Last weekend I spent the best part of two hours mowing the lawn. This is not my favourite task: it comes ahead of using the vacuum cleaner or cleaning the bath (just), but way behind washing up or mending a puncture. Maybe somewhere around answering emails: a necessary evil. Why? Well, for one thing, it is quite tiring, without as far as I can see being very good exercise: a walk would be better for body and mind, and cycling to work beats mowing hands down. Also it is unpleasantly noisy: at this time of year, English suburbia rings to the throb of powered garden machinery, a kind of evening chorus, as solitary males display their fitness by competing to be loudest, sometimes flying off in a speeding courtship circuit on sit-on mowers.
But the main reason I dislike mowing is not its unproductive consumption of time, its ineffective burning of calories or the noise. It is that it seems such a stupid thing to do. Grass likes being cut. The more you cut it, the more it grows. If you fertilise it, and drill holes in it to aerate it, and kill weeds, it grows even faster. The alert gardener mows it every week, perhaps more often: especially as Spring turns into Summer, when days are long, the air warm, and the ground still moist (in May in Cambridgeshire you can almost hear grass growing). This is the challenge to which the eager gardener rises: you cut the grass and make it beautiful; it keeps growing, so you keep cutting so it remains beautiful.
Let me be clear: I accept that a mown lawn is beautiful. This is clearly a matter of culturally conditioned taste, but for what it is worth I can see beauty in the juxtaposition of short grass and flowers, or lawn and trees. So, I understand the attraction of smooth green grass, but I do not like what you have to do to make it so. Its pastoral beauty is deceptive, because what seems natural is in fact utterly artificial. And what maintains it is (in ecological terms) an industrial ecosystem of seeds, fungicides, broadleaved pesticides, inorganic fertilizer, insecticides: and the oil economy.
This is the bit that worries me most when I am mowing. Here I am, pushing a horribly noisy petrol engine around the garden. If the mower were a car, its miles-per-gallon would be terrible. I find myself thinking of the oil extraction in the Arctic, the Gulf of Mexico, or the Niger Delta or, or any other region of the earth suffering the ‘oil curse’. As I seek to make my garden beautiful, I think of tankers full of crude, oil refineries (like that built in the Pembrokeshire National Park in 1964, that drove the naturalist Ronald Lockley away from the UK in disgust in 1970), the octopus of roads gripping the south of England tight, and all our lives, connected in every aspect of work, consumption and pleasure to their traffic.
One might see a lawn as an antidote to all that, but it is not: it is part of it. A lawn might be more beautiful than a motorway service station car park, but they both depend on the same oil-based economy. Both are crafted to fit human convenience and ideas of what is right. Lawns therefore seem to me part of the problem for conservation, not part of the solution. And as a conservationist, I find mowing raises disturbing issues: of beauty, naturalness and destruction. This being so, the question I have ask myself is why do I do it?
Part of the answer is given by Paul Robbins in his delightful book about the American lawn Lawn People. He argues that lawns shape us as much as we shape them. The biology and ecology of grass (and other lawn species) shape the ecology of their interactions with water, pesticides, fertilizer and with all the things people do and think. In the language of Actor Network Theory, lawns are actors, as much as those who tend them. I like in particular Robbins’s account of the cultures of lawn-management – the hard rules of urban neighbourhoods, and the soft rules of attitudes and ideas. We mow because the grass keeps growing, but also because we feel we should: there are boundaries of what is acceptable. The grass grows, the sense of a task undone builds, the mower is dragged out and the cycle begins again.
So if those who mow grass are all ‘lawn people’ in Paul Robbins’s sense, my question to myself is this: how far it is possible to shape the kind of lawn person you are? How would an ecological lawn person behave? Of course one solution is to get rid of the lawn altogether. If I had to raise my own food from my garden there would doubtless be no time or space for the lawn. But there would also be no room for a full-time job, so maybe for now I have to stick to a mixed landscape of raised beds, trees and grass.
But how to manage that grass? In part, the answer is easy: no pesticides, no fungicides, no fertilizer. That means a profound change in aesthetic: to welcome diversity in the lawn, rather than try to reduce it. Our neighbours’ lawns are smooth, and mostly grass. Ours is lumpy (two inches of spoil over rubble: the house used to belong to a builder’s merchant), ridged by tree roots and dotted with bulbs and self-seeded plants: violets, cowslips, primroses (some long ago from Devon, others really Primulas, in bubblegum colours), forget-me-nots, thistles, daisies and dandelions: and lots of moss. Indeed, those who know the garden would snort at my calling this flattish greenish ecosystem a lawn at all. But as a conservationist, this hybrid of garden and nature reserve seems ideal. To the ecological lawn person I would suggest that daisies and dandelions and buttercups are good: so too (I confess some reluctance here) is moss: at least the blue tits like it, and it seems an unavoidable consequence of having planted silver birches.
OK but what about mowing? The right way to deal with grass would presumably be to graze it, maybe by keeping chickens (lots of work), or geese (although they are worse than cats for defecating everywhere). Better, perhaps, a goat or a sheep: maybe a suburban ‘flying flock’ of shared sheep’ (but everyone would need their services in May, nobody in November).
A livestock-based solution does not seem very practical, given my daily bike commute to work. So my unsatisfactory strategy is to mow less often, and let the grass grow long (although I accept there is a risk of laziness masquerading as ecology here). Our garden gets mown just enough to knock back the suckers from the flowering cherry and victoria plum, pulling out the endless advancing ivy and some at least of the nettles and brambles that creep in from the proto-hedges around the boundaries. Leaving long grass and flowers in diverse patches adds a remote sensing challenge to the task of mowing: spotting the basal rosettes of hawkweeds or buttercups, or the dried stalks of cowslips, while getting through the mowing as fast as possible.
A real garden ecologist would probably plant a wild flower meadow. We have tried this in the past, with seeds from Landlife and sundry Wildlife Trust plant stalls. Maybe some of today’s ‘self-seeds’ are old friends: two fritillaries certainly came as plugs. We could do more, but a formal ‘wildflower meadow’ feels a bit too much like the mainstream model of ‘gardening as control’: a little patch of wild nature, planned, packaged, bought and brought to perfection. I prefer to take what comes, and interact with it.
A perfect lawn is an unreal conception, an impossible object. Indeed, it seems to me that the biggest mistake an ecological lawn person can make is to see a lawn as an object at all. A lawn is a community, of which we are part. In the grass, on it and under it live other species, other individuals. They do things, we respond. We do things, and so do they. Mowing is an extreme ecological event, a bizarre kind of motorized locust invasion. It shifts the garden’s ecology, favouring some species over others. Life goes on. The resources needed to power the mower come from lands far away, where their extraction and processing exact a real ecological price. This too is part of the ecology of lawn management, for which we also need to feel responsibility.
In his book Coping with Hunger, on West African rice farmers, the anthropologist Paul Richards came up with a delightful phrase to describe a smallholder’s relation with land. It was not, he said, the relationship of proprietor with property, but rather that of rider with bicycle: a matter of mutual inter-interaction. I know of no better model of an ecological approach to life, or lawns.