From Savannas To Suburbs


(Original photo by Tambako The Jaguar.)

Imagine, if you will, our ancient ancestors prowling the arid savannas of Africa in search of prey. Their eyes dart across the thick, wild grass, their hands firmly clutched around their spears. Just then, a cheetah ambles into view, bold and fearless in its countenance. The men, quiet and steady, fix their gazes on their target.

Now fast-forward to 2014. A man or woman not unlike ourselves prowls their lawn in search of weeds. Our imaginary person is wearing gloves and holding a bucket, tearing out dandelions and crabgrass by the roots. Just then, a squirrel ambles into view. A dog barks.

“Shut up, Jake! Hey!”

Perhaps the parallel sounds strained to you, but some believe that the American preference for wide, grassy lawns is genetically hardwired into our brains. Somehow, some way, it reminds us of the savanna. Not that there’s any proof. It’s just conjecture.

Still, whatever the case may be, Americans do possess a preternatural affection for their lawns, especially our front yards. We dote on our grass, shower our little patches of lawn with more chemicals than Rob Ford, Charlie Sheen, and Lindsay Lohan could consume in an entire year. All told, the lawn care industry is worth tens of billions of dollars. It’s big business, whether you live in Maine or Arizona.


Weep for the beauty he has wrought with his mower. (Original photo by heipei.)

If you grew up in the suburbs, chances are you had at least one neighbor that was nuts about their front yard. It’s inevitable, almost.

In my neighborhood, that person was Jack. He lived across the street a couple houses down. He was that stereotypical old dude that gave candy out to kids and had a niece’s nephew or something that worked for NASA. He was quite popular with the kids on the block.

But woe to the poor adolescent soul that messed up as much as a blade of his grass. Forget the wife and children. His lawn was his true love. He’d actually go out – believe it or not – with scissors to even out the stray blades. You’d see him there in his polo shirt and khaki shorts with a magnifying glass checking for imperfections. The guy was cuckoo for graminoids.

I  know I was on the receiving end of at least a couple stern talking-tos from him whenever my football landed on his lawn one too many times. “You’ll wear out the grass,” he’d say. “Try and keep your football from landing here, please.” He took a deep, paternalistic pride in the unnatural softness of his lawn. Touching his grass was like petting puppy, and it was green almost to a fault.

Not that he spent much time admiring his immaculate lawn. No, his job done, he’d retire to his garage, where could lounge amongst 100 pound bags of fertilizer and admire his various insecticides.

Because, of course, you never hang out in your front yard. You just don’t. It’s a showpiece for your neighbors to marvel at as they drive to and from work or the store. You might spend untold hours mowing your front lawn and treating it with toxic chemicals, pruning every last bush, but if you want to barbecue or have a party, you do it in your back yard.


The products needed to maintain a “healthy” yard illustrate the artifice of the American lawn. Runoff from lawns is a major source of water pollution. (Original photo by Kit Reynolds.)

Parisians, smug and superior in their Frenchness, don’t understand the American obsession with front yards. Dig this: in the Paris suburbs, the houses are practically built on the street. The space saved goes into the backyard, since – you know – that’s where you’ll actually spend most of your time outside. Imagine that. Even the English, whose stately countryside manors inspired the American yard, prefer modest, comparatively tiny front yards.

So why are we so doggone fixated on huge, extravagant front yards?

Certainly, it helps that America is gigantic. There is plenty of space for big front yards and big back yards. Perhaps we like our front yards because it reminds us, collectively, of the bountiful spaces of our country’s rural heritage. Your house is set in the middle of an expansive property, and it’s all yours.

Except that, apparently, rural yards typically looked like shit, muddy and littered with broken farm implements. We didn’t have time back then to a mow a stinkin’ yard. There were cows to tip, corn whiskey to drink. That we’d try to recreate an idealized version of our past that never existed strikes me as a standard American trait, and makes it – for me – the most plausible explanation.


Of course, this is how we imagine our farm would’ve looked like. (Original photo by Nicholas A. Tonelli.)

At any rate, the front yard was permanently encoded in the American landscape when local governments began enforcing mandatory setbacks for homes. As we developed the outskirts of America’s big cities, these new zoning laws pushed homes away from the street, ostensibly provide a buffer against the urban chaos surrounding us. Landscape luminaries like Frederick Law Olmsted (the man behind Central Park and Biltmore) saw this new space in the urban tableau as an opportunity to export the placid ideals of the parks they were busy designing to America’s doorsteps. They encouraged us to plant grass on our new yards and routinely “shave” it because that’s what they did in the English countryside.

Who were we to question the English gentry?

In hindsight, the fussy Olmsted probably wasn’t that different from Jack. I can picture the two stalking the savanna together, dressed as natives. They toss their spears at the cheetah and miss.


6 thoughts on “From Savannas To Suburbs

  1. A well-reasoned commentary on unreasonable behavior. Here in NorCal we skew towards Xeriscaping front and back yards because of drought conditions on/off over the last 40 years.

    Mow it if you got it—otherwise, keep the dust down.

  2. Good to hear about Xeriscaping. Makes the most sense.

    Some of those lawns and artificial lakes out in Las Vegas and Phoenix are disgusting from an environmental perspective.

  3. Old Water Treaties with the Colorado River authorities are behind that mindset. When we lived on the Western Slope of the Rockies our neighbors didn’t think too kindly about the folks downstream in Az, Nv, and SoCal. Because of the treaties, our use was restricted so that there would be enough to sell to the other states.

    My best advice: shower with a friend—it will take your mind off irrigation practices.

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