This summer, the grass was not greener on the other side of the fence. In fact, there was no green grass so far as the eye could see, as heatwaves and drought turned our lush lawns into barren wastelands.
A quintessential feature in western gardens and landscaping, the lawn is at the centre of controversy. Its formal homogeneity and neatness imply reliability and constancy, and elicit our trust. And yet its unquenchable thirst for fertilisers, weedkillers and water, and inhospitality to wildlife, have attracted criticism and even spurred an anti-lawn movement in the US.
According to most historical accounts, the lawn grew out of the western world’s obsession with controlling nature. While this is true in part, the earliest mention of a garden lawn appeared in one of the world’s oldest gardening books, Sakuteiki, published in Japan in the 11th century. Australians and Canadians may be just as lawn-proud as the Americans, but Malaysia, Japan and China have also perfected the art of the greensward.
But what is at the root of its global success? The lawn’s popularity was not masterminded solely by the gardeners of Versailles or the proud British landowners that rose to power in the 18th century. It might come as a surprise, but artists played an important role. In a pre-photographic world in which people travelled much less than we do today, it was the canvases of artists such as John Constable, Antoine Watteau, Canaletto and John Varley, among others, that enshrined the lawn as the quintessential power statement of the super-rich.
Christianity also played its part. Popular 17th-century paintings of travellers by Jacques Fouquier or Gaspar de Witte metaphorically alluded to a spiritual journey from damnation, as represented by the presumed irrationality of the forest, to the salvation of godly and sun-kissed idyllic meadows.
On the secular front, according to moral standards of the Enlightenment, the sophistication of one’s own education and manners should be reflected in the refinement of material possessions. Maintaining a smooth and lush lawn therefore signalled virtue, since it affirmed the essential role that discipline plays in the mastering of life itself.
By the time the Industrial Revolution propelled the rise of a new mercantile class, closely shorn carpets of grass had become the norm across Europe. Subsequently, it was against the background of sprawling urbanisation and an unprecedented alienation from nature that affordable lawnmowers and garden hoses marked the beginning of a new chapter in the story of the lawn: modern masculinity.
By the 1930s, the growing popularity of team sports such as cricket, bowling, football and especially golf linked the lawn to predominantly masculine ideologies of health, strength and recreation. Overwhelmed by the systematised rhythms and models of modern life, masculine heroism needed new territory upon which to play itself out. The lawn was where the kids played and the family gathered. In charge of mowing, office men and factory workers alike could continue to carry out their patriarchal duties: curbing nature’s unruliness to provide a safe haven for the family. From generation to generation, mowing the lawn thus became a mundane ritual designed to mark, albeit performatively, the contours of the masculine domain.
Beneath the lawn lies a stratification of intricate ideological and ecological problems that over time have become naturalised. In practice, a lawn is hard to maintain. It is perennially thirsty. Fertilisers and weedkillers pollute and poison. Mowers and blowers are costly, noisy and damaging to the environment. And, crucially, lawns are the grave of biodiversity. Wildlife has little to feed on and nowhere to hide.
As climate change provides dramatic proof of our unsustainable relationship with nature, artificial turf has become a popular alternative to grass in countries that now routinely experience severe droughts. However, laying green plastic carpets made of recycled car tires over already compromised ecosystems is far from the kind of solution we need. It is becoming apparent that the lawn is a manifestation of our deep disconnect with nature: the materialisation of our lack of understanding, or care, for the complex relationships woven across plants, soil and our cultural histories.
Just as during the Enlightenment art instilled our love affair with the lawn, today’s artists are determined to untangle the complex aesthetic, ideological and ecological knots that keep our passion for mown grass alive despite mounting evidence that we’d be better off without it.
Kandis Williams’s installations show that artificial turf is a highly problematic reinvention of the lawn, an aesthetic falsehood that does nothing but cover up colonialist atrocities. It defers our responsibility to amend a fraught past of exploitation of the ecological histories of the landscape and the lives of Bipoc people (Black, Indigenous and people of color) that have for centuries been forcefully enmeshed in it. Carpeting land with artificially mass-produced reproductions of the lawn is the ultimate incarnation of the capitalist logic that has led us, via colonialism, to the climate crisis.
Martin Roth’s installations of Persian carpets sown with grass seeds question our desire to control nature on the grounds of our cultural conceptions and, ultimately, to disregard the natural ebbs and flows that characterise organic life. In different but related ways, Amsterdam-based artist Diana Scherer grows grass roots into patterned moulds to challenge the nature/culture dichotomy. “What does the term “natural” mean in the Anthropocene?” the artist asks through her installations and photographs. Scherer’s work reveals grasses as complex organisms whose networked existence is defined by time and space in ways that often remain invisible to us.
Pointing to ecological sustainability, in 1997 Lois Weinbergerplanted a meadow of plants that grew freely among disused train tracks in Kassel, Germany. Almost two decades later, Australian artist Linda Tegg grew a meadow of native grasses and other indigenous plants outside the State Library Victoria in Melbourne. Her project attracted wildlife to an otherwise sterile, paved urban area and envisioned a landscape in which ecological and cultural balance are two sides of the same coin.
Artists are also inviting us to rethink our relationship with the lawn from the ground up by prioritising biology over aesthetics. In Revival Field Mel Chin filled a swath of land with grasses and other plants to test their ability to absorb pollutants from soil compromised by industrial activities. In a similar vein, Frances Whitehead’s Slow Cleanup project, which ran between 2008 and 2012 in Chicago, enlisted the help of plants to regenerate the polluted soil around abandoned gas stations. Petroleum and other pollutants can be absorbed by soil microbes attracted to phenols and sugars exuded by the roots of some plants. Rather than simply providing recreational spaces, Whitehead’s new urban gardens actively engaged communities to learn about plants and ecology.
Whether addressing the implicit meaning of lawn aesthetics, foregrounding the complexity of plant life, inviting us to reconsider the importance of biodiversity in our gardens, or educating us about the regenerative properties of plants, artists (often in collaboration with scientists) have sparked our curiosity and, most importantly, demonstrated that our responsibility to care for our gardens extends beyond the wellbeing of our families. The pollinators, the water, the soil, the air, and the invisible networks of fungi and bacteria that support life on this planet matter now more than ever. No garden is too small to make a difference; it’s never too late to rewild.
In his influential 1870 book The Wild Garden, William Robinson tried to instil a slow but steady revolution. “Surely it is enough to have a portion of lawn as smooth as a carpet at all times, without sending the mower to shave the ‘long and pleasant grass’ of the other parts of the grounds. It would indeed be worthwhile to leave many parts of the grass unmown for the sake of growing many beautiful plants in it.” The time has come to take up his invitation. We can all start here – bit by bit, spring by spring – with a simple commitment to shrink our lawns in order to endlessly enrich the life of this planet.