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A Historical Perspective

The Canadian performance artist and poet Michael Dean tells the following story:

There was an American who visited an English Country Estate, and was very impressed with the beauty of the grounds. He asked the gardener:

"How do you get such beautiful lawns?"

"Well sir," the gardener said, "first you cuts it, then you rolls it, then you cuts it, then you rolls it, and then you keeps doing this for three-hundred years" (1).

In the United States, lawns are no laughing matter. The lawn is the quintessential American landscape, making up somewhere between 25 and 40 million acres of land. Today, there are 58 million home lawns in the United States, not to mention more than 16,000 golf courses, all decked out with turfgrass. The lawn has become a symbol of freedom, an icon of the American Dream. And it has environmental and public-health consequences that rival its symbolic power. Between 1993 and 2003, more than 75,000 Americans per year, it is estimated, were injured using lawn mowers. According to David Pimental, a professor of entomology at Cornell University, roughly 7 million birds die each year because of the use of lawn-care pesticides. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that in the process of refueling their lawn mowers and other garden equipment, Americans spill about 17 million gallons of gasoline every summer. That is 50 percent more petroleum than marred the Alaskan coast during the notorious Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989.

Properly managed turf, it is true, can help prevent soil erosion and preserve water quality. But the promotion of a perfect-turf aesthetic—consisting of supergreen grass that keeps its vibrant color despite weather and climatic conditions—as sold in advertising spots by companies such as Scotts and TruGreen ChemLawn has tended to encourage homeowners to overtreat their lawns with fertilizer and pesticides. More troubling still, the American perfect-turf ideal has been exported across the globe to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and even Asia, where it is transforming parts of the countryside into replicas of the Augusta National golf course in Georgia, the site of the legendary Masters tournament.

How did a gardening ethos revered by the British aristocracy rise to become the archetypal American landscape? Why did the perfect lawn become such an obsession in postwar America? And what of the opposition to the perfect-turf aesthetic now that it has become a more international phenomenon?

British Antecedents

Ecologically speaking, lawns are made up of turfgrass, a category which refers to the roughly fifty plant species that, when mowed regularly, create a uniform ground cover. These species, as best scientists can tell, were not native to North America. They arrived here as part of the process that the historian Alfred Crosby has called "the Columbian exchange" (2). The European explorers of North America brought with them, either on purpose or inadvertently, a variety of plant life (as well as animals and diseases) that helped to completely change the face of the landscape. The European voyages, in other words, altered the ecology of the Americas in some fundamental ways. Native grasses, for example, died because of the pressure placed on them by grazing animals—the cows, sheep, and goats that the Europeans took on their travels, animals that did not exist on the North American continent before the arrival of the white settlers. Meanwhile, European grasses, which had evolved in tandem with the grazing animals, expanded their reach over the American landscape, flooding into the areas abandoned by the native grasses (3). We tend to associate bluegrass with Kentucky, where it rapidly replaced the canebrakes along rivers. But, in fact, Kentucky bluegrass (and white clover, for that matter) first evolved in the moist, cool climate of northern Europe thousands of miles from the Bluegrass State.

Lawns, as Michael Dean's little story illustrates, are not easy to grow in Britain. They require a great deal of energy, time, and money, the last to pay the laborers needed to mow the grass and thus to create a carpetlike appearance. But the British aristocrats, who had the financial resources to pay workers to mow, at least had climate on their side. In the American context, by contrast, the prospect of trying to grow nonnative grasses in an environment that is not nearly as moist and cool as that found in Britain would turn out to be a major challenge. And, in any case, the existence of European grasses like bluegrass in North America did not cause Americans to all go running out to put in lawns. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, it is true, had lawns. But the lawn made little headway in America until the late nineteenth century. That is when the start of suburban development—especially the institution of setback rules requiring homes to be located twenty or thirty feet from the street—led developers to plant grass around the outside of newly built homes. A new landscape aesthetic emerged. "A smooth, closely-shaven surface of grass," wrote Frank J. Scott in The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds (1870), "is by far the most essential element of beauty on the grounds of a suburban house" (4).

