Spraypainted lawn.The grass is always greener.Photo: ClaudiaAh, the American lawn! Symbol of prestige! Source of unending drudgery! Environmental nightmare!

Why do we have this thing, anyway?

The lawn originated in Europe, perhaps first as an area cleared near castles to allow for the easy sighting of potential attackers, then later maintained as a sign of social standing — all that open space without food growing on it meant you had to be pretty rich.

These days, many American neighborhoods require a well-tended, well-watered lawn (although more environmentally friendly types of landscaping are sometimes acceptable as well). Failure to maintain the standard lush green carpet can result in nastiness from neighbors, or even fines.

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All this has become a problem now that the economy has hit the skids, because keeping grass in tip-top shape is not as easy here as it was in ye olde England.

I had heard before of stiff fines for grass that grows too high in places like Florida. I hadn’t thought about the opposite problem: Lawns in dry parts of the country that just shrivel up and die for lack of intensive watering and other expensive maintenance.

But let’s not forget that wonderful thing called American ingenuity. If you’re worried that your neighbors are getting ready to call the lawn police because of your withered grass, you can just pull out the paint gun! That’s what some folks in Phoenix are doing, according to a report in The New York Times:

Doug McGraw, who lives in the Dreaming Summit subdivision in western Phoenix, has been cited for neglecting his lawn. Like many homeowners here, Mr. McGraw saw his finances in turmoil of couple of years back and had no extra money to spend on the lawn. “I just let it go one year, and it went to brown,” he said.

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A citation letter arrived from the homeowners’ association.

That is when his wife, tongue in cheek, remarked that if food could be dyed, why not lawns? Mr.  McGraw began researching the issue and discovered that those who operate athletic fields and golf courses do indeed use lawn dye to keep their grass green year-round.

Unsure whether this would be allowed by his association, and somewhat embarrassed to be taking the easy way out, he dyed his lawn one night in the spring of 2009 without telling a soul in the neighborhood.

One company mentioned in the article, Turf-Painters Enterprise, says you can “Get your curb appeal back!” with lawn paint, which is advertised as water-based and nontoxic.

It also has a prominent link where you can learn about starting “your very own HOT lawn care business.” And that struck me as more than a little sad. The idea that painting lawns green is a growth industry — an income source that might enable people to keep their own lawns painted green and the homeowners’ association at bay — says a lot about where we’ve come to as a country.

I couldn’t help thinking about the scene in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland where two hapless lackeys are caught painting white roses red by the Queen of Hearts, who shouts “Off with their heads!” (Alice saves their lives).

Maybe an even more appropriate echo can be found in the mythical Potemkin villages erected to impress Russia’s Catherine the Great on her tour of the newly acquired Crimea region, back in 1787. No one is really sure if the story is true, but legend has it that the empress’s minister, Grigory Potemkin, had fake houses built along the monarch’s route so that she would not be able to see the poverty of her new subjects.

Here in the good old U.S. of A., even as our nation gropes along in financial and environmental freefall and entire subdivisions go down to foreclosure, we’ve got to keep up appearances. Because otherwise, what would the neighbors think?