Confessions of a Lawn Killer

"A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands.
"How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.
"I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven."-Walt Whitman
"Leaves of Grass"

"A miracle in the desert, or in your yard."-James Whitmore
Will Rogers impersonator
from a commercial for Miracle-Gro

A Paris-born professor with the same first name as the hurricane that just wrecked the Gulf Coast-his word association, not mine-is speaking with me from Princeton University; he's trying to talk me out of killing my quintessentially Southern California front lawn. Well, actually, he's just trying to get me to stop sounding so holier-than-thou about it. But it boils down to the same thing. See, the reason I'm going to kill my front lawn, whereas you are not, is that a higher power has told me to. And I'm not talking about my power mower. Or James Whitmore, either. My conscience has kicked in. Converting the desert into an English country garden is shaping up as Southern California's original sin. Count me out of that machine-in-the-techno-garden deal with the devil. As for you and your Marathon III seed and your Miracle-Gro and your timed sprinkler system and your 3 1/2 horsepower Craftsman front-throw, well, I imagine they've got some amazingly drought-tolerant lawns in hell.Look, I like my front lawn. I was raised to like it. My dad, concerned that I might miss out on the kind of hard, monotonous, itchy chores that were so much a part of his life growing up on an Iowa farm, made sure that my upbringing in suburbia featured plenty of lawn work. He was certain it would shape my character. Mostly, it exacerbated my allergies. But mowing lawns did earn me spending money. And I did grow up to have a nice lawn in front of my own home. It's thick, evergreen and (almost) weed-free, closely cropped and precisely edged. It maintains my status among my neighbors and increases the value of my property. The kids next door love to shortcut across it. Dogs love to crap on it. And just once, I'd love to catch one of those sneaky bastards. Or even one of the dogs, although they really don't know any better. Besides all that, saying the word "fescue" gives me a strange pleasure.But I've had a spiritual experience, a psychic change, and a series of water bills that confirm that my lawn is living larger than me. I'm done worrying about who has the lushest patch of grass. Mine is a bigger picture. Life is not all about keeping up with the Joneses; it's about transcending them. Lately, I can't stop considering the greater consequences of the velvety green carpets we cultivate. About the immense amounts of water imported to raise a lawn. About the runoff of fertilizers and pesticides into rivers, lakes, bays and the ocean. About dwindling habitat for butterflies and birds and insects and animals as native plants are removed in favor of a flat expanse of grass. About the air pollution and noise emitted by power tools. And about the incredible number of man-hours we lose every year to the game of golf. I have become convinced that the death of my lawn is a small sacrifice to save and restore these pieces of the Divine Puzzle.And so my front lawn must die. Its soft, verdant presence is an abomination on the natural landscape created by a semiarid climate. Orange County is supposed to consist mostly of prickly scrub brush that hangs on for dear life to soil that is alternately whipped into clouds of choking dust or saturated into troughs of impenetrable mud. That's what nature intended. But do you even remember the last time you saw a tumbleweed? Were bitten by a chigger? Slathered calamine lotion on a bad case of poison oak? Fell down in the dirt next to a cow's skeleton croaking, "Water. . . . Water. . . . "? Oh, how far we have strayed! So, anyway, I've got this really smart French guy on the phone, remember? Georges Teyssot-accent and all-is a professor at the Princeton School of Architecture. When I told people about my lawn-killing mission, lots of them suggested I contact Teyssot, who is the creator of a major exhibit at the Canadian Center for Architecture in Montreal called "The American Lawn: Surface of Everyday Life." But when I tell Teyssot of my intentions, of my passions, well, he doesn't sound that supportive. He poses more questions than answers."Yes, you can kill your lawn, but the problem is: What would you return it to?" Teyssot wonders. "Perhaps many other people would follow you, kill their lawns, too. But again, what would be the real alternative? A lot of the ecologies that people think can be easily re-established would, in fact, be very complicated-if not impossible."A good, if rather depressing, point. Lots of our soil has been altered by various uses-growing crops, grazing cattle, raising chickens, grading and landfilling, fertilizing lawns-over the past few hundred years, and what used to be wide, open spaces are neither. But what about the other ecologies that are being ruined-like Mono Lake, which is getting shallower and saltier, and the Colorado River, which fizzles out in the middle of the desert instead of gurgling into the Gulf of California-because their water is siphoned to Southern California?At this juncture, Teyssot begins to sound a little funny-or, more accurately, as though he is trying