Still, the lawn remained more the exception than the rule. In working-class suburbs, for example, the front yard functioned as a miniature farm set up for growing various vegetables and raising small farm animals in order to put food on the table of a factory worker's family. Lawns could not flourish so long as the land was prized more for its use value than for its exchange value (5). Moreover, the perfect lawn—the weed-free, supergreen, closely cropped monoculture so prominent in many suburbs today—was an ecological conceit whose time had yet to arrive.

Levittown's Example

After World War II, however, several forces conspired to transform the perfect lawn into the all-American landscape. Mass suburbanization launched the lawn's rise to dominance. The story of Levittown, New York, is a well-known chapter in the history of suburban development. The Levitts mass-produced housing in much the same way that Henry Ford was able to do for automobiles earlier in the century. But the Levitts also mass-produced a new landscape to go along with its ready-built housing. And grass was the center of the new landscape paradigm. Abraham Levitt, the patriarch of the Levitt family, it turned out, was an avid gardener who believed firmly in the idea of making suburbs into garden communities. "No single feature of a suburban residential community," the elder Levitt wrote in a company publication distributed to Levittowners, "contributes as much to the charm and beauty of the individual home and the locality as well-kept lawns" (6).

 Grass is an excellent colonizer and thrives on disturbed soils, precisely the environment that existed in Levittown and other suburban communities after the initial house-building phase was completed. So grass was an efficient way to heal a landscape scarred by earthmoving equipment. But Abraham Levitt, at least, saw grass as much more than simply a practical way to make his new development look fresh and appealing to prospective buyers. Levitt realized that lawns could have exchange value. He called lawns and landscaping a form of "neighborhood stabilization" (7). As Levitt's son Alfred explained in 1952, "Father was the one who had the foresight to realize that by intelligent landscaping the normal depreciation of our houses could be offset" (8).

As much as Abraham Levitt loved lawns, however, he never advocated for the perfect lawn. Indeed, Levitt warned against becoming a slave to the lawn for the simple reason that the hard work involved in trying to attain perfection would likely cause homeowners to give up on the entire lawn project. So while it is true that the Levitts imposed lawn rules on the Levittowners, requiring them, for example, to mow once a week during the growing season, it is equally the case that Levitt only took his love of the lawn so far. Levitt had nothing against a little crabgrass and felt that clover was "just as nice as other grasses." He advised against trying to rid a lawn of every last weed. As he put it in one of the gardening columns he wrote for the local paper: "Even our lowly weeds, which are just other native grasses, if kept cut to not more than two inches help to green carpet the ground" (9).

Without the mass production of the rotary lawn mower, Levitt's dream of a neat, garden community would never have been realized. Cheaper to produce and requiring less steel than the old reel mowers, the rotary lawn mower was manufactured in huge numbers following World War II, furthering the carpeting of the American landscape in green. Ultimately, however, Americans seem not to have heeded Levitt's warning, and instead became slaves to perfection in lawn care. Why?

Postwar Affluence and the Suburbs

In part, the answer lies in the economic imperatives that dominated postwar life. As Americans bought up washers, dryers, new cars, and the other signature products of the so-called affluent society, U.S. manufacturers began to worry about how they would be able to continue to stimulate demand in a world of market saturation. The answer was to center marketing increasingly around the idea of planned obsolescence. "We design a car to make a man unhappy with his 1957 Ford 'long about the end of 1958," said one official at Ford (10). As it turned out, the lawn was the perfect landscape option for an economic culture founded on the creation of new needs.

Ecology explains why. Based as it was on nonnative plants, the lawn proved difficult to grow in the United States, especially in warm climates. Cool-season grasses like Kentucky bluegrass, which might thrive in a place like Britain or Newfoundland, withered and turned brown during the heat of a New York summer. They also proved fertile ground for weeds. As a result, lawn perfection became a gold mine for companies like Scotts and others in the chemical turf-care business. They sold consumers on the need to treat their lawns with the herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides necessary to get a green carpet of perfection. The perfect lawn, in other words, is the on-the-ground equivalent of planned obsolescence, a landscape that was set up to disappoint unless one turned to massive chemical inputs to defeat the disorderly natural world.

