Lawns – site of backyard environmental salvation?

How does a love of lawns and mowing reflect our broader relationship with nature, asks Dr Nick Holm (photo/Wikimedia)

Cultural Studies expert Dr Nick Holm

Humanity’s often abusive relationship towards nature has culminated in concerns we have wrecked Earth beyond repair, with climate change, ecological degradation and mass extinctions threatening the survival of life on the planet. So, what does the mundane act of mowing a lawn reveal about our plight?

Massey University cultural studies expert Dr Nick Holm explores the meanings and implications behind the weekend roar of a thousand, fossil fuel-guzzling motor mowers, in the context of our broader relationship with nature.

The motivation to query cultural norms and expectations about lawn-mowing, he says, is heightened in the so-called Anthropocene era, defined by the degree of human impact on Earth’s ecology. Yes, we are in it right now. And lawns ­– as part of a broader field of ecocriticism and green cultural studies – are the perfect case study for how we interact with nature at a critical time, he says.

“Although ecological interest in the Anthropocene may often be focused on ‘big picture’ tragedies – deforestation, extinction, ocean acidification, ozone depletion – for most inhabitants of the rich countries of the ‘developed’ world, our direct interaction with the living nonhuman world manifests in places such as the backyard, rather than the tundra or the rainforest,” he writes in his essay; Consider the Lawnmower: Aesthetics, Politics and Entanglements of Suburban Nature.

The ubiquitous lawn might be “the scene of ecological encounter, an environmental black hole of chemicals and irrigation, a marker of both community solidarity and conformist oppression, the violent domination of nature by man or any combination of the above,” he says.

Dr Holm, who teaches in the School of English and Media Studies at the Wellington campus and is part of Massey’s Political Ecology Research Centre (PERC), admits that debating lawns and lawn-mowing may seem a minor issue when many scientists are saying the world is on the brink of ecological collapse. Yet, he says, attitudes and behaviours in respect to lawns can be a benchmark for how we think about and treat the environment generally.

“We can extrapolate out from the mundane context of yard work to larger questions of how human agency might shape the world around us,” says Dr Holm, who favours a hand (or push) mower for his Wellington lawn, mainly because the retro machine helps him stay fit while listening to test cricket.

Cricket or critique – what’s the point of lawns?

For many, lawn-mowing means the possibility of fun backyard family and neighbourly games, like cricket.

‘Lawn critique’, on the other hand, is a tendency to reject or look down on lawns. In it, “the lawn is singled out as a symbol of one of the most derided of suburban qualities: conformity,” writes Dr Holm. Or as another lawn critique punter says, lawns are a symbol of “the ultimate taming of nature and human behaviour” when compared to a garden, which exists to grow things, albeit in a selective, controlled manner too.

Among them is well-known US nature and food writer Michael Pollan. In his essay ‘Why Mow? The Case Against Lawns’ he denounces the lawn as an “aesthetically impoverished site” that reduces local environments to “subdued, homogenised, dominated” mass-produced nature.

Others interpret the humble lawn as a miniaturised expression of imperial colonisers’ ground-clearing – particularly in New Zealand, Australia, the United States and Canada where “turf grass monoculture” might be construed as an expression of the settler-invader state. 

Very few people ever think about lawns this much. And having done the hard yards on what lurks behind a collective fetish for cutting grass, Dr Holm still thinks we should celebrate our lawns and the ritual of mowing them for the pleasure and leisure they offer.

Whether a space for letting the dog out, putting up a tent or a trampoline, a BBQ or bird bath, no two lawns are exactly alike – despite their oppressive uniformity perceived by some lawn critics. Dr Holm asserts that lawn-mowing can teach us how to better understand, manage and protect nature in the form of that small, intimate piece of green – from observing seasonal and weather effects on grass growth and the different flowers and insects it harbours to the texture of the soil and contours of the land.

While an Auckland-based campaign encouraging homeowners to ditch the mower and plant wildflowers for ecological reasons outlined in a Stuff article last year may reveal a new chapter in lawn lore, Dr Holm reckons you can’t separate the aesthetic appeal of lawns from ecological concerns.

“Lawn mowing debates,” he says, “provide fertile terrain for understanding how humans can responsibly and productively engage with the nonhuman world.”

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