Author Mark Dery charts America's ecocidal obsession with nice grass

This is the house at Terror Street and Agony Way. From the outside, it looks innocuous enough, a stucco-clad box in the Spanish Colonial Revival style ubiquitous in '20s L.A.

Don't be fooled: it was "the house of horrors, the house of agony, the house where I was almost done in," the poet Charles Bukowski says, in the documentary Born Into This—almost done in by his (almost) comically sadistic father, a German-American of grim mien who beat his son with a razor strop weekly, if not daily, and condemned the young Hank, as his schoolmates dubbed him, to social purgatory by dressing him in lederhosen and giving him the short-back-and-sides haircut favored by the Prussian military class.

Photo: 2122 Longwood Avenue, Bukowski's childhood home, by Jacob Härnqvist

Standing in front of his childhood home, Bukowski tells the camera the "horror story" of his Depression-era childhood. A blocky, big-bellied man with a face like a topographical map of the moon, pocked and seamed by the ravages of acne and dominated by the bulbous nose of an aging barfly, he points toward the rectangle of lawn in front of the house.

This is the lawn that I manicured. I had to mow it both ways, this way first, then this way; then I had it get all the hairs with the shears. If I missed one hair, I got a beating. One hair. It's very hard not to miss one hair, you know. Try it sometime. So I always got a beating.

In his barely fictionalized autobiography, the novel Ham on Rye, Bukowski milks the moment for its nightmare hilarity. On his hands and knees, Bukowski père examines the lawn his son has just mown.

He leaped up and ran toward the house.

"MAMA! MAMA!" He ran into the house. "What is it?"
"I found a hair!"

"You did?"

"Come, I'll show you!"
He came out of the house quickly with my mother following. "Here! Here! I'll show you!"
He got down on his hands and knees. "I can see it! I can see two of them!"
My mother got down with him. I wondered if they were crazy. "See them?" He asked her. "Two hairs. See them?"
"Yes, Daddy, I see them…"
They both got up. My mother walked into the house. My father looked at me. "Inside…"

The obsessively manicured lawn is, of course, an American icon—a little patch of paradise that says, "I got my piece of the American Dream."

Over the course of a century of industrialization and urbanization that dream had become synonymous, in the American mind, with home ownership. With the postwar rise of suburbia, the lawn entered the popular consciousness. Reversing the cultural logic that had given rise to houses set within easy hailing distance of the street, their roomy, well-shaded porches beckoning passersby to come sit a spell and swap a little gossip over lemonade, the Levittown lawn was a green moat separating every man's tract-home castle from his neighbors'.

Housing in Bristol, England, in the 19th century

Kenneth T. Jackson notes, in his classic study The Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, that before 1860 most houses had no front yard; they "nestled up to the street, with a prominent front door that invited entrance." As for the abbreviated back yard, it was a "rear area," as Jackson puts it, in both the Freudian and the literal sense, useful only for visits to the outhouse and otherwise a foul sump, "rancid, disreputable, and overrun by rodents."

It wasn't until 1870 that the definition of a house as separate from its fellows, surrounded by a yard, really took hold in the American mind. By then, detached housing was becoming the suburban norm. Vested interests promoted the freestanding home on its island of green as a healthful alternative to the overcrowded city, where the threat of epidemics, in the era before modern sanitation, was ever-present. "The new ideal was no longer to be part of a close community," writes Jackson, "but to have a self-contained unit, a private wonderland walled off from the rest of the world." Holding the world at arm's-length, the prim, croquet-ready lawn—made possible by Elwood McGuire's human-powered mower, which arrived on cue in the fateful year of 1870—both embodied and enabled the new social philosophy of the suburbs. Jackson writes,

Although visually open to the street, the lawn was a barrier—a kind of verdant moating separating the household from the threats and temptations of the city. … [It separates] the family by real estate from intruders into private space.