Perfection in lawn care also dovetailed with other trends in postwar American culture. Consider the sudden interest in all things brightly colored. From powder blue kitchen appliances to pink automobiles and lawn ornaments, color took on new symbolic importance in the years after World War II. Brightly colored consumer goods revealed the purchaser as someone who was ultramodern, as a person in step with the latest trends in the streamlined consumerist lifestyle. As was written on the package of a paint-by-numbers kit, a postwar fad: "Every man a Rembrandt!" (11). That directive applied both inside and outside the house. A supergreen lawn advertised the homeowners in question as in step with the times, as a modern, up-to-date family. It was no accident that the Scotts Company used brightly colored orange and green packaging on its lawn-care products beginning in the 1950s.

Much has been made of consensus, conformity-oriented 1950s life, and having a tidy yard monoculture clearly meshed beautifully with this trend as well. Whether the conformist impulse has been exaggerated or not, there is no doubting that picture-window life in the suburbs did foster a kind of "group living," as the historian William Chafe has put it, that seemed to reward getting and going along over individual self-expression (12). The lawn was the perfect landscape choice in such a world. Mowing the lawn forecloses its sexual reproduction and causes the grass plants to propagate vegetatively, sending out roots and rhizomes that are essentially clones of the original plant and giving the lawn a uniform, carpetlike appearance. In such a world of landscape uniformity, a yard full of crabgrass—which caused one to stand out from the neighbors—was the outdoor equivalent of bad breath.

Indeed, crabgrass became something of an obsession beginning in the 1950s. The problem with crabgrass is that it mars the look of the otherwise perfect lawn with its gray-green blades, which spread low to the ground and thus evade the lawn mower. The result is a blotchy-looking lawn instead of a perfect supergreen expanse. Surprisingly, crabgrass was introduced on purpose into the United States as a forage crop, though it seems to have gained little ground at the outset. Immigrants from southeastern Europe reintroduced the plant, which they called "manna grits," during the late nineteenth century (13). And to this day it continues to be the bane of homeowners across large parts of the country. In the competition for dominance over the yard, the bluegrass lawn nearly always lost ground during the sweltering summer to crabgrass. Again, ecology explains why. Crabgrass is a warm-season plant that is able to carry out photosynthesis efficiently during hot weather, far more efficiently than a cool-season plant like bluegrass.

Postwar homeowners thus wound up waging a turf war in their yards that especially resonated during the cold war years. Ten days before the Cuban missile crisis, Life magazine even ran an article that showed the close connection between the paranoia that suffused U.S.-Soviet relations and the suburban landscape. The spoof involved a man who was involved in a "Five Year Plan of Landscape Reform," a reference to the brutal Soviet economic model, and his neighbor, a man in love with bluegrass. The Soviet sympathizer is spotted planting crabgrass in his lawn but is ultimately converted to the wisdom of the American Way and is suspected of stealing bluegrass plugs from his neighbor. He plants the plugs in his own lawn in what turns out to be a victory over crabgrass, the gray-green menace (14).

 Finally, the rage for perfection in lawn care was fueled by the rising popularity of the game of golf. Golfing boomed during the 1950s, as President Dwight Eisenhower, an avid player, inspired countless Americans to set off for the links. As a result of new irrigation technologies and, by the 1960s, newly engineered species of grass, golf courses became increasingly green and manicured. The Augusta National Golf Club led the way, grooming its holes into a state of unparalleled perfection. In 1957, the Masters was first televised in black and white; ten years later, CBS televised the tournament in color. Spurred on by what they encountered on both the golf course and on television, some homeowners set about remaking their yards. "Golf courses in this country, more than the grounds of private estates," explained Sports Illustrated in 1966, "are the spurs to all the gramineous perfectionism going on. Virtually everywhere golf courses exhibit magnificent turf, often through 12 months of the year and, having seen what is possible, millions of homeowners feel compelled to go and do likewise" (15). In a culture infatuated with golf, made paranoid by the cold war, attracted to conformity, and predicated on the creation of new consumerist needs, the perfect lawn rose to become an icon of the American Dream. The countless pictures taken of the family in the front yard testify to the deep and enduring importance of the landscape that has come to epitomize the good life out in the suburbs. At a minimum, the fresh new supergreen lawns offered an escape from monochrome life in the cities—a brightly colored, consistent landscape that mirrored the aesthetic and racial uniformity of 1950s suburbia.

