Friday, May 21, 2010

A Modest Attraction

The lawn on our new house in Edgebrook is a little mangy.

I've been mowing it about once a week for the past month and it's thick with dandelion, rogue clover and struggling Kentucky Bluegrass. It looks tidy for a day or two after I mow it.

Most of the lawns in the neighborhood are lush and tidy. They're shampooed and conditioned then tended to by weekly lawn and yard maintenance crews. I see them when I'm home with the girls on weekday afternoons. A couple trucks pull up, mulch is spread, twigs are plucked from shrubs and large industrial mowers give the lawn a nice manicure.

These kinds of lawns are a convention that few stray from and a relatively new one at that. They date back to at least the 1870s, if not earlier. In his amazing book, Crabgrass Frontier, Kenneth T. Jackson writes of the origins of the modern day yard:

By 1870 separateness had become essential to the identity of the suburban house. The yard was expected to be large and private and designed for both active and passive recreation, in direct antithesis to the dense lifestyle from which many families had recently moved. The new ideal was no longer to be part of a close community, but to have a self-contained unit, a private wonderland walled off from the rest of the world. Although visually open to the street, the lawn was a barrier--a kind of verdant moat separating the household from the threats and temptations of the city. It served as a means of transition from the public street to the very private house, as a kind of space that, by the very fact of its having no clearly defined function, mediated between the activities of the outside and the activities of the inside.

By the time of the post-WWII housing boom, this lawn care vision reigned supreme and millions of new home buyers invested in all the tools and accessories that came with its upkeep. Our own garage is testimony to this.

These lawns look great, don't get me wrong. Folks have managed to do all sorts of amazing things with their lawns, and those I find I like the most always seem to convey a peaceful stillness. They stir memories of my own suburban upbringing, my parents lawn and my grandparents lawn in North Olmsted. I respect and empathize with the kind of love they can inspire in their owners.

That being said, I'm looking forward to removing our front lawn next spring. The usual concern that comes with suggesting such a thing is the neighbors might somehow take offense, see it as blemish on the otherwise unspoken agreement to keep and maintain well-groomed lawns. But that's not it at all. In the year or so since I worked on the documentary about the Morton Grove Prairie Nature Preserve I've wanted to turn whatever ended up being my lawn into a showcase for the plants that used to cover roughly 2/3 of Illinois just a couple hundred years ago.

I'll admit, I've become a little obsessed. I'm thrilled by the prospects of landscaping with native plants instead of keeping up with our current mowing regimen. What we're envisioning will be nicely groomed and well tended. It won't be freaky, unruly, pagan or fountain-endowed. It won't frighten children or make dogs growl. I have no doubt that we'll make good and attentive stewards! My genuine hope is that it'll make a nice contribution to our neighborhood, mabye even become a modest attraction. We'll sell t-shirts.