Tyranny of the lawn

So last week the city of Minneapolis mowed the "grass" outside the YWCA on East Lake Street. The action was taken after a city inspector received complaints about a weedy, unkempt yard.

As Doug Grow reported in the Strib, the overgrowth consisted mainly of native prairie grasses, which were planted five years ago as part of ecologically friendly landscape project. Evidently, a posted sign  explaining the philosophy behind the plantings did not make an impression on the inspector; the grasses exceeded the eight inch height limit proscribed in city code.

In his column, Grow rightly complained about the bureaucratic lunacy of the episode. But his harrumphing didn't go far enough. This story invited more than a mere complaint about overzealous code enforcement. It demanded denouncement of the policy behind the action, a policy that is deeply rooted in Americans' peculiar love affair with the lawn.

The growing of grass is among the more foul and pointless agricultural practices of our times. There are about 30 million acres of grass under cultivation in the U.S.  It's our biggest crop, a $40 billion-a-year industry that is, in its own way, as perverse as a crush video.

Consider all the labor involved. A lawn  must  be harvested--i.e. mowed--as often as once a week. What do you get for all that work? Worthless grass clippings. Actually, they are worse than worthless, since they often wind up clogging  landfills and storm sewers. When clippings enter a sewer, they usually find their way to a river or lake.

Last night, it poured rain in Minneapolis. I walked by the Mississippi River, where, as usual, cans, plastic bags, bottles, leaves, goose shit, styrofoam, balls, logs, and all sorts of other crap was fouling the water.  Grass clippings were everywhere.  In the eddies and backwaters, the clippings coated the surface of the river like an oil slick. Eventually, they will sink to the bottom and disappear from view. But in the murky depths they will continue to cause trouble; as the clippings rot, they will deplete critical oxygen levels. What ever is left adds to the silt deposits that are choking the life from river.

When the clippings wash into the water, of course, they bring with them more than just simple plant matter; they also carry the residues of the approximately 80 million pounds of pesticides Americans spread across their lawns every year. And of course, the means of harvest  is also problematic.  In most urban areas,  gas mowers account for a staggering percentage of air pollution. If you've kept up on your reading (second item), you know that the Twin Cities have been mired in a particularly foul atmosphere of late. 

So back to the Grow column. Maybe it's time the city inspectors to set their sights on a new target--the property owners with the biggest, lushest lawns.

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