Environmental Management and Resources

And yet, the perfect lawn could never have existed without the cheap energy, water, and labor needed to make it a reality. The postwar economy was structured on oil, right down to the very landscape itself. Most obviously, it takes oil to fuel the mowers, leaf blowers, and other garden equipment needed to manicure the yard. Natural gas, meanwhile, is used to produce all the fertilizer required to keep the yard looking fluorescent green. In addition, it takes one to two inches of water a week during the dry summer months to irrigate the lawn into a state of green perfection. As the native-plant enthusiast Sara Stein points out, there is no place in the continental United States that receives that amount of precipitation between May and October. It also bears noting that irrigating the lawn tends to leach nutrients from the soil, especially if the lawn is overwatered, creating the need for more fertilizer treatments (16). Thus did the lawn turn out to be a drain on scarce natural resources as well as an endless chore—one that, again, fit well with an economy concerned with getting people to spend money on consumer goods.

The perfect lawn is also a hugely labor-intensive enterprise. As late as even the 1960s, the task of mowing the lawn fell to the boy in the family or to the kid down the block. After that point, however, lawn care underwent a period of industrial transformation founded on increased mechanization—the leaf blower first appeared in the 1970s—and low-wage, foreign labor. Latinos, who began coming to the United States in large numbers in the 1980s, now make up the bulk of the workers in the green industry. In the more specialized grounds-maintenance field as a whole, median hourly earnings in 2002 hovered at $9.50 per hour for work that is demanding and dangerous (17). For day laborers, however, wages are lower—often below minimum wage. In many sprawling suburbs, landscaping work has become a prime employment opportunity for many undocumented immigrants from Latin America. Day laborers do the low-paying grunt work associated with life in America today, from cleaning up sports stadiums to mowing lawns. "Since we are already on the bottom rung, we are used to it," said one Honduran immigrant in 1997 about the hard work involved in landscaping. "The majority of the Americans only work eight hours. We work another five after that" (18).

Those in search of temporary employment may be more attracted to landscaping because it appears less dangerous than other employment options like roofing and construction. But the low-wage, fast-paced world of lawn maintenance turns out to be more dangerous than expected, especially for those with a limited knowledge of English. In 2000, for example, a "temporary service worker" of Haitian descent died when his riding mower, which weighed more than a thousand pounds, flipped over on him. An Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigation later revealed that the victim spoke only broken English and coworkers remained "unsure whether he could fully understand the hazards associated with operating the mower on a sloped surface" (19). Preliminary data for 2003 indicate that Hispanics account for 45 percent of the fatalities among landscaping and groundskeeping workers (20). Then there is the damage that workers—armed with leaf blowers to clear every last piece of debris—are doing to their hearing. According to one study, only one in ten of California's roughly 60,000 landscape workers wears the recommended hearing protection when blowing a property into a state of lawn perfection (21).

As the saying goes, the grass is greener on the other side. And it is precisely that side that Americans want to import into their yards. In this sense, the perfect lawn caters to a very American impulse: the will to conquer space, evident in so many American ventures, most famously the building of the transcontinental railroad. If the railroad annihilates space with time, to borrow from Karl Marx, then the perfect lawn aims to eliminate both space and time, to bring Ireland to America while keeping the grass looking green in defiance of seasonal change. That expanse of emerald green unfolding across the suburbs may look like the ultimate American invention. But its true roots lie elsewhere across the globe—from the germ plasm needed to plant it to the labor needed to manicure it. The American lawn, it turns out, is a very un-American enterprise.

A Growing Global Phenomenon

So it is perhaps no surprise to see the perfect-lawn aesthetic rising up in other nations across the globe. The United States, as the undisputed leader in turfgrass science (bankrolled, in part, by the taxpayer dollars that support state agricultural colleges), has helped to influence the look of yards in such places as Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. All three countries have universities and colleges that offer extensive turf-management programs, and all have adopted the American tradition of intensively managed golf course grass. While Scotland, the birthplace of golf, has the most number of courses per capita, New Zealand and Australia rank just behind it in second and third place, respectively. New Zealand has one golf course for every 10,374 people in a nation that is roughly the size of Colorado (though admittedly it is easier to grow grass there because of the ample year-round rain). Even Britain, which is legendary for some of its shaggy, brown golf courses, has been set upon by American golf course designers looking to export the pristine grass aesthetic pioneered in this country.

