from the upper beds. Elsewhere the lawn is a bristly brown. Naturalness, in its way.

“The joys we most dread losing are those that have remained outside us, beyond the reach of the heart.”
Proust, ibid.

It dawned on me that Irene didn’t mean she was anticipating more children of her own but was thinking about grandchildren, though grandchildren don’t seem likely either given what she has told me about her only child, Sarah, who lives with, and for, a houseful of dogs in Alaska. Her dreams are not of running children but of running the Iditarod.

“Why don’t you like lawns?” Irene asked.

I put it in a way I thought she’d understand. “Too much work. Weed, feed, mow, water, rinse, and repeat. Oh, yes, and spray.”

“Hector’s doing all that for me,” she said.

Hector has helped me in my garden since he was a teenager. He’s been less available lately, too busy. I am glad he has more work, but …

“Can I ask you a question?” Irene said.

“You just did.”

“Aren’t you the smart one,” she waggled her finger. “Come along. I want to show you something.”

She preceded me up the three steps onto the lawn and walked to its far border. “I don’t get it—why it’s turned all brown over here. It’s got a water thingy right next to it. Maybe the system’s not working? Do you know how to work those things?”

It was already happening, perfection downgrading. A brown here to match my own lawn. Maybe it was something contagious, this browning. I investigated, desiring to assert my competence at the risk of doing the opposite. Irrigation systems, better known as irritation systems, have infinite ways to fluster. But this was pretty straightforward. The turf when rolled out had not made full contact with the earth below, so no roots had penetrated the subsoil, and the grass had dried out. “What about over here,” Irene asked, pointing at a spot near the middle that looked as if it might be headed in the same direction. I stuck my finger into the soil there. I couldn’t tell if it was adequately moist. Raccoon piss? I had done enough to re-establish horticultural authority. “You have to test your sprinklers; see if they’re spraying far enough.”

“You know how to turn it on?”

“I’m sure I don’t,” I said. It was a half-truth. I’m sure I could figure it out.

“I’ll ask Hector. He’s coming by today. He talked me into putting in a fig tree. He said it would do good in my garden.”

I pondered this later, how Hector never suggests plants for my garden. Obviously he would have a different relationship with her. She’s a woman. She’s from Oklahoma. But it is more complicated than that. I’m half in love with him. I resist thinking that my garden is just another job. Is that patronizing or what? In my garden I make the decisions; he helps to implement them.

I’m overthinking this, a waste of time when I should be out watering Loretta Feathers. Maybe I’ll plant a fig tree of my own. I’ve always wanted one. Right in the middle of the so-called lawn. Figs are drought tolerant, aren’t they? Having ripe figs would be so perfect.

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R.E. Faro is a poet and essayist, and a longtime contributor to The Monthly. Read his blog at http://berrypicking.wordpress.com.

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