The Lawn as a Status Symbol

When I was 11 years old growing up in New Mexico, we had a yard full of sand and rocks and weeds. I had never heard of food sovereignty or the Food not Lawns movement.

I became friends with two sisters from down the street, who were in the habit of growing plants where ever they lived, so I followed them in this pursuit by watering something that was growing in my front yard. It turned out to be tumbleweed, and the disloyal thing dried up and rolled away after a few weeks of faithful watering on my part.

Undaunted by the initial failure, I tried to grow a lawn and a row of Zinnias in the front yard. It seemed reasonable to want a lawn since every other family on the block had one except for one or two brown dirt-packed house fronts where the poor folk lived.
And then there was my mom and me. We seemed to be outside of the typical class categories. Mom was an intellectual, and a composer, so worrying about appearances was beneath her.

My mother is a history buff so as I nurtured and watered my little square of grass mom explained to me that these tiny plots of green we saw in front of every house or apartment complex were a vestige of the English gentry; symbolizing disposable wealth.

Mom stood on the creaking porch and lectured as I weeded and watered: “Having a lawn is a luxury that means you are of a class that can wasteland on something other than growing food or grazing sheep. Throughout most of agricultural history, whatever land a family was lucky enough to have, was used for grazing animals and growing crops of food to sell for cash and for eating.” Mom paced back and forth on the bleached, rotting boards as she got into her impromptu lecture.

“Having acres and acres of freshly cut lawn and doing nothing with it proved one was rich enough to have so much extra land one that could use it to intimidate visitors with a long drive from the front gate to the mansion. The lawn was a statement of indolence and wealth beyond anything most people could afford. “

Mom plonked down the aging steps and gave a seedling a little thrust with her pink-fuzzy-slippered foot, for emphasis, and continued her tirade, “This custom of growing a lawn of inedible grass was brought to the new world by the English merchants and continues to be a symbol of status. If one’s lawn looks a little shabby, what will the neighbors think?” Mom made a mock look of angst and put one hand to her heart with a little theatrical gasp. Then she went back inside and started plonking on the piano again, working on her latest orchestral piece.

My mother did not care what the neighbors thought. She made it a point that everyone should know she was so intellectually superior that she did not need to keep up with the Jones

Mom reads a book per day minimum

My lawn did not look anything like the neighbor’s thick green lawns because I knew nothing about soil or fertilizer or that I should add compost or rock dust or other nutrients. It was amazing that anything at all grew in the stony ground.

Eventually, I gave up on the thin little lawn that looked like it was prematurely balding no matter how much I watered it.

My friends had better luck in their yard across the street. They began growing a garden of vegetables, which they watered morning and evening methodically when it was not too hot and so that the direct sun would not boil the wet plants in the hot desert sun.  The plants rapidly grew so tall that you could barely see the girls as they weeded and watered.

I abandoned the front yard and started a garden in the back near a faucet so the short hose I had found in the basement would reach. It was amazing how easily the vegetables sprang up in the sandy soil. This was a lot easier than growing a lawn!

I had carrots, potatoes, lettuce, and zucchini in a few short weeks just from adding seeds and water and a little manure! The crops tasted bitter because I hadn’t prepared the soil, but to this day I am amazed at how much food you can grow on a piece of ground the size of a large dining room table.

As I was tending my plot, I heard the window creak open, and Mom leaned out and looked at my little garden one day. Nodding sagely, she began another lecture.

“When I was a kid growing up during the depression we had what was known as ‘victory gardens.’ Every vacant lot and yard was filled with vegetables because we could not afford gas or coal to move food ridiculous distances the way growers do now a’ days. We had truck farms ringing the outskirts of Chicago where I grew up as a kid.

“All the food was locally grown. I used to have to help my mom can zillions of jars of fruits and vegetables every fall. That’s what we need to do now is grow locally!” Mom noshed on the carrot I had washed for her and tromped back to the living room to plonk on the piano.

When I drive around these days and see lawns and median strips with grass and ornamental plants on campuses, and businesses. Everywhere I go I fantasize that they are gardens and fruit trees. All the palm trees turn into date palms and coconut palms in my mind. They, of course, have catch-meshes under the fruit, so it does not bean us in the head as we walk by. No coconuts dent our cars.

All the ornamental maples and flowering shrubs turn into peach trees, and berry bushes. The illegal gardeners who now tend all these inedible plants are gathering baskets of yummy, nourishing organic foods for everyone, including themselves, to eat for free.

The grocery stores and shopping malls go out of business, and everyone goes vegan. We turn the old supermarkets into cooperatives and greenhouses with big sweeping skylights for the tropical fruit trees we grow there during the winter and share in distributing the foods we grow in our gardens.

Recently I have been looking at permaculture sites. There are whole university programs on growing local food and pretty much just doing things sensibly for a change.

There are courses on how to build things without wasting water, how to maximize heat and air conditioning, how to put things where they are accessible, for instance growing food locally so you can eat it fresh.

You can get a degree in how to grow food with a minimum of replanting and weeding and tilling and laboring.

You can learn how to build a system for your whole home to catch and save water and reuse gray water.

Permaculture courses cover how to reuse everything, so nothing is wasted, composting, using solar power, windmills, and more.

Common sense has become a science. We have to go back and relearn the things that people did naturally 80 years ago. And that is the essence of permaculture. Instead of growing a lawn grow food.