But the influence of the American perfect-turf ideal has lately been felt most strongly in Asia, especially Southeast Asia, where the yen for golf courses, with their premium grass, has emerged with a vengeance. In the 1980s and 1990s, Japanese investors began transforming Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and other countries into golfing paradises. Next to the United States, Japan ranks second in terms of the largest number of golf courses nationwide, with roughly 2,300. (The United States has half the world's estimated 32,000 golf courses.) With some one hundred million people and a land area about the size of California, the Japanese found that it was cheaper to build courses in Southeast Asia and fly there than to pay for a country club membership on the island. Lured by the nice weather, cheap labor, and lack of regulations, Japanese investors provided much of the money, but American course designers and professional players such as Jack Nicklaus, British-born Nick Faldo, and Greg Norman (a native Australian) provided the genius that drove the transformation of the Southeast Asian landscape.

Tourists visiting Vietnam today can choose to play golf at several courses, including one designed by Faldo, who heads up his own design company. For more than a generation, legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus has been designing courses in places such as Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines, and today is building a course near Moscow, with plans to develop other courses in Eastern Europe. Greg Norman has designed courses in Indonesia and Thailand. And Singapore now has the densest concentration of golf courses in the world, with one course for every ten square miles.

The expansion of golf with its resource-hungry and intensively managed grass has come at a cost. Rain forests in Malaysia have been cut down to make way for greens, tees, and rough, which in turn has led to increased soil erosion and flooding. The Malaysian government paid nearly $8 million for a pipeline to supply a golf course on Redang Island at the same time that an epidemic of cholera had broken out on the mainland because of a shortage of pure water. Meanwhile, in Indonesia, the building of just a single golf course displaced nearly three hundred peasants in 1991. In Thailand, golf investors have tended to buy up land on the periphery of the site they want to develop and left farmers with no choice but to sell out to them.

Thailand's Khao Kheow course is noted for being particularly lush, the result of an elaborate computer-controlled sprinkler system. But in 1994 a reporter interviewed a woman who lived just outside the course, asking about the dried-up state of her rice paddy. "Before the golf course, the water flowing through these irrigation channels was very strong," she explained. "But the golf course dammed up the streams, so the water doesn't come here any more. . . . I used to be able to get two rice crops a year, now I'm lucky if I get one. Golf is owned by the mafia. To them, grass is more important than rice" (22).

Activist Opposition to the Perfect Lawn

In 1993, spurred on by concerns about the social and ecological problems of golf's expansion, environmental activists from Japan, Thailand, and Malaysia formed the Global Anti-Golf Movement. Gen Morita, a Japanese market gardener who contended that golf course pesticides had contaminated his crops, was the moving force behind the group. Together, he and his fellow activists declared April 29 to be World No Golf Day in an effort to draw attention to the sport's darker ecological side.

Opposition to perfect grass, both on and off the course, is not limited to Asia. In Canada, which has emulated the American passion for green turf and boasts companies like Weed Man, the Canadian answer to TruGreen ChemLawn, the perfect-turf ideal has come under attack. To date, some 70 municipalities, including the city of Toronto, have passed ordinances banning the cosmetic use of lawn-care pesticides. Following a ruling by the nation's Supreme Court in 2001 which upheld such local ordinances, Quebec's environment minister André Boisclair declared: "People's health is more important than the perfect lawn" (23).

There is even a group now in the United States—the Ecological Health Organization of Hebron, Connecticut—that has been working to pass a state ban on lawn-care pesticides. Meanwhile, the National Wildlife Federation oversees a backyard habitat program that seeks to cure homeowners of their perfect-turf addiction and encourage a return to a more diverse plant and animal community. Native-plant societies like the Wild Ones also denounce the lawn in favor of indigenous plant species, which tend to be less dependent on chemical interventions. Andy Wasowski, a leader in the native-plant movement, forecasts a "landscaping revolution" in the not-too-distant future, as Americans run out of the fresh water needed to sustain perfectly green lawns. "It is not hyperbole to say," he wrote in the year 2000, "that this landscaping revolution is going to be the gardening trend for the new century" (24).

