One of my favorite shows is Downton Abbey, a British television series that follows the trials and tribulations of an English aristocratic family. What catches my eye in every episode is a panorama of the beautifully-maintained Downton lawn present in every episode. Whether hosting a hound dog’s run across the grass or the Crawleys’ frolicking over tea and biscuits on a sunny day, the manor’s perfectly manicured and clipped green grass is a signature of the series. Like many of the other lavish displays of Downton Abbey, lawns have always been an established symbol of wealth.
But where and when exactly did these ornamental landscapes become so associated with status in the first place? The answer lies in the continent that shaped American culture as we know it: Europe. According to author Virginia Scott Jenkins, lawns began to appear in Europe in the 18th century. In France, André Lenôtre designed a small lawn called a tapis vert alongside the gardens of Versailles, the grand palace of King Louis XIV, cementing the lawn’s place in high society. In England, the word “lawn” simply just meant a piece of “ground covered with grass.”
Meanwhile, European colonization of the Americas introduced foreign livestock that decimated indigenous grass species. As a remedy, colonizers introduced non-native grasses—including poa pratensis, modern-day America’s most favored lawn grass—to continue sustaining their animals.
Still, Americans did not popularize perennial lawns until the late 1700s, when wealthy landowners started to emulate their British counterparts’ new landscape fashion. Soon enough, landscape experts like Frank J. Scott declared that a “smooth, closely shaven surface of grass is by far the most essential element of beauty on the grounds of a suburban home.”
In the U.S., such patches of grass are irretrievably linked to the picturesque ideal of the all-American family and home. Walt Whitman’s 1855 words, “I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful greenstuff woven,” are not too far off from the fictional Hank Hill’s declaration in 1990, “some people hoist a flag to show they love our country. Well, my lawn is my flag.”
But these good lawns associated with good American homes actually devastate and ravage the environment. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 30 to 40 million acres of American land is pure lawn, an area greater than that of Georgia. The list goes on. Each year, lawnmowers contribute to 5 percent of America's air pollution, 800 million gallons of gas are used on lawns, and, in the process, 17 million gallons of gas are spilled—6 million gallons more than the devastating 1989 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. Homeowners inundate their lawns with 60 percent of our freshwater reserves and nearly 10 times the amount of pesticide and fertilizers that farmers use on their crops. And what about the amount of money and resources we pour into lawn maintenance? One Harris Survey notes that Americans spend an annual $29 billion—that’s approximately $1,200 per household—to maintain their lawns.
Why are we Americans so obsessed with lawns? Well, behind the façade of a lawnscape’s aesthetic perfection lies a message about wealth in America. Already, those who own a vibrant and green lawn belong to a small and exclusive club, one with the means, money, and time to cultivate their homes. Maintaining that green lawn indicates that you are a good neighbor who cares deeply about belonging within a community. The more affluent the neighborhood, the greater and greener the lawns.
But this obsession is a symptom of a greater problem. From art to education to a person’s health, almost everything in the U.S. has been commercialized. Almost everything comes with a price tag, and your ability to afford that tag determines others’ acceptance of you. For many, maintaining wealth stems from the wish to preserve American conventionality; it’s a method of assimilation and defense. Despite the financial and environmental benefits of getting rid of lawns or cutting down on ostentatious displays of wealth, perhaps the crux of this issue is actually rooted in our primal human desire to belong—to be “American” enough.
Perhaps our conformity to these standards initiates our acceptance and belonging, but at what cost? What is the use of maintaining a wealthy lifestyle and belonging to a superficial, money-obsessed community if doing so entails frightening acts of environmental destruction?
There’s no way we can immediately dismantle a capitalistic system that assigns a numerical value to everything. But where we can start is thinking about what to do with the purely decorative patches of land in our backyards; look at your own plain and green backyard and think about all the things you could do with it. Instead of spending so much time and energy cultivating a piece of grass that you’ll ultimately mow down over and over again, encourage your family and friends to start a garden and to plant species native to the small ecosystem around you; reintroduce a little bit of hope and variety to the damaged and destroyed environment.
In the process of rebuilding the ecosystem in front of your home, think about what lawns truly mean to you. Are they really that pleasing to the eye? Are they the result of generational toil and hard work? Or perhaps, do you and I have a lawn just because everybody else does?
After all, there are so many more uplifting and beneficial ways of connecting a neighborhood than through a status symbol. The community gardens already thriving in dozens of neighborhoods are an example of people building camaraderie and mutual respect through sharing free and fresh produce. When we move away from lawns to consider more communal, sustainable joys, we reconstruct what the idea of fitting into American society looks like. We build an American society that focuses on sharing and giving, rather than on greed and the desire to conform.
Let’s say goodbye to lawns and the outdated ideas of wealth and privilege. Only by doing so can we usher in a new era of environmentalism, consciousness, community, and build the America that we deserve.