Monday, November 24, 2008

Archive: Of Lawns and Carrion

(This little essay appeared several years ago as one of the "Living Arts" columns that I wrote for Art Centering. I was reminded of it today while weed-eating the yard.
My current house at least minimizes the problem. It's in a tropical rainforest, and much of it is shaded by tree ferns. But threading toward the back of the lot is a semi-sunlit war zone where alien grasses do perpetual battle with native mosses, and I'm siding with the mosses.)

This writer recently had an interesting conversation with a good friend, a young woman who had leased some former cane land in Hamakua for diversified farming, and was resisting the common urge to destroy every plant that she hadn't planted herself. She even made a case for sparing introduced "weeds."

"I hate Weedeaters," she said, pointing out the noise and pollution that mowing machines in general emitted, and how much imported gas they ate. She also noted how little was known about many plants--how wasteful it was to destroy plants indiscriminately, when one didn't even know what undiscovered wonder drug might be lurking within them.

Her final argument was aesthetic.

"How can you decide that a short lawn is more beautiful than a waving field of mature grass?" she demanded.

I pondered on this conversation, then sent her an e-mail, warning her to be careful to whom she expounded her theory. "Somebody's liable to decide you're the Perfect Woman," I told her.

I strongly suspect that close-cropped lawns only exist because women make men mow. I tried arguing the beauties of long grass and dandelions to my ex-wife for years, but she never bought them. She also refused to live anywhere where there wasn't a large lawn. I guess it was a sort of power trip....

Of course, this general dislike of mowing can be overcome if men are bribed with enough compensatory power, such as a large lawn tractor or riding mower. Not only are such machines fun to ride and a macho symbol of success; they also make the mowing time much shorter.

But none of this explains the phenomenon of why anyone finds short lawns pleasing to start with. And in fact, while I hate mowing, I actually rather like short grass.

The origin of the lawn aesthetic may actually be related to our evolution. Homo erectus, one of the earliest species of "true" human, evolved on the expanding savannas of ancient Africa, and was beautifully designed for the a short-grass environment. He/she had superb long distance vision for sighting prey (or early on, most likely, carrion) across long distances in open country; in fact, there are very few creatures besides eagles and vultures who have better eyesight than a human with 20/20 vision. Upright stance also makes members of the genus Homo into living watch towers, setting those superior eyes up higher than those of nearly all other living mammals; we can look an elephant more or less in the eye. In fact, Homo erectus' near-modern height was one of the chief characteristics distinguishing the species from its probable ancestor, Homo habilus, who is now believed to have inhabited a mixed forest/meadow environment.

The short grass of the veldt also makes a wonderful cushion for human feet, which otherwise would have to needed to evolve the equivalent of hooves. This writer found that out a few years ago, during a 120-mile, cross-island backpacking trip from Kamoamoa to Waimea. By the time I reached the cattle country of Mauna Kea, I was footsore indeed, and the stones of the Mana Road were pure torture, despite thick socks and hiking shoes. But walking in the cow pasture alongside the road brought instant relief. Doctor Scholl has never made an cushioned insole that equals a good layer of turf.

While Homo isn't very fast compared to other critters, he/she can manage a ground-eating lope in open country. Homo erectus was thus perfectly designed for spotting a lion munching on a wildebeest a half-mile away, and then getting there in time to at least crack the bones for marrow. Although a single human was no match for a lion or a hyena, a whole phalanx of Homo erecti swinging hunks of tree limbs would have been very daunting indeed, exerting skull-crunching force before jaws or claws could even come within biting or clawing distance.

These advantages disappear in tall grass. Tall grass slows human speed to just short of a crawl. Our long, wedge-shaped feet, so perfect for trotting across a well-grazed savanna, become instantly tangled when they drive themselves into the mat of long grass stems. Tall grass also masks a multitude of other hazards, such as thorny fallen branches, gopher holes, and poisonous snakes. It hides both the prey and the lions, negating our wonderful vision advantage. And it only exists where game is too scarce to graze it down. Besides, most mature grass heads are armed with seeds designed to travel by barbing themselves onto animal fur. Erectus may have solved that problem by losing hair, but we re-introduced it by inventing socks.

All of this certainly jives well with modern outdoor aesthetics. I once read that bonsais bore a remarkable resemblance to the twisted acacias of the African veldt; we traditionally build temples, cities and rich people's mansions on high spots with good views, and certainly we have an aesthetic predilection for sweeping vistas (though this tendency seems stronger in U.S. culture than in the Orient; maybe it got reinforced during American westward expansion, when it was best to build your cabin where you had a clear view of approaching bears, Native Americans, fellow pursuers of Manifest Destiny, and other potentially dangerous creatures).

Despite these ancient roots, the modern lawn is of recent origin. Traditionally, European and English manor houses had enormous grounds (called "gardens" in those days) that were functioning pastures, grazed by lucrative flocks of sheep. The peasants, meanwhile, got crowded into villages where each house may have had a vegetable garden in back, but had no lawn whatsoever. The villagers had to content themselves with the village commons, where they pastured their milk cows. "Commoner" thus literally meant "person with no lawn." Then, with the invention of woolen mills, greedy landowners began closing the commons. That probably led to a major case of veldt-envy, so when modern Western culture got the chance to build spacious, auto-powered cities, everyone moved to the outskirts, then the suburbs, where each family could have their own patch of short grass. But the average modern lawn isn't large enough to support a single sheep, much less a viable flock. Besides, somewhere in there, our color-sensitive eyes also allowed us to develop a passion for beds of bright-hued flowers, and sheep are color-blind.

So there it is. We're evolutionarily predisposed to liking short grass, but not to cutting it; the latter was the wildebeests' job. So now we satisfy our primal longing for the veldt by burning gasoline in artificial grazing animals, and haul garbage bags full of perfectly good fodder off to landfills. The grass, meanwhile, continues growing like crazy, because evolution programmed it to produce huge excesses of greenery in compensation for wildebeest appetites.

But it could be worse. At least our primal aesthetic doesn't demand genuine zebra-carcass lawn ornaments.