 Although the scarcity of both water and oil (roughly 50 percent of which Americans now import from overseas) may help encourage the use of more native plants, recent trends in the United States suggest that the perfect lawn is still alive and well. First, a study conducted by the geographers Paul Robbins and Trevor Birkenholtz found that between 1982 and 1997, as suburban sprawl gobbled up the nation, the lawn colonized over 382,850 acres of land per year. Even the amount of land eligible for grass has increased, as builders have shifted from single-story homes to multistory dwellings with smaller footprints (25). Second, lawns are by some estimates a $40-billion-a-year business in the United States, and with that much money at stake it seems clear that companies like Scotts and TruGreen ChemLawn are unlikely to switch over to a native-plant perspective. As Robbins and geographer Julie Sharp have pointed out, sustainable lawns are "bad for business" (26). And, finally, it appears that the suburban perfect-lawn aesthetic is not only being exported abroad, it is now reversing direction and being deployed in cities. In 1997, New York City rebuilt Central Park's Great Lawn, which by some accounts had declined into a dust bowl, transforming it into a perfect suburban expanse replete with 250 pop-up sprinklers. Whether these trends can continue in the face of resource scarcity remains to be seen. One thing, however, seems certain. "Beautiful lawns," as the Scotts Company has put it, "don't just happen" (27).

Endnotes

  1. Michael Dean, In Search of the Perfect Lawn (Windsor, ON: Black Moss Press, 1986), 37.

  2. Alfred W. Crosby Jr., The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1972).

  3. William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983), 142.

  4. Frank J. Scott, The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds of Small Extent (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1873), 107.

  5. Becky M. Nicolaides, My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working-Class Suburbs of Los Angeles, 1920-1965 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 3, 33-35.

  6. [Abraham Levitt], "The Care of Your Lawn and Landscaping," Landscape Department, Levitt and Sons, brochures file, Levittown History Collection, Levittown Public Library, Levittown, NY.

  7. William J. Levitt, "A House Is Not Enough: The Story of America's First Community Builder," in Business Decisions That Changed Our Lives, Sidney Furst and Milton Sherman, eds. (New York: Random House, 1964), 67. Abraham Levitt was not alone in realizing the exchange value of good landscaping. In 1920, the Kansas City developer Jesse Clyde Nichols started his own nursery to grow stock for his housing developments. Nichols even sponsored a "beautiful lawn contest" among residents. See Robert Pearson and Brad Pearson, The J. C. Nichols Chronicle: The Authorized Story of the Man, His Company, and His Legacy, 1880-1994 (Lawrence, KS: Country Club Plaza Press, 1994), 62, 85-86.

  8. Quoted in "Levitt's Progress," Fortune, October 1952, 156.

  9. Abraham Levitt, "Chats on Gardening," Levittown Tribune, September 7, 1950.

  10. Quoted in Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (New York: Knopf, 2003), 294.

  11. Quoted in Karal Ann Marling, As Seen on TV: The Visual Culture of Everyday Life in the 1950s (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), 59.

  12. William H. Chafe, The Unfinished Journey: America Since World War II, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 120.

  13. Larry W. Mitch, "Crabgrass," Weed Technology 2 (1988): 114-15.

  14. David Snell, "Snake in the Crab Grass," Life, October 12, 1962, 23, 25.

  15. Barbara La Fontaine, "'The Green Elephant,'" Sports Illustrated, April 1, 1966, 69.

  16. Sara Stein, Noah's Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Back Yards (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1993), 136-37.

  17. U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Grounds Maintenance Workers," Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2004-05 ed., Bulletin 2540

  18. Quoted in Caitlin Francke, "Md. Suburbs Draw Illegal Immigrants," Baltimore Sun, May 4, 1997.

  19. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Temporary Service Worker Dies After Mower Rolls Over on Him—North Carolina," NIOSH In-House FACE Report 2000-25,
    http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/face/In-house/full200025.html.

  20. U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries," landscaping and groundskeeping workers, data extraction on Sept. 13, 2005,
    http://www.bls.gov/data/home.htm.

  21. California Environmental Protection Agency Air Resources Board, Mobile Source Control Division, A Report to the California Legislature on the Potential Health and Environmental Impacts of Leaf Blowers (February 2000), 3.

