Couple turns lawn into ecosystem; officials threaten to mow it down
The one good thing about drought is that the lush green lawns outside your neighbors’ houses act as a sort of banner, proclaiming ASSHOLES LIVE HERE. But lawns aren’t just water hogs: They are also monocultures, as devoid of diversity as suburban school districts. Lawns lack the fauna that bees and other important pollinators need to survive. The mass mowing and fertilizing of lawns pollutes the air, the soil, and the groundwater.
In short, those prissy, manicured lawns are wasteful and useless — and that’s without mentioning the basic nuisance of waking up to the whine of your neighbor’s push mower at 9 a.m. on a Saturday.
In Ohio, Sarah Baker and her partner decided to tackle the lawn problem by letting their rural one-acre lot go wild. They stopped mowing. And when they stopped mowing, Baker writes in The Washington Post:
A diverse potpourri of plants began to flourish, and a rich assortment of insects and animals followed. I had essentially grown a working ecosystem, one that had been waiting for the chance to emerge …
The un-mowed plants in our yard attract plant-eating bugs and rodents, which in turn attract birds, bats, toads and garter snakes that eat them. Then hawks fly in to eat the snakes. Seeing all this life emerge in just one growing season made me realize just how much nature manicured lawns displace and disrupt.
Town elders, however, didn’t see Baker’s lawn as a functioning ecosystem; they saw it as a nuisance.
In June, Baker and her partner received a warning from St. Albans Township stating that if they didn’t mow their lawn within seven days, it would be done for them. This wasn’t an idle threat. Last September, the couple was ordered to mow or they would be fined $1,000. They did mow, and Baker describes “a mutilated garter snake, a sliced frog and countless slashed grasshoppers” in the aftermath. They didn’t want to repeat this scene, and so this year, they refused. St. Albans wasn’t having it, apparently concerned that Baker’s wild lawn was attracting the wrong kind of wildlife — which is to say, any wildlife at all.
To prevent a mowing crew from flattening their property, the Bakers used a scythe to cut their vegetation down to about eight inches, and the township called off the mowers, at least for the moment. But, Baker writes,
[s]ociety needs to adjust its cultural norms on lawn aesthetics. For the health of the planet, and for our own health, we need to start letting nature dictate how we design our outdoor spaces. We need to reassess how much mowed space we really need. By the size of most people’s lawns in my area, you’d think they were hosting a weekly lacrosse match. But the only time I ever really see them on their lawns is when they are mowing them.
That’s also the only time I see my neighbors on their lawns — hoses and mowers out to replace native habit that will flourish on its own with something that looks best on a baseball field. It’s a status symbol — these green lawns with evenly spaced blades of grass — but it’s one that is harming us all. As Baker points out, emissions for lawnmowers account for more than 5 percent of urban air pollution, and more gas is spilled refueling mowers each year than was lost in the Exxon Valdez spill.
Green lawns should no longer be a symbol of summer and wealth: They should be a symbol of excess and greed. It’s time to reframe what’s cool about yards and move away from the manicured and toward the wild. So maybe next time, instead of audibly sighing and glaring at my neighbor’s glistening yard, I’ll actually say something. “Hey,” I might say, “have you thought of going wild? Turn off the mower and let’s chat.”