Archive for May, 2011

Rumor has it that if you head to Iceland during their summer of limitless light and poke around in backyards you may find an odd, small patch of un-mowed, un-tended land.

I’ve heard that this tiny spot of wildness is a conciliatory gesture to the elves, gnomes, and trolls that dwell in Scandinavian countries, giving them a place to feel at home amid the trimmed grass and paved driveways.

Perhaps it’s also a sign of humility. Icelanders live rather close to the claiming edge of nature, as the world was reminded last year when the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull Volcano smothered part of the country in gray dust and disrupted air traffic over the Atlantic for nearly a month.

In such a place, it might not hurt to have a daily reminder, if only by letting be some weeds in the backyard, that we’re not entirely in charge here.

I haven’t been able to confirm the Icelandic weed-patch rumor, and I imagine it to be about as true or false as the elves themselves. Yet the idea fascinates me. What could be more antithetical to the American lawn than leaving a square of it unmanaged?

The lawn is all about control over nature, swaths of unbroken sameness, and to a degree, about keeping out the wilderness. The un-mown plot is about relinquishing control, celebrating the variety of whatever grows, and putting up with weed seeds blowing into your carefully manicured beds of pedruliums. It’s about allowing someone else to call the shots, right in front of your nose, right there on your very own lawn. Understandably, it’s a little hard to swallow.

It wouldn’t really matter what we did with our lawns if there weren’t so many of them, and if caring for them didn’t have such a large impact.

Cristina Milesi at the University of Montana used satellite date to estimate that Americans have covered 128,000 square kilometers with lawn grass. This is the largest area of any irrigated crop in the US, and represents about 1-2% of the entire land area of the country.

Most of this lawn grass requires moderately fertile, ever so slightly acidic, well-drained soil, and about an inch of water per week. In other words, the majority of us are trying to grow lawns in a hostile climate: too wet, too dry, too lean, too hot, too sandy, too acidic.

In order to maintain lawns that are continually green and weed-free, we therefore must lavish an absurd outpouring of resources on our grass. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that to feed our obsession, every year we spread 70 million pounds of active pesticide ingredients on our lawns and spend about 5 billion dollars on fertilizers made from petroleum products. These chemicals wind up in our water, our air, our children, our pets, and our wildlife, with disturbing implications on all fronts.

Watering lawns uses 30-60% of all urban fresh water, much of it in places that are already draining dry their rivers and reservoirs. To top it off, gasoline-powered mowers contribute about 5% to the nation’s air pollution; one hour of mowing pollutes approximately the same amount as driving 45 miles.

You begin to wonder, it is all necessary? Can’t we just learn to play nice with the neighborhood dandelions, and the local wood elves while we’re at it?

I aspire to being at peace with my dandelions. No one has to tell me that the rambunctious yellow flowers are delightful popping up in a sea of green. Nor do I need convincing that the airy spheres of their seed heads, each a star-filled galaxy of child’s dreams waiting to be wished, are simply gorgeous.

And yet, I just can’t rid myself of the impression that a lawn full of dandelions gone to seed looks like a weed lot. I resent this unshakable, irrational conviction, truly I do, but it’s there, rooted deeply into my consciousness with all the tenacity of, well, a dandelion.

I’ve come to this: I’ve made a sort of Hippocratic Oath with my lawn. Just as graduating doctors promise not to harm their patients, so have I promised to try to do no harm as I care for my lawn. I don’t water, I don’t fertilize, I don’t use herbicides or pesticides.

Sometimes I’ll toss a spare handful or two of compost out onto the lawn. Ha, I’ll think triumphantly, that takes care of fertilizer!

I mow infrequently with a manual push-mower. It always starts and I’m never out of gas, at least not for the mower.

It’s a shaky peace, I admit. Every year there is, perhaps, a little less grass and bit more clover, black medic, sheep sorrel, and violets. I’m happy to report that there are no dandelions, because I pull those, which irks my nine-year old to no end.

There’s also no toxic run-off from my lawn into the sewer and then on into the slowly clearing waters of the Androscoggin. I’m not poisoning my earthworms or songbirds, or children for that matter. I’m not putting gasoline from the Middle-East in yet another machine.

And, I have a small un-mowed patch around my laundry pole, which I confess to monitoring for really challenging weeds, like vetch. Vetch is a beautiful purple vining plant which, like clover, takes nitrogen out of the air, where it does no one any good, and puts in the soil where your plants can use it. Nevertheless, it’s an aggressive weed and I pull it on sight. I wonder whether this scares off the gnomes. Maybe they like vetch.

But, somehow we all muddle through together every summer: me, the grass, the hummingbirds, the robins, the ants, the bees, and the nine-year-olds.

What choice do we have, really? Maybe we could just stop mowing altogether. Stay tuned for a future column on what happened when one local resident did just that.

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