There was a really annoying feature in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, headlined “Backyard to the Future,” about the author’s joy in bathing his backyard with wifi and layering it with networked gadgets—riding mowers with streaming television, surround speakers, yard work robots, and of course the “smart grill.” The image that illustrated the story showed an entire neighborhood of 8-bit sims experiencing the outdoors through a digital frame. It reminded me of the ad campaign the National Park Service did a few years back that used cartoon computer animals to try to encourage kids to check out the parks.
The American lawn is the enemy of nature, and reprogramming our obsession with it is maybe the easiest possible way we could begin bringing back the American wild—in part by reframing the way we each experience our daily relationship with nature, from holding it at bay to letting it thrive.
I spent my youth, and a decent chunk of my adulthood, as a servant of the American lawn—that emerald expanse of invasive ornamental turf cut to the length of Dobie Gillis’s hair, an idea we acquired from our earlier Americans who wanted to emulate the pretentious gardens of European nobility (without remembering that what the nobles really loved were their private primeval forests). I paid for my first illegally procured six-packs with money from mowing lawns, as a young slacker drafted into the war against grass ever being allowed to grow tall enough to actually propagate seeds. This job also involved pulling weeds, which in the case of my Midwestern boyhood were probably the remaining native plants trying to survive the ecopocalypse of the tilling of the plains. And in my first houses in Texas as a young dad myself, I kept mowing, and raking leaves—even complying with the ridiculous mandate to put the leaves in big brown bags for municipal haul-off.
It’s now been ten years since I mowed a lawn. When we moved here to the house we built at the edge of the urban woods, behind some factories, we let the yard go wild. Not quite as laissez-faire as that sounds. The lot was a brownfield and a dump site. It was bisected by a petroleum transmission pipeline that had been abandoned in place fifteen years earlier, and littered with massive quantities of construction debris—piles of concrete and rebar dumped at what used to be the edge of town. It was already wild and unmowed, but mostly conquered by invasive grasses. So after we got the oil company to take its pipeline out, and a built a little house in the trench from that excavation, we put a green roof on the house and reseeded the yard with the plants of the Blackland prairie—the native grassland that once ran in a wide band from north of Dallas to north of San Antonio, 99% of which has been destroyed by agriculture and development. And words cannot really express how immediately this undertaking filled our world up with new life.
Fuck backyard wifi.
Maybe it’s not for everyone. There are a lot of snakes. As in, coral snakes at the door when you come home from the movies. A big green snake wrapped around the mesquite tree by the path from the car. Occasional biblical infestations of millipedes. Enough mammalian wildlife for the dogs to regularly show up for breakfast with blood on their snouts (sorry, nature). Once in a while a hawk will chase its prey right into the living room window, because it doesn’t even recognize the house—the roof of which looks like a wild field—as a human habitat. Our yard is full of life. Real life, life that is indigenous to this place, mostly, as we actively cultivate an ever-increasing biodiversity in our own backyard. A spring filled with butterflies, baby birds, a menagerie of weird bugs. A human dwelling where wild nature is invited to grow right up to the door, and does.
This approach to the outdoor garden involves a lot less work than a conventional lawn. There is no mowing. Once in a while I might break out the personal flamethrower and burn a patch. But mostly, come spring, we have to do a brief but intense season of weeding. Because the invasive species are all around us, destructive imports just like us, their seeds on the wind and the bottoms of our shoes and the tires of our cars, and maintaining a healthy balance a mere decade into our effort at developing a self-sustaining successional prairie restoration takes some active intervention. The weeds come in early, before winter is over—the cheat grasses that grow in big clumps, crowding out the native flowers; the beggars lice and mutant dandelions and imitation winecup that, if allowed to propagate, will fill the yard with burrs and thistles and extinguish most of the habitat.
Weeding is an outdoor activity that gets little respect. As a kid, it is pretty much the most sucky thing you can be ordered to spend your Saturday doing. As an adult, it is generally framed as the most demeaning of labors. Real landscapers wield chainsaws, axes, or sharp clippers. They move dirt, and train trees. They don’t get down on their knees and pull baby plants from the earth for long hours under the hot sun.
I do, and I love it. Maybe I love it because of the rewards it brings. Because of the way it gets me out there, free from active thought under the blue spring sky. It’s close-up work that lets you get a much deeper understanding of the ecology of your yard, of what’s really going on, how the species interact, compete, cooperate, kind of like the way detailing your car or taking it apart and putting it back together is the only way you will understand what it really is. It is a Sisyphean task, one that will never really be finished. But when you do it, and see the results of letting the species that belong here come back, you understand that it’s the path to a healthy future, more so than any quant-driven efforts to reengineer the house’s patterns of consumption. Wild landscaping generates energy, rather than consuming it. You only need to apply a little labor.
At least around here, more and more people are trying to do similar projects. I hope it spreads. It’s one way to begin to remedy the problem that we are the principal invasive species.