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Society & Ecology
Saturday, July 19, 2003  

We are doing yardwork at our co-op today, which mainly involves lawn maintenance. The lawn will eventually be replaced with something else, but that is still somewhat in the future.

The history of lawns shows how many seemingly insignificant factors combined to have a large impact - on the look of our communities and how we spend much of our time.

The precursors of our modern lawns were the grazing areas around the manors in Great Britain. Following the industrial revolution, maintaining a lawn required hiring gardeners or having significant free time, and they became a symbol of wealth and disposable resources. As Great Britain was the main superpower of the day, this particular status symbol was adopted around the world.

[Possible sequence: (a) The few wealthy graze sheep around their manors. The poorer use the commons. (b) The wealthy shift their investments from livestock to factories during the industrial revolution. They are used to short grass around their manors, and hire gardeners to mimick the effects of grazing sheep. (c) Short grass/lawns become a status symbol, also for the growing middle class. (d) Great Britain is the main superpower of the day, and people around the world adopt this particular British status symbol.]

Today, lawns are partly a status symbol, but more than that - they are a sign of our lack of imagination. We plant, or inherit and maintain, a lawn because we don't know what else to do with it.

There are currently about 30 to 40 million acres of lawn in the US (estimates vary), which makes it the largest crop in North America. We spend $17.4 billion dollars, 300 million gallons of gas and 1 billion hours to maintain our lawns.

A look at biology gives us the reason for lawns being such resource sinks.

All ecosystems evolve towards greater diversity and maturity, and lawns are a prime example of immature ecosystems (a monoculture). Through growing long grass and "weeds" they move towards increased diversity and maturity. In maintaining lawns, we work against natural processes which - not surprisingly - requires an investment of large resources (time, money, gas, chemicals).

There are fortunately many attractive alternatives, ranging from low to high maintenance, and having few to multiple functions. Some examples are rock gardens, meadows and prairie (good insect and wildlife habitat), xeriscaping (plants thriving on regular rainfall in the area), and a flower and herbal groundcover.

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