  22. Quoted in David Cohen, "Lost in the Rough," Guardian (London), September 24, 1994.

  23. Quoted in "Pinching Pesticide Use," Lawn & Landscape, July 8, 2002.

  24. Andy Wasowski and Sally Wasowski, The Landscaping Revolution: Garden With Mother Nature, Not Against Her (Lincolnwood, IL: Contemporary Books, 2000), 5.

  25. Paul Robbins and Trevor Birkenholtz, "Turfgrass Revolution: Measuring the Expansion of the American Lawn," Land Use Policy 20 (April 2003): 190. The authors calculate that between 1982 and 1997, roughly 675,000 hectares of land were developed each year in the United States. Using a conservative 23 percent estimate of the area in lawn, the authors calculate that for the country as a whole, roughly 155,000 hectares (382,850 acres) a year were converted to turfgrass.

  26. Paul Robbins and Julie Sharp, "The Lawn-Chemical Economy and Its Discontents," Antipode 35 (November 2003): 973.

  27. Scotts Co., Lawn Care Fundamentals,
    http://www.diyonline.com/servlet/GIB_BaseT/Channel.html?session.channelID=7&session.ccid=7.

Bibliographical Note

My interest in the history of the American lawn grows out of more than a generation spent working in the field of environmental history. Environmental history is best understood in relation to some of the older, more familiar forms of history. Political history, for example, concerned itself with the thoughts, ideas, and behaviors of the elite. In the 1960s, however, social history argued for focusing on the lives of ordinary people, for "history from the bottom up." Environmental history built on the insights of social history—especially the community studies so influential during the 1970s and 1980s—to create a new approach to the past that brought elements such as climate and weather, soil and water, and plants and animals to the fore. Unlike both political and social history, environmental historians see the natural world as a dynamic force in the shaping of the past. Those interested in what a history of America from an environmental perspective might look like should see Ted Steinberg, Down to Earth: Nature's Role in American History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

Some of the seminal early works in environmental history, which helped to move the field beyond a simple interest in the politics of conservation or environmentalism, include: Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979); Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1980); Richard White, Land Use, Environment, and Social Change: The Shaping of Island County, Washington (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1980); William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983); and Richard White, The Roots of Dependency: Subsistence, Environment, and Social Change Among the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983).

In the last generation the field of environmental history has mushroomed. The book and journal literature is now voluminous. An excellent guide to some of the early literature is Richard White, "American Environmental History: The Development of a New Historical Field," Pacific Historical Review 54 (August 1985): 297-335. A more recent guide is Carolyn Merchant, The Columbia Guide to American Environmental History (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002). For help in navigating world environmental history, see Shepard Krech III, J. R. McNeill, and Carolyn Merchant, eds., Encyclopedia of World Environmental History, 3 vols. (New York: Routledge, 2004). See also the journal Environmental History and the Internet discussion forum, H-Environment, which is run by the American Society for Environmental History and the European Society for Environmental History.

Those readers interested more specifically in the environmental history of the lawn can consult Virginia Scott Jenkins, The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994). Other important interventions in the debate over lawns include: F. Herbert Bormann, Diana Balmori, and Gordon T. Geballe, Redesigning the American Lawn: A Search for Environmental Harmony, 2d ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001); Michael Pollan, Second Nature: A Gardener's Education (New York: Dell Pub., 1991); Warren Schultz, A Man's Turf: The Perfect Lawn, paperback ed. (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999); Georges Teyssot, ed., The American Lawn (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999). See also, Daniel Ingersoll, "In the Garden of Eden," Journal of Garden History 14 (Spring 1994): 55-62; Ann Slocum and Lois C. Shern, "The Historical Development of the American Lawn Ideal and a New Perspective," Michigan Academician 29 (March 1997): 145-58; Andrew J. Weigert, "Lawns of Weeds: Status in Opposition to Life," American Sociologist 25 (Spring 1994): 80-96.

This piece, which appeared in the December 2005 issue of the Organization of American Historians' Magazine of History, is part of "America on the World Stage," a series of articles overseen by the OAH-Advanced Placement Joint Advisory Board on Teaching the U.S. History Survey.

Ted Steinberg teaches history at Case Western Reserve University and is the author of Down to Earth: Nature's Role in American History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002) and Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disasters in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000). His most recent book, American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn, is published by W. W. Norton in 2006.

Authored by

  • Ted Steinberg
    Case Western Reserve University
    Cleveland, Ohio