In his new book, American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn, Case Western Reserve University historian Ted Steinberg unlocks the mystery of the all-American landscape and winds up mowing down the turf industry along the way.
Steinberg clips away at the $40 billion lawn industry and reveals the far-reaching consequences that the turf fixation has had for the environment and the public's health.
Ground maintenance has been singled out by the government's Occupational Safety and Health Administration as one of the nation's more dangerous trades, rivaling the health and death risks faced by those in steel, concrete and shipbuilding.
About 75,000 Americans are injured each year using lawn mowers while tending some 58 million home lawns, 16,000 golf courses and 700,000 athletic fields in the United States. Collectively, American lawns equal a landmass the size of Florida.
While some Americans are off cutting their lawns into checkerboard perfection, Steinberg is more interested in pointing out the environmental impact of all this mowing. Using a power lawn mower for an hour spews as much polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons into the air as driving a car 93 miles. Steinberg also notes that each year gasoline and oil spills from filling and topping off mowers and other garden equipment are greater than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill off the shores of Alaska—considered one of the country's worst environmental disasters.
The quest for lawn perfection, and its negative impact on the environment and public health, Steinberg explains, was in no way inevitable. Instead, it was the product of a number of factors, not least being the actions of the lawn-care industry. Some of those companies are masters of marketing, convincing Americans that they need the perfect, manicured lawn, while simultaneously making it impossible to attain.
"They sell consumers on the need to buy chemicals to kill what they call 'weeds,' plants like clover that in reality help to keep the turf healthy and green," said Steinberg. "They recommend far too many fertilization treatments and often at the wrong times of year, sacrificing root growth for shoot growth."
Steinberg makes the point that popular varieties of grass are often planted in environments adverse to their native habitats. For instance, Kentucky bluegrass is planted across the United States even in the arid American West, but is native to the cold fringe areas of northern Europe.
"By buying into the corporate paradigm and making a fetish of green, weed-free, ultra-trim grass, Americans have alienated themselves from their very own yards," writes Steinberg. "Sadly, the more people invest in the perfect-turf aesthetic, the less they seem to understand about the ecology of their lawns."
But more than just the actions of big business created the American obsession with perfect lawns. A confluence of social changes was at work in the postwar United States. The lawn not only became a symbol of class, but a sign also of family values, diligence and even Cold-War, anti-communist sentiments.
In the end, Steinberg hopes that by exposing the origins and consequences of the perfect lawn, Americans will be able to adopt more realistic expectations about how their yards should look.
Part cultural history, part exposé, part gardening book, American Green, will cure you of your lawn obsession. Its overall message harks back to common wisdom, "Moderation in all things."
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