to be funny. Suddenly, I'm not certain if he's calling from Princeton or the Improv."If it is water for your lawn that worries you," says Teyssot, an unmistakable chuckle creeping into his voice-and it's really weird to hear a French guy laugh-"maybe we could tow an iceberg from the Canadian Arctic and park it off the coast. That could solve the problem of irrigating your lawn, and it would help deal with the problem of the weak Canadian dollar at the same time. Or maybe we could do it with a pipeline? My solution for replacing the front lawn would be to have truckloads of green gravel poured in front of everybody's houses."Okay, I get it. The French and Jerry Lewis, remember? Yeah, sure, Georges, and maybe we could create that gravel by grinding up the Arc de Triomphe-oh, except then the gravel would have a big yellow streak!"Actually, I don't have a workable idea," admits Teyssot, slapped out of standup and back into academia. "The great invention of America is the suburbs, and the iconic perfection of the suburban lawn is one of the great Southern California exports throughout the world. There are now lawns in the Middle Eastern desert. But the lawn is full of contradictions. It inverts a much older system of values. If you live in a suburb in France, you are a derelict, excluded from wealth and civilization. We call it the periphery. In this country, you have emptied the center and created wonderful suburbs, where maintenance of a lawn signifies participation in the community. Some people criticize it, but at the same time, it is remarkable and uniquely American."Our lawn grasses aren't, though. North America had no perennial lawn or pasture grasses when the first European colonists arrived. The seed of this revolution has come from all over the world-Bermuda grass from Africa, so-called Kentucky bluegrass from Europe-and been hybrid into types that will grow throughout the U.S. Ironically, most of the rest of the world still designs its residential landscapes much differently, with flower gardens and interior courtyards. The American front lawn as we most often think about it-the single-family house surrounded by grass-wasn't part of the original spirit of 1776. It began about the time Johnny came marching home. The first American lawn mowers were patented in the 1860s. From sea to shining sea and through a lot of cleared forests and filled marshes, the 20th century has seen the creation of an American savanna. And the lawn mower has become this country's internal-combustion fife and drum, paying a patriotic tribute to this peculiar value system. Like neckties on business suits, the front lawns of American homes testify to the taste and industry of the people inside. They are just about as useless, too.Bizarrely, this new landscape serves as a source of cultural pride. Predictably, it also turns a profit. On the one hand, the suburban lawn is important to Americans' definition of themselves, seeming to keep alive a connection with our agrarian heritage. And on the other? "America has an incredible capacity to industrialize whatever it does-from the cars it drives to the food it eats-and the lawn has been industrialized to great success," observes Teyssot. "The lawn industry is thriving. Now we have to cope with the bad effects of industry."Yeah, well, I've got your coping mechanism right here. It's called a roto-tiller.Mother Nature seems to be holding her breath along Alton Parkway in Irvine, where two weeks into autumn, the grass that is everywhere remains paralyzed in a silent scream of perfect summer green. The effect is simultaneously surreal and very clarifying. In these parts, it's the Woodbridge Village Homeowners Association that makes the rules, and the green, green grass of home-not to mention along the roadside, in the median and the vast front lawn of Irvine City Hall-is a year-round civic litmus test. Come to think of it, as I drive toward the Irvine Ranch Water District headquarters, I'm a little tense in the chest myself. There's a meeting of the Orange County chapter of the California Native Plant Society tonight: how brazenly insidious it seems for this group of back-to-nature lovers to assemble in a multimillion-dollar monument to ill-gotten H20.But there is a breeze drifting in from the east, and when I arrive, the fragrance of sage or chaparral-or whatever plant it is that reminds me of camping at O'Neill Park-is wafting across the parking lot, which sits on the edge of what passes for Orange County open space. It's kinda nice, especially when I cover my ears to shut out the roar of the Santa Ana Freeway. Other nights, when the wind comes from the opposite direction, the scent is agricultural, from whatever crops are being cultivated on the other side of Sand Canyon Road. Somehow, that's okay with me, too. But the lights on the horizon remind me that anybody who wants to get a whiff of this had better get out here with their nasal spray and ear plugs in a hurry. Pretty soon, it's all gonna smell like wet grass. The massive Oak Creek housing development-the Baby Huey of Woodbridge-is being born as we speak. The lawns along the roadsides are already planted.Inside, the ambiance of the California Native Plant Society feels like a 12-step meeting for wayward botanists, complete with coffee pot, literature table and ultra-amicable