Securing the perimeter of the nuclear family's compound, the inevitable white-picket fence stood guard, a Leave It to Beaver update of the frontier stockade. "He put up a barbed wire fence/ To keep out the unknown," Joni Mitchell sings, in "The Hissing of Summer Lawns" (1975), a Didion-esque indictment of the same status-seeking, spiritually arid suburbanites Malvina Reynolds mocks in her 1962 folk song, "Little Boxes" (inspired by the Levittown-like California housing development of Westlake), and whom Didion submits for our sardonic consideration in her essay "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream" (1966). Like Didion, who sets her morality play in San Bernardino, Mitchell uses The Valley and its sprinkler-swished lawns as a metaphor for the blank-brained narcissism and materialism that for many (especially New Yorkers of the Woody Allen persuasion) are L.A.'s gifts to American culture:


He bought her a diamond for her throat
He put her in a ranch house on a hill
She could see the valley barbecues
From her window sill
See the blue pools in the squinting sun
Hear the hissing of summer lawns

Even now, when we experience the crack-up of the suburban dream as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order through movies like American Beauty and Revolutionary Road and TV shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Weeds, the lawn endures in the public mind as a symbol of the American idyll, or at least a white, middle-class idyll.

Its geometric precision, not a hair out of place, celebrates the subjugation and exploitation of nature that made this nation great even as it makes a virtue of the mind-cramping conformism decried, in the heyday of the 'burbs, by books like The Organization Man. The radiant artificiality of its Astroturf greenness proclaims the American faith in technological progress (brought to you, in this case, by Monsanto's weed-killer, Roundup®), not to mention our squeamishness about wild nature—a legacy, perhaps, of our Puritan forebears, for whom the forest primeval was a nest of hostile natives and, even more worryingly, Satan's dark dominion. Whatever the reason, we like our nature staring glassily back at us, stuffed and mounted on a knotty-pine wall, or turning cartwheels in a SeaWorld aquarium, or reborn as Audio-Animatronic fauna in one of Disney's robotic Edens. Like the putting green, the ballpark, and, not coincidentally, Forest Lawn, the soft-as-suede, impossibly green yard is a mortician's idea of nature; a sardonic memorial to the wild place this used to be, before bulldozers made the land safe for sprawl. (Parenthetically, I have to wonder if the fashion trend away from the untamed hippie bush, in American women, to depilated porn-star pubes is yet more evidence of our neurotic fear of wild things, an android mons for a CGI world.)

Illustration: Los Angeles at dawn, by Rob Beschizza

The lawn has always been Dad's domain, a fiefdom for the common man who might be a schmuck at work but, astride his John Deere riding mower, is master of all he surveys. Here, on suburbia's shrine to private property and naked self-interest, the Lord of the Manor is free to indulge his control-freak tendencies to the fullest, weed-whacking the specters of social chaos into submission, working out his personal issues, as we like to say, with mower and leaf-blower.

During the reign of the Great Golfer, as Gore Vidal dubbed Eisenhower, the manly manicuring of the yard assumed the status of religious devotions. Like model railroading and building ships in bottles, both hobbies associated with suburban men in the '50s and '60s, lawn perfectionism gave full rein to fantasies of unfettered control and unchallenged authority, if only on a Lilliputian scale; as such, it was balm to the soul of the stressed-out Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, though it hinted, simultaneously, at the source of those stresses: the first stirrings of feminist challenges to patriarchal power, the growing obsolescence of the Father Knows Best faith in Dad as warm, wise head of the household. ("Your father is always right" was Bukowski's mother's only comment on her husband's ritual beatings of her son.)

Of course, the need to keep up with the Joneses played into Dad's obsession: since the dawn of the 'burbs, around 1870, the ornamental lawn, a democratized version of the rambling grounds that in Europe only nobility could afford and maintain, has been a status symbol in the States. Keeping the front yard, at least, in trim, as squared away as a marine's high-and-tight haircut or the hospital corners on a boot-camp cot, brought out the competitive streak in Dad, a sublimated form of male threat-posturing and territory-marking.

As well, the cult of lawn care allowed Dad to play Jeffersonian yeoman for a day, engaging in manly fresh-air labor while communing with nature (albeit with the aid of an arsenal of gas-powered toys for grown-up boys). A vestigial remnant of the more strenuous masculinity of pre-industrial days, mowing the lawn, like manning the backyard grill, was Viagra for overstressed executives and working stiffs alike, putting suburban men in touch (if only symbolically) with their manlier sides.

Levittown in 1957

As the agrarian way of life faded into Currier & Ives prints, economic and social forces swept millions out of rural America, into the newly industrialized cities.

In the postwar decades, the demographic wave rolled back: middle-class whites emigrated to the ringworlds of suburbia, seduced by the broker poetry of home ownership, open spaces, fresh air, and, reading between the lines, a cordon sanitaire between Us and Them—between Middle American dreams of cocktails and canasta; of tidy, striving lives lived on gridded streets, where the wheels of the bus go 'round and 'round and Officer Friendly is on patrol; and, far from the burbs' hissing lawns, the huddled masses in housing projects.

