Humans evolved on the African savannah. We were safer there than we had been in the jungle, where beasts lurked in the undergrowth. In the savannah we could scan the horizon for predators by standing upon our hind legs. This is why people like open grasslands and lawns today: we are genetically predisposed towards them. Or so thinks E.O.Wilson, the world authority on ants and author of ‘Biophilia.’ Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis suggests that humans have an instinctive connection with nature. The book is a pretty heart-warming read. He tells us that the big eyes and small heads of baby animals trigger some sort of gooey response mechanism in our brains. Another biophilia researcher has found that hospital patients recover more quickly if they have a view looking onto trees. It seems that everyone is a nature lover, it is written in our DNA.
But what about the love for lawns? Our private savannahs, the vantage points from which we can keep a watchful eye on lurking neighbours, stray footballs from next door, and other, latter day lions. Are they a manifestation of our deep bond with nature, or do they suggest that at some point in our history, biophilia mutated into something malignant?
Lawns have been around for a long time. In England the rich and famous have been carpeting their pleasure gardens with them since the Roman period. Aged Britons have whittled away their last days by playing bowls on them for almost 800 years. Some lawns have been regarded as sites of tranquillity, monastic gardens often contained large squares of cropped grass, and they always occupy the centre of cloisters. In 1260 the Dominican Albertus Magus wrote that, ‘the sight is in no way so pleasantly refreshed as by the fine and close grass kept short.’
Other lawns became status symbols. Until recently they were very expensive. Few could afford to leave their land uncultivated or ungrazed, and fewer still could afford to pay people to scythe and shear it. ‘Capability’ Brown, the landscaping magus, made the lawn the foundation of his English landscape garden blueprint. As a result, the copses and hedges surrounding mansions were grubbed up to make way for carefully cut grass. Thanks to the invention of the lawn mower in the nineteenth century, the aspiring masses have been able to catch up with monasteries and palaces, and can cultivate their own patches of grass. Today, almost all British gardens have a lawn. However, their
affordability hasn’t dented their significance as a social marker. Every self respecting middle class family knows that a household’s character is judged upon the neatness of its grassy stripes. To forego the weekly mow is to air your dirty laundry in public. It’s just not done.
Unfortunately, this collective love of mown grass has created noxious green deserts in our suburbs and cities. Rachel Carson wrote about the perils of garden chemicals back in the 1960s. She documented cases of pesticide poisoning, chemical induced cancers and birth defects in the U.S. Other effects of maintaining a tidy lawn include groundwater contamination, bird and insect poisoning and air pollution. Despite all of this people continue to wage chemical warfare against their gardens. Nestled amongst the plastic lined goldfish ponds and piddling concrete cherubs of my local garden centre is an entire wall dedicated to poisons with names like Slug Slayer and Ant Death. And the sprays and pellets are only half of the problem. Most British lawns contain just four grasses: Lolium, Festuca, Agrostis and Poa. Underneath Britain’s manicured green stubble lie doomed seedbanks, packed full of interesting species. Those seeds which push up a shoot into a garden are likely to have it sprayed, or at best decapitated by a mower blade. The historian and ecologist Oliver Rackham explains that it takes 150 years to establish a species rich meadow. Only in these ancient, untidy lawns, free from overzealous mowing and fertiliser, can one find venerable plants such as horseshoe vetch, bastard toadflax and milkwort. It takes decades for such grasslands to recover from a weedkilling. Jesus Green in Cambridge still bears the scars from having been sprayed in the 1970s.
Lawns are powerful, so powerful that we risk life and limb in tending them. Not only are they a marker of class and morality—we are also genetically hard wired to love the things. Those who challenge the status quo are met with their neighbours’ bile. Every year, lawsuits are launched against the owners of backyard jungles. The government is on side too—the ‘Eyesore Garden Scheme’ in Barking and Dagenham has ‘tidied up’ 3,050 gardens because they were deemed to be ‘bringing the area down.’ Luckily, there are a few brave gardeners out there resisting neighbourhood lawn enforcement. Michael Pollan, the author of ‘Second Nature,’ has documented the moment at which he decided to do battle with the Joneses—
‘I made an incision in the lawn with the sharp edge of a spade. Starting at one end, I pried the sod from the soil and slowly rolled it up like a carpet. The grass made a tearing sound as I broke its grip on the earth. I felt a little like a pioneer subduing the forest with his ax; I daydreamed of scalping the entire yard.’
More and more people are gardening for wildlife rather than for their neighbours. Along with tearing up their lawns they are planting wildflower meadows, digging ponds and building compost heaps. They are filling their gardens with mess—piles of decaying wood, boulders and rotting windfall fruit that will attract wild plants and animals back into our cities.
Our gardens mark the boundary which we have drawn between ourselves and wild nature. The manicured lawn is illustrative of an entirely tame world from which wildness is banished. Michael Pollan believes that lawns instil us with a hostile attitude towards the land—biophobia rather than biophilia. Wildlife gardens offer a brighter metaphor for our relationship with the natural world. They suggest that a compromise can be made between the human desire for order and the unbounded energy of the wild. Our ancestors may have evolved on the savannah but with any luck our descendants will plant new jungles in which to live.
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