camaraderie. I have come seeking direction and support, my earlier certainty about killing my lawn having disintegrated into wishful longing and fits of bluster. But as I look at these people in their T-shirts and khakis and kitschy floral prints, I wonder if I am really one of them.Suddenly, Nina Lubick-Reich is standing next to me, coming across like equal parts Mary Poppins and Emma Peel, flashing a cheery overbite that still can't blind me to her underlying subversiveness, extending her hand, and then coming right out and saying it: "Good evening. I am the grass murderer of Fullerton."I don't know what to say. Then I realize she isn't talking to me.From the other side comes another hand, another shared-secret chortle, and the same sweet dissidence. And Sandra Huwe says: "Good evening. I am the grass murderer of Anaheim."And then I realize they are talking to me, or at least in my language. These are people who have already taken the action that I am merely considering, who have sacrificed their lawns as an act of personal conscience and public service. They have replaced their Bermuda grass with Matilija poppies, substituted Mexican flannelbush for their St. Augustine, and planted manzanita in place of dichondra. And in some places, they haven't got anything at all. "Open, plain, brown dirt is acceptable," Mike Evans, the evening's featured speaker, is telling them, mantra-like. "More than that, it is desirable. That's the way California really looks."Actually, that last little tidbit is hard to swallow for most people who have grown up in post-World War II Southern California and its government-financed suburban development. Evans knows because he is one of them; he was born and raised in Newport Beach. Now, however, he lives in San Juan Capistrano, where he operates the Tree of Life Nursery, one of California's largest native-plant nurseries. For Evans, native-plant gardening has become a profession, a hobby and something of a crusade."We've been swallowed up by an overall appearance that we think of as California, but it really isn't," says Evans. "Rather than a series of identical lush grass lawns that must be watered and mowed constantly, the real California is a subtle and varied assortment of flowers and bushes and groundcovers that grow naturally and thrive on whatever rain happens to fall. There should be laws against front-yard lawns. Just say no to turf."That's what Evans did 20 years ago, before he even moved into his house, which had a tree, a fence and a lawn. "I sprayed the lawn with herbicide and yanked out the tree, and the neighbors thought, 'Oh, my God!'" says Evans, who is stocky and muscular like a botanical Bronko Nagurski. "I tore out the dead lawn, turned over the soil, and put in plants and seed mixes. The first year, there were lots of flowers, and it's been that way every year since. And the whole front yard has never taken much maintenance. I love it. But it might get you kicked out of Irvine.""Oh, it's not as extreme as all that," says an official at the Woodbridge Village Homeowners Association, who refused to be quoted by name, citing the "sensitivity" of the subject. "Those rules were written more than 20 years ago, when we were brand-new. People can change their front-yard landscaping. They do it all the time. They merely have to turn in a landscaping plan for approval."So, if someone submitted a landscaping plan that called for the complete removal of the lawn, replacing it with a collection of California native plants-or, for example, a Japanese plant-and-rock garden-that would probably be approved?"Well, no," says the spokesman. "Our code book does have regulations. We don't allow themed landscaping. And you'd have to have some grass, a percentage. Off the top of my head, I'd say you have to have 80 percent grass. Our CCR-that's covenants, codes and restrictions-people [will] get on you if you don't."Listening to this, my herbicidal tendencies rise again. I'm embarrassed that I have been duped for so long, angry that this false version of California is imposed on so many people. But then I remember some of my best childhood memories, of playing kickball or running with my dog or just lying on the grass, and I get sentimental and confused."If you have kids playing on it or parties on it, that's a different story," Evans says, softening a little. "But most of those activities are usually in the back yard. It's the front yard that tends to be absurd because the only thing you do is walk on it to mow it. It's green, and the neighbors see it, but other plants are green and beautiful, too."My indignant anger is not shared by others in the room, anyway. Their conversion to a lawnless life is not just a change of their personal scenery but a movement toward inner serenity. I'd be tempted to call them weenies, except two of them are admitted Grass Murderers."You cannot imagine the joy I've experienced since I killed my grass," says Lubick-Reich, who did the deed less than six months ago, shortly after moving into a small house in the Fullerton hills. "It's wonderful to sit in the kitchen and just watch. The place is alive."Lubick-Reich's front yard is now an explosion of colorful blossoms that attract butterflies, bumblebees and hummingbirds, as well as stares from the occupants of slow-moving cars, the intrigue of neighbors, and