Now, a new cultural dynamic is returning the Don and Betty Drapers of our day to the nation's big cities. Increasingly, the 'burbs and exurbs resemble decaying orbital colonies, maintained by a dwindling population of homesteaders too old or too cash-strapped to join the exodus back to Planet Earth. Poverty, synonymous in the '60s and '70s with minority neighborhoods in the inner city, is increasingly a factor in what might be called suburban blight. So, too, is auto exhaustion. The car, which once seemed so liberating that suburbia, with its mile-wide streets and nonexistent sidewalks, was virtually a monument to it, now feels, to suburbanites frozen in commutes straight out of the traffic jam from Hell in Godard's Weekend, like solitary confinement on wheels.

"Many Americans are tiring of the physical aspect of the suburbs, the design of which has changed dramatically over the years to gradually spread people farther and farther apart from one another and the things they like to do, making them increasingly reliant on their cars and, increasingly, on Thelma and Louise-length commutes," writes the Fortune editor Leigh Gallagher in The End of Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving. Every decade since the invention of the automobile, she notes, "suburban population growth has outpaced that of urban centers"—until 2011, when, for the first time in a century, the trend pendulum swung back: "Construction permit data shows that in several cities, building activity that was once concentrated in the suburban fringe has now shifted primarily to cities, or what planners call the 'urban core.'"

Water sprinklers on a drought-stricken lawn, by Surveyor

Despite such tectonic shifts, the suburban lawn remains an imperishable symbol of the American Dream, even of America itself, the deflation of its symbolic currency and its environmental unsustainability notwithstanding. The perfect lawn has always been environmentally unsustainable, its non-native grasses guzzling precious water and nourished by chemical fertilizers, its unblemished sward a victory over insurgent flora and fauna achieved through sustained carpet-bombing with toxic herbicides and pesticides. In an age of water wars and global warming, it's morally obscene. According to a 2002 Harris Poll, 50-70% of all urban fresh water is squandered on lawns, more than half of which is wasted "because of inappropriate timing or dosage. Nearly all the water used could be saved by appropriate use of native landscaping that does not require any watering beyond natural rainfall." We dose our lawns with 67 million pounds' worth of synthetic pesticides annually, three times the amount used, per acre, on agricultural crops. We spend $5.25 billion on fossil-fuel-derived lawn fertilizers, whose fringe benefits include poisoning surface and ground water. Our gas-powered mowers produce as much pollution in one hour as our cars do over the course of a 20-mile drive; every year, they guzzle 580 million gallons of gas.

Whether men—whose social status and gender roles have been shaken by the demise of blue-collar manufacturing jobs, the 2008 recession, and the growing number of households where women are the primary breadwinners—will double down on their quest for the perfect lawn, clinging to the lawn-care rituals of their '50s fathers like life rafts in a turbulent world, remains to be seen. But there's little doubt that, in a country where a man's home is his castle, his yard is his pride, and the legal lunacy of stand-your-ground laws and the defense-of-habitation doctrine are official writ, in many states, the suburban lawn will bear witness to more than one farcical tragedy.

The first is already on the books: in February 2009, a homeowner in Union Township, near Cincinnati, matter-of-factly informed a 911 operator, "I just killed a kid." Charles Martin, a retired Ford Motor Company worker, blew away his neighbors' 15-year-old son, Larry Mugrage, with a shotgun blast to the chest because the boy had been "making the other kids harass me and my place," as the 66-year-old Martin told the dispatcher, "tearing things up." According to a CBS new report, "Police said crossing that lawn is what got Mugrage killed. Martin, who lived alone, told officers he'd had several disputes with neighbors about walking on his grass…"

Known in the neighborhood as a quiet man (aren't they always?), Martin could often be seen sitting in front of his one-story home, contemplating his neatly cropped shrubbery and obsessively maintained lawn. A flagpole flying Old Glory and a U.S. Navy flag provided the finishing touch. In the CBS story, a neighborhood teen offers what could be a valediction for any one of numberless men in suburbia, living lives of quiet sociopathology: "He was real protective over his yard and mowed it a lot, and sometimes even measured the grass with a yardstick."

—Mark Dery