Sunday, July 18, 2010

How We Said Goodbye to Grass

Five years ago I squatted on our mulch covered backyard, concerned that there was nothing much alive out here. Anne and I had made the bold decision to replace the grass, all of it – remove all the worn and woebegone turf we found here after moving into this house in Quincy and let the underpaid men working for the landscaping company throw it in a truck and drive it all away. At least some things live in the typical monoculture grass lawn (though not many; fewer all the time), I reflected. A few insects; ants, spiders, caterpillars – attracting a few birds to come and pick at the earth. But after we had said goodbye to the landscape company and discovered what they had left behind, very little in the way of actual soil, it was clear we needed to call in reinforcements, lots of them, before this new landscape could support a new ecosystem.
At that first summer’s close, my new plantings had not yet succeeded in covering large portions of the area which had been de-grassed and somewhat replaced – by us, using wheelbarrow, shovel, and rake to transform a truckload of soil into a series of planting beds. Some parts more than others, but much of our back yard remained – at least on the surface – no more than a brown covering of chopped up pieces of wood. Wood mulch. Even the weeds seemed slow to take advantage of the cleared canvas, the tabla rasa of the new landscape.
I was impatient. I wanted fertility, something green; growth. I wanted a living landscape. Until that landscape came alive, I confess to having some second thoughts. I though how nice it would be to sit in the grass in a nice green yard.
But even more than a nice place to sit, I wanted a plant world that would attract other creatures, even the crawly things of the earth we top-of-the-food-chain characters generally turn from in disgust. I wanted roots that would probe and tangle underneath the soil; something for the worms and the legions of invisible microbes which gambol in the subterranean universe to work on. Something to feed the birds, or attract them, make them want to walk around and peck at sprouts, leaves, twigs, and stems for nesting material; berries to temp them. Colors to bewitch the bees and the butterflies; something to buzz about.
I wanted flowers, of course, a kind of showy balance-sheet end product, the flash of color that appeals to that fleshpot of humanity all of us reduce to, a complicated concoction of carbon based cells with sense organs. Our sense organs, after all, have got us into this. Our senses are wide-range stimulation finders, and for many of us flowers – nature’s showiest, most brightly colored art objects –are top draw.
Why does color mean so much to us? Being neither artist nor scientist, I have no idea what to do with this question. But clearly we want color in our lives. Something dull or depressing is “colorless,” we say. Color stands out against a monochrome background, a too familiar routine, anything monotonous or numbingly uniform – color signifies life.
Having convinced myself long ago, by these and other reasons, of the desirability of a varied and colorful plant world in our landscape – a conviction serious enough to cause the two of us to jettison the ground we found here and start over, at considerable expense, on an experiment unlike anything we had done before – it’s hard to understand the satisfaction people appear to derive from in the bland green lawn and dark green low-maintenance evergreen shrub look of so much of residential America.
Certainly a nice green lawn can be attractive. I am a frequent admirer of them. It’s a cool summer look, soft on the eyes. Green is good; I’m a big fan of green myself. I suspect on some biochemical level we need to see it.
But then there are those times when a mono-crop grass lawn is not green. Here we are, once again, in our mid-summer drought – a predictable and often prolonged dry spell; last summer’s “unnaturally” wet July was a rare exception.
When the grass turns brown, a natural response to hot, dry weather, you need something else to look at.

The Grass Not Greener: a faux haiku

The grass is not always
Greener in the other fellow’s yard
Sometimes it’s brown