the worried sigh of the guy who no longer mows every lawn in the neighborhood. "I did it the easy way," she says. "I just cleared the grass and bought packets of the cheapest seed I could find. Then I put a layer of mulch over them and went on vacation. When I came back, this is what I had."The transformation of Huwe's home in Anaheim is an ongoing, 2-year-old project. "First, I took out the front yard," she says. "Then I enjoyed it so much that the following fall, I took out the grass in back. I ended up renting a jackhammer and taking out concrete. I can't stop. It's a disease. Now I'd like to move on to a bigger place with more land."But neither Lubick-Reich nor Huwe looks upon her lawnless garden as a statement of defiance or as the starting line for a landscaping revolution. "You really can't stop progress," says Lubick-Reich, shrugging. Huwe adds, "But the world is changing so dramatically that it's nice to have some control over your little slice of it."Believe it or not, there's a small rainbow stretching across my front yard! Yes, there is, and that mystical collection of colors-created, in this case, by the sunlight shining through the sprinkler-poses a silent but profound question: What kind of an idiot waters his lawn two days before he's going to kill it?Who knows? It's habit. It's sympathy. It's guilt. It's been more than a week since I last watered-and the grass is looking a bit singed. It's also a suspicion, way back in my mind, that I might not go through with this.But then more rainbows appear. The automatic sprinklers, buried in the median in the middle of my street, pop up and launch wide fans of water across the grass. I remember when the city first landscaped those medians, replacing asphalt with lawn, how good I felt that municipal money was, for once, being channeled into a project with environmental and aesthetic value. For a while, that strip of landscaping made me feel connected with the natural world. Now, as I watch the water spray over the median and onto the pavement, collect in puddles, drool toward the gutter, and then slide down the street toward the storm drains, the grassy median emphasizes how remote I am from it. Decisively, I turn off my sprinklers. My lawn has had its last supper. At dawn, it's dead.Except that just past dawn-okay, I slept in-my gardener, Abel Alegria, pulls up in front of the house. It's lawn-mowing day. I forgot about him, and I feel a tinge of apprehension as I go outside to break the news about killing my front lawn. From now on, he'll only have to mow the back."You're going to do new landscaping?" Alegria asks me. "You really don't need it. We can get rid of these few weeds without killing all the grass.""Well, I'm not going to have any grass at all out front anymore," I tell him. "It's going to be all plants, all California native plants. I've been going to meetings. These plants will be pretty. And they will save water."Alegria raises his eyebrows skeptically. "Yeah, well, good. Cool," he says. "Uh, so you don't want me to mow it today?""No, I'm gonna kill it today," I say. "You'll never have to mow it again.""You going to spray it?""Yep, spray it to death," I say definitively, turning to go into the house.When I reach the front porch, Alegria calls out to me. He's standing in the middle of my lawn, his straw hat pushed back, his hands on his hips."Boy, it's a shame you're gonna kill this grass," he says wistfully.I shrug."Shame on you, David," Alegria says suddenly, obviously working hard to smile. "Shame on you."A few minutes later, I go outside to pay him. He is yanking the cord on the mower-in the front yard. "I'm going to mow it anyway," he says. "You want to?" I ask. "You don't have to.""Yes, I want to," he says. "One last time."My lawn is dying. It's covered with Roundup, the name-brand defoliant that can be found on the shelves of every lawn-and-garden store in Orange County. The leaves of grass are darkened by the liquid I sprayed across it this morning. It is emitting that deathly sweet aroma that just says poison in every possible way. It's going to take a week or so for the killing process to be complete, but there's no saving this lawn now. Like that guy in the movie D.O.A., it's as good as dead already.I had anticipated this would be a Robert Duvall moment, one of those "I love the smell of Roundup in the morning" exultations, but this experience doesn't smell like anything good. My dog, who loves to roll on this grass, won't go near it. The 9-year-old girl next door, who last summer had a picnic on this lawn with two of her girlfriends, begins to cut across it and then stops and goes around. She sees me putting away the equipment, comes up the driveway and asks me two questions."You're killing it?""Yep.""Why?"I consider reciting the evils of the lawn, the water it demands, the environments it destroys, how unnatural it is, and how much better this yard is going to be filled with native plants, and hopefully, birds and butterflies. I almost tell her what a good thing it is I'm doing, how good it feels to take some action, to make a difference by making a sacrifice, by making a change. But those things seem far away from this somber scene. So I tell her the truth."I don't know completely," I say. "I guess I'm gonna find out."


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