Henry David Thoreau’s neighbors generally thought of him as a lazy, confrontational, sanctimonious pain in the ass. They might be interested to know that, on the big issues, he turned out to be right about nearly everything, from his strident support for the abolition of slavery, to his scathing exposure of the racial injustice of the Mexican-American War, to his embracing of then-new evolutionary theory, to his claim that the American relationship to nature was becoming commodified and exploitative. The best example of Thoreau being correct and ahead of his time, however, is offered by his vehement condemnation of the American lawn. In his brilliant 1862 deathbed essay, “Walking,” Thoreau wrote, “Hope and the future for me are not in lawns…” Instead, he imagined establishing his home on a plot of land covered with wild plants and trees. “Why not put my house—my parlor—behind this plot,” he asked, “instead of behind that meager assemblage of curiosities—that poor apology for a Nature and Art, which I call my front yard?”
Welcome to the land of wildfire, hypothermia, desiccation, and rattlers. The stark and inhospitable high-elevation landscape of Nevada’s Great Basin Desert may not be an obvious (or easy) place to settle down, but for self-professed desert rat Michael Branch, it’s home. Of course, living in such an unforgiving landscape gives one many things to rant about. Fortunately for us, Branch—humorist, environmentalist, and author of Raising Wild—is a prodigious ranter. From bees hiving in the walls of his house to owls trying to eat his daughters’ cat—not to mention his eccentric neighbors—adventure, humor, and irreverence abound on Branch’s small slice of the world, which he lovingly calls Ranting Hill.
Calling his neighbors’ front yards a “poor apology for a Nature and Art” is the sort of sarcastic face-slapping that was cranky Uncle Henry’s specialty, and it is revealing that one of his final utterances before departing this world was a condemnation of lawns. How prescient was he? Riddle: considered acre-for-acre, what is the most pesticide-, herbicide-, water-, labor-, and cash-intensive crop grown in the U.S.? Right. Your lawn. In America, turf grasses, which are mostly non-native, cover 21 million acres (think the state of Maine), cost $40 billion per year (more than U.S. foreign aid), consume around 90 million pounds of fertilizer and 80 million pounds of pesticides per year (which sometimes contaminate our groundwater and surface water), and slurp up an inconceivable nine billion gallons of water per day (at least half of all residential water use in the arid West is associated with lawns and landscaping).
All this is before we reckon the colossal time suck that lawns represent. Each year, Americans spend an average of three billion hours pushing or (even worse) riding mowers, most of which pollute at a rate ten times that of our cars. In fact, if a lawn were a car, it would be a Hummer: a resource-intensive, plainly unsustainable luxury item that looks cool but is environmentally destructive. As for biodiversity, forget it. Lawns are exotic, barren monocultures. While they are sometimes referred to as “ecological deserts,” this characterization is an insult to deserts, which are remarkably biodiverse ecosystems. Consider also the unfortunate symbolic connotations of the lawn. As food writer Michael Pollan points out, the American lawn is the ultimate manifestation of our culture’s perverse fantasy of the total control of nature. As Pollan put it so memorably, “A lawn is nature under totalitarian rule.”
Now, hang with me while I descend from my eco-soapbox to offer this surprising confession: I have a lawn. I’m a Westerner. A desert rat. An environmentalist. Even an admirer of Thoreau (though it chaps my hide that he’s always right). But I hereby confess to having a lawn. My dual status as arid lands environmentalist and lawn-watering dolt has provoked in me a serious identity crisis, one that reminds me of another of Thoreau’s insights (this one, from Walden, paraphrasing Matthew 6:3): “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand does.” Am I proud of my lawn? Absolutely not. I am completely ashamed of it. I have a terminal case of lawn guilt. But, at the risk of having my membership in the Wilderness Society revoked, it is time to come clean about my immoderate love of the lawn I have planted here on Ranting Hill.
For me, the first challenge is squaring a condition of brutal lawnlessness with fond memories of my suburban childhood, in which the grassy yard provided the most immediate respite from concrete and asphalt. Lawns were our play zones, the part of the vernacular landscape that could be experienced with all our senses, and one of the few suburban spaces not designed specifically to accommodate cars. Even if your old man was on his hands and knees pulling crabgrass every Saturday, for the rest of the week the lawn remained the sovereign province of children—a little patch of freedom that functioned as a clean, green canvas that we kids painted with our imaginative play.
