Leonard Stern, Ottawa Citizen – Henry and Vera Jones, as the Citizen reported this week, outed themselves as social radicals by publicly rejecting the ideal of a manicured lawn.
The couple have a big backyard in Constance Bay and some months ago decided to hell with watering, fertilizing, cutting and weeding. Henry is a former Fisheries and Oceans scientist who has some understanding of ecology, so he and Vera decided to create a natural green space in lieu of a lawn. They would let the grass grow, plant an assortment of butterfly-friendly plants and allow a mini-meadow to emerge.
The neighbors were not impressed. Someone complained to the city’s bylaw officials, who then sent the Joneses a letter threatening to come down there and cut the grass if the couple didn’t do it themselves. Unmowed lawns in Constance Bay will not be tolerated. The resistance must be put down. Order will be re-established.
The neighbors deny that this is about anyone’s refusal to conform. They say the Jones garden is attracting too many insects and critters to the area and thus diminishing the ability of others to enjoy their own properties. Still, it’s clear that the Joneses are in equal trouble for breaching a strict code of suburban etiquette. “It looks just awful,” said one disapproving neighbor.
The central irony of suburbia is that we give the streets names like Meadow Grove and Orchard Drive while ensuring that all traces of meadows and orchards are erased. The appearance of an actual meadow is an act of rebellion.
More than a decade ago, the Canadian cultural critic Robert Fulford observed that the suburban lawn had become an instrument of public shaming and social control.
“[A] dandelion’s appearance on a lawn indicates that Sloth has taken up residence in paradise and is about to spread evil in every direction,” he wrote. Weeds demonstrate a “weakness of the soul,” announcing to the world that “the owner of the house refuses to respect the neighborhood’s right to peace, order and good government.”. . .
They say that clothes express the man, but in fact it’s the lawn that does. A large expanse of flat, weedless grass in front of your house conveys a bunch of social messages. It suggests discipline, an ability to tame the natural world. As Fulford says, lawns express an “imperialist personality.”
Lawns are examples of conspicuous consumption, and like other such symbols have status attached to them. The more wasteful your lifestyle, the more money you are seen to have.
Maintaining a large velvety front lawn is not as excessive as keeping a private jet or killing an elephant for its tusks, but it is a symbol of waste nonetheless. . .
The need to build denser and more efficient communities could spell the end of the road for the big green lawn. The environmentalist impulse behind denser communities and smart living has already interfered with lawn culture, in the form of pesticide bans. Without chemicals, the effort required to maintain the equivalent of a putting green on your property becomes much harder. . .
Right now the Joneses are being derided as non-conformist troublemakers. Someday, they might be hailed as trendsetters.