Thursday, August 4, 2016

Mowing Up with the Joneses Part II

In Part I, I described some of the historical causes and environmental consequences of the American love for grassy lawns. One of the explanations offered by Ted Steinberg, author of American Green, is prestige: the valorization of a neat, mowed lawn trickled down from the wealthy aristocrats of Britain to the working class of the United States over many decades, as individuals, counties, and homeowners associations came to feel that a neat, green, mowed lawn expressed a certain level of class. I think prestige is an important explanation for this and so many other human behaviors and preferences.

But why a neat, monolithic green lawn rather than something else, say a lawn covered in rose bushes or expensive stones from some far-off land? I think there is another explanation here, which also applies to a great many human behaviors and preferences.

One theory that has been prevalent in cultural anthropology over the last century involves the idea that human cultures are built on binary oppositions that structure relationships between people and things in each culture. For example, male/female is an important binary, and each society will have its own culturally-formed ideas of what are “male” and “female” behaviors, dress, roles, activities, etc. For some anthropologists, such binary oppositions reflect structures in the human brain that force us to think about the world in this way. For others, these are cultural constructions that have no biological or psychological basis. One of the problems with this human tendency to order society around binary oppositions is that one side of the binary is valued more highly than the other. Thus, the theory goes, sexism exists because most or all societies value the masculine over the feminine.

Another important binary seen across societies by anthropologists is nature/culture. The cultural life of most human societies rests on subjugating nature. Religion seeks to tame our natural impulses and instincts. Laws about marriage seek to control our bodily desires and legitimize offspring. Agriculture is all about bringing nature into tune with human rhythms of time and space. And so on. Societies generally value culture over nature, and in some ways nature comes to be seen as the enemy of culture.

This theory may explain in large part why we breathe a sigh of relief when we look out of our windows and see a neat, green lawn. Our lawn mowing and other practices have tamed nature. Rather than a variety of colors, we see a smooth green, accented in a controlled way by flowers we bought at Home Depot, guaranteed to a look a certain perfect way that is a far cry from their wild, original versions. All the scary insects and animals, such as snakes and spiders, don’t have much of a chance in short grass completely exposed to our human eye, especially if we use pesticides on the lawn. Some people even fight to the death against any plant or animal that mars that perfection. Our former neighbor was at war with clover and dandelions, obsessively bringing out the Roundup and re-seeding any little patch in the lawn. (And you don’t want to know what he did to the rabbits and groundhogs.) I always wondered how he felt as he looked across the fence at our messy lawn, with yellow dandelion flowers poking up in spring, white clover flowers in summer, and little bees buzzing all around (at least, that is, until my husband sacrificed them to the blades of the mower).

One of the critiques against the theory of binary oppositions is that they are overstated by the anthropologist, that actual human behaviors and preferences are much more in flow and flux between and around these binary structures. There are certainly groups and societies that value nature as well as culture, and ecologists and anthropologists study small-scale indigenous groups to learn how we can better live in an integrated, sustainable way with nature. Furthermore, critics argue, these binary structures can change over time. So there are people today who are happily living with weedy lawns or planting wildflowers to attract snakes and spiders and all the biodiversity that comes with them, to the yard. In other words, according to this take on the theory, we’re not necessarily naturally inclined to a neat, green lawn; it is something that has been given to us as a preference by history and our circumstances. And prestige. And thus it can be changed. We may always prefer culture over nature, but the content of that relationship can be altered.

In Part III of this series, we’ll take a look at how some individuals and groups are converting lawn into a little slice of wilderness, answering recent calls to forms of prestige that seek to bring a little nature back into the cultural world of our lawns.


  1. Looking forward to part III!! :)

  2. Not sure about that binary nature/culture thoery... but I do think that taming nature is part of human nature. From a Christian perspective, naming animals and working in the garden is the work God gave humankind. Highly manicured lawns is a big way our culture tames nature; and really there are quite a few advantages to having these lawns: as you mentioned, keeping snakes and other unwanted critters away; space to have friends over for a bbq, and pop up a net to play a game of volleyball (or any other lawn game). I doubt the standards of lawn care would be what they are now if prestige was the sole motivating factor.

  3. Good points - and thanks for sharing your opinions and helping me think more about all of this! I always think much of "human nature" is culturally shaped, though. It's a long way from working in the garden to wanting a green lawn. And yes, people want to keep the critters away, but those critters used to include birds. My great uncle was known in his neighborhood as the kid who would come with his slingshot and kill the birds in your yard! But now people want birds in their yard. So even our ideas about what critters are acceptable can be changed. So I think you're right: we have natural tendencies as humans. But culture works on those tendencies in interesting ways. And I agree with you that it has to be more than prestige. Hmmm ... so many interesting things to talk about!

    1. It is such an interesting topic! I feel a bit like it's the nature vs. nurture argument. Which in my opinion always comes down to it's neither one or the other, but rather a bit of both. Nature being expressed through a culture's nurture.