Like a lot of suburban boys, I also experienced the lawn as the first significant site of labor. Before I reached age 16 and landed my dream job stocking the beer cooler in the local drugstore, the lawn was the only game in town for an enterprising kid who was willing to work hard and needed a little cash. I built a pretty decent side biz as a mower; in this sense the American lawn bought me a new bike, a fishing trip, and tickets to some memorable blues concerts. As I got a bit older, lawn mowing even functioned as my French Foreign Legion. I spent one summer as a mower for a small, under-the-table and off-the-books outfit comprised entirely of guys who had been recently dumped by their girlfriends. In fact, having been jilted was a formal requirement of employment with this crew. My mowing partner that summer was a Harley dude named Chaos, who somehow survived on a diet consisting solely of Schlitz beer and corn nuts. Sometimes, Chaos and I would knock out 20 lawns in a day. Between yards, we would crank up the tunes on the battered old truck’s cassette deck and lament that we’d been cast away by girls who, we reassured each other, did not have their heads on straight. When I later got my own head on straight and went to college, so revered was the lawn that my school had a world-famous precision lawnmower brigade that routinely stole the show from reputable marching bands during parades.
Of course, these are memories from another place and time, and rationalizing turf grass at 6,000 feet in the Great Basin Desert is another matter entirely. Still, I am willing to attempt a modest defense. To begin with, our lawn is quite small, on only one side of the house, and is surrounded by the rest of our property: nearly 50 acres of wild desert that we have deliberately left undisturbed. I never use herbicides on the little yard, the fertilizer I apply is organic and slow-release, and the watering regime is strictly limited and carefully timed for efficiency. Outside the lawn, every tree and shrub I have planted is a local or regional native, most of which are hardy and xeric. The lawn keeps the dust down and has reduced the number of scorpions and rattlers we encounter immediately outside the house. It also works in concert with the wind to act as a giant swamp cooler, helping to make it possible for us to live in the desert without air conditioning—which, in these parts, runs on electricity generated primarily from carbon-polluting coal-fired power plants.
Unlike a suburban yard, our lawn functions as an oasis: the only patch of green anywhere around and the sole moist spot between here and a seep that is 1,000 feet above us and three miles to our west. In an area that receives only seven inches of precipitation each year—and most of that in the form of snow—a little water creates a lot of magic. Modest as it appears, our patch of grass sustains a bumper crop of insects, which, in turn, makes our home not only a haven for Say’s phoebes, western kingbirds, mountain bluebirds, scrub and pinyon jays, and many other bug-eating birds, but also a refuge for seed eaters like collared doves and California quail. The insects have also made this a terrific place to be a lizard, and we have seen an increase in our populations of both Western fence and leopard lizards. And, to my relief, the lawn is cropped so constantly by desert cottontails and big black-tailed jackrabbits that I hardly ever have to mow!
All these insects, song birds, lizards, and small mammals have, likewise, made the lawn a prime location for raptors and coyotes, which have been quick to take advantage of the food chain reaction triggered by our damp spot. In fact, the coyotes denned so nearby this year that, for a month this spring, we had the daily pleasure of watching three tiny pups peering out at us from the sage. The lawn has also become an oasis for our girls. I suppose Hannah and Caroline did fine playing in the alkali-encrusted hardpan that existed here before I installed the lawn, but they now seem encouraged to play more games and do more handstands, not to mention enjoying the childhood rite of passage that entails running through a sprinkler after staining your tongue blue with popsicles.
I admit that this defense of my lawn amounts to morally feeble equivocation, which is why I make sure to keep handy a bourbon-barrel-sized load of guilt about it. Wallace Stegner wrote that Westerners need to “get over the color green,” but my challenge has been to get over having gotten over the color green. Driven to desperate measures by my shame, I recently had the bright idea to rebrand the lawn “the firebreak,” which is a concept everyone out here on this wildlands interface understands and respects. This is disingenuous on my part, since I maintain other firebreaks that function perfectly well without being lined with water-dependent, non-native turf grass. But it just sounds better to say “firebreak,” so much so that I now insist that we all use that term and that term only, and I fine the girls a quarter each time they slip up and utter “lawn” by mistake. The family is now pretty well retrained, and so it is common for little Caroline to say, “Daddy, I’m going out to do cartwheels on the firebreak.”
Henry Thoreau would have seen right through this feeble apologia, and he would have instantly called “horseshit” my cowardly rebranding of the unsustainable indulgence that is my lawn as a “firebreak.” But I do have a longer-term plan to mend my ways. When the girls someday go off to college (hopefully one with a brigade of precision lawn mowers to bring some laughter to those boring parades), I will bring in three end dump truck loads of sand and bury the lawn completely, making a nice little island beach up here in the heart of the trackless sagebrush ocean. In the meantime, I have decided to ditch Thoreau and, instead, go with Walt Whitman, who, in Leaves of Grass (1855), testified that “a leaf of grass is the journey-work of the stars.” Journey-work of the stars just has such a lovely, ennobling, poetic ring to it. It may not be quite as lyrical as “firebreak,” but for now I will accept any substitute for that unspeakable, four-letter word: L***.