by Sarah West


Long before boulevards, city parks or TruGreen existed, the Renaissance painter Albrecht Durer captured the loveliness of grass in his naturalistic study, A Large Piece of Turf. The painting is deceptively simple, presenting a patch of grass and a foreground of bare soil with nearly photographic accuracy, and depicting a diversity of species that would make any golf course groundskeeper choke on his coffee during morning rounds. Dandelion and grass seedheads float atop a woven tapestry of foliage textures and shades of green that add up to something more than the commonplace subject they portray.

Green turf, the bigger the better, dominates our residential landscapes. Yet a quick look at the gardening section of an urban bookstore might convince you the American cult of the lawn is dead, so numerous are publications on cramming yards with edibles or ornamentals to create grass-free oases. Of course, the lawn abides, as a drive through any suburban development proves, even in regions where the usual turf grasses won’t grow; such as in south Florida, where walking through a lawn barefoot feels like strolling across a scouring brush. It doesn’t seem to matter, in these instances, that the tactile pleasure of shorn Bluegrass is lost to a less flexible species, perhaps because it’s the aesthetic that counts—that wide, monotonous expanse of greenness our brains adore.

I, too, once resolved to abolish the lawn, ripping out sod and planting perennials, shrubs and vegetable beds, a makeshift patio of cedar chips in the center—anything but boring old turf. I enjoy the cozy clutter of my backyard space, but woodchips (or any other hard surface) do not replace the usefulness of lawn: a place to walk or sit with or without shoes or furniture. And though it’s taken me some time to admit it, the combination of well-kept turf and intricate plantings is my favorite sort of garden composition. I’ve recently acquired a much bigger space that requires regular mowing and I love it most just after the grass is cut; its cool plushness and elegant simplicity amid the tangle of everything else.

In his book PrairyErth, William Least Heat-Moon contemplates why we might have a hard-wired affinity for the visual transition between cluttered forest and open grassland. As humanoids, our species moved over time from dwelling in the forest to the more abundant savanna. And it is in that tall grass where we may have first learned to walk upright, in order to see above the grass and scan long distances for water, safety or prey.

Of the Midwestern prairie lands he writes, “While something primal in me may long for the haven of the forest, its apprenticeship in the trees, it also recognizes this grand openness is the kind of place where it became itself.”

Surely affinity for the setting that triggered one of our most significant evolutionary transformations is the pearl turning inside our obsession with manicured turf. But the African savannas bear little resemblance to suburbia. The link between untamed grassland and our current standards for landscape grass is ruminants.

The word lawn has Celtic origins, referring to a place of enclosure. “Natural” lawns have been maintained in English forests by wild herds of grazing animals over the centuries, and their domesticated cousins did the same in the communal pasturelands of towns and cities. Thus, the lawn aesthetic we aspire to today originated in the maritime climate of Celtic cultures, where consistent rainfall and mist kept the grass lush and grazing herds nibbled it to a thick, low mat. Over time, desire for the aesthetic crept into landscape design, and shorn grass eventually became a symbol of wealth (unused space being the ultimate prerogative) in European and then American estates.

The problem, of course, is that most climates are not like the British Aisles’, and grass growing elsewhere needs significant pampering to maintain such deep, endless green. Collectively, contemporary lawn care practices are estimated to eclipse agricultural applications of herbicides and fertilizers, and are responsible for fuel spillage equal to an Exxon Valdez oil spill each summer from leaky engines and dribbles missing the gas tank. Lawns planted in arid regions are especially detrimental because of their taxation of the water supply and the increasingly complex (and environmentally destructive) infrastructure required to bring it to them.

In our poetic way, we love what we can’t really have, and we love it from a place we can’t name or control. The challenge is to reconcile our intrinsic desire for grassy expanses with their overuse of resources. Some replace turf with native plantings of perennials, grasses and shrubs. Others go for production, sacrificing lawn for vegetables. A few brave souls and indifferent renters (even some daring golf courses) let their lawn go brown in the dry season. We are lucky to have a natural time of greenness in our climate, so perhaps we should also think of green turf as a seasonal delicacy, to be relished in its time and dreamt of in its absence.