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Author Mark Dery archive America’s ecocidal attraction with nice grass

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This is the abode at Terror Artery and Affliction Way. From the outside, it looks banal enough, a stucco-clad box in the Spanish Colonial Revival appearance all-over in ‘20s L.A.

Don’t be fooled: it was “the abode of horrors, the abode of agony, the abode breadth I was about done in,” the artist Charles Bukowski says, in the documentary Born Into This—almost done in by his (almost) comically barbarous father, a German-American of austere mien who exhausted his son with a razor hone weekly, if not daily, and accursed the adolescent Hank, as his schoolmates dubbed him, to amusing affliction by bathrobe him in lederhosen and giving him the short-back-and-sides crew advantaged by the Prussian aggressive class.

Photo: 2122 Longwood Avenue, Bukowski’s adolescence home, by Jacob Härnqvist

Standing in advanced of his adolescence home, Bukowski tells the camera the “horror story” of his Depression-era childhood. A blocky, big-bellied man with a face like a topographical map of the moon, pocked and seamed by the confusion of abscess and bedeviled by the annular adenoids of an crumbling barfly, he credibility against the rectangle of backyard in advanced of the house.

This is the backyard that I manicured. I had to mow it both ways, this way first, again this way; again I had it get all the hairs with the shears. If I absent one hair, I got a beating. One hair. It’s actual adamantine not to absence one hair, you know. Try it sometime. So I consistently got a beating.

In his almost fictionalized autobiography, the atypical Ham on Rye, Bukowski milks the moment for its daydream hilarity. On his easily and knees, Bukowski père examines the backyard his son has aloof mown.

He leaped up and ran against the house.

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“MAMA! MAMA!” He ran into the house. “What is it?”
“I begin a hair!”

“You did?”

“Come, I’ll appearance you!”
He came out of the abode bound with my mother following. “Here! Here! I’ll appearance you!”
He got bottomward on his easily and knees. “I can see it! I can see two of them!”
My mother got bottomward with him. I wondered if they were crazy. “See them?” He asked her. “Two hairs. See them?”
“Yes, Daddy, I see them…”
They both got up. My mother absolved into the house. My ancestor looked at me. “Inside…”

The obsessively manicured backyard is, of course, an American icon—a little application of paradise that says, “I got my allotment of the American Dream.”

Over the advance of a aeon of industrialization and urbanization that dream had become synonymous, in the American mind, with home ownership. With the postwar acceleration of suburbia, the backyard entered the accepted consciousness. Reversing the cultural argumentation that had accustomed acceleration to houses set aural accessible acclamation ambit of the street, their roomy, well-shaded porches adorable passersby to appear sit a spell and bandy a little account over lemonade, the Levittown backyard was a blooming moat amid every man’s tract-home alcazar from his neighbors’.

Housing in Bristol, England, in the 19th aeon

Kenneth T. Jackson notes, in his archetypal abstraction The Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, that afore 1860 best houses had no advanced yard; they “nestled up to the street, with a arresting advanced aperture that arrive entrance.” As for the abbreviated aback yard, it was a “rear area,” as Jackson puts it, in both the Freudian and the accurate sense, advantageous abandoned for visits to the outhouse and contrarily a abhorrent sump, “rancid, disreputable, and beat by rodents.”

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It wasn’t until 1870 that the analogue of a abode as abstracted from its fellows, amidst by a yard, absolutely took ascendancy in the American mind. By then, abandoned apartment was acceptable the burghal norm. Vested interests answer the freestanding home on its island of blooming as a benign addition to the brimming city, breadth the blackmail of epidemics, in the era afore avant-garde sanitation, was ever-present. “The new ideal was no best to be allotment of a aing community,” writes Jackson, “but to accept a independent unit, a clandestine wonderland belted off from the blow of the world.” Holding the apple at arm’s-length, the prim, croquet-ready lawn—made accessible by Elwood McGuire’s human-powered mower, which accustomed on cue in the acute year of 1870—both embodied and enabled the new amusing aesthetics of the suburbs. Jackson writes,

Although visually accessible to the street, the backyard was a barrier—a affectionate of blooming moating amid the domiciliary from the threats and temptations of the city. … [It separates] the ancestors by absolute acreage from intruders into clandestine space.

Securing the ambit of the nuclear family’s compound, the assured white-picket fence stood guard, a Leave It to Beaver amend of the borderland stockade. “He put up a acid wire fence/ To accumulate out the unknown,” Joni Mitchell sings, in “The Hissing of Summer Lawns” (1975), a Didion-esque allegation of the aforementioned status-seeking, spiritually barren suburbanites Malvina Reynolds mocks in her 1962 folk song, “Little Boxes” (inspired by the Levittown-like California apartment development of Westlake), and whom Didion submits for our acrimonious application in her article “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” (1966). Like Didion, who sets her chastity comedy in San Bernardino, Mitchell uses The Basin and its sprinkler-swished lawns as a allegory for the blank-brained narcissism and materialism that for abounding (especially New Yorkers of the Woody Allen persuasion) are L.A.’s ability to American culture:


He bought her a architecture for her throatHe put her in a agronomical abode on a hillShe could see the basin barbecuesFrom her window sillSee the dejected pools in the squinting sunHear the hissing of summer lawns

Even now, aback we acquaintance the blow of the burghal dream as an artful amusement of the aboriginal adjustment through movies like American Beauty and Revolutionary Road and TV shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Weeds, the backyard endures in the accessible apperception as a attribute of the American idyll, or at atomic a white, accepted idyll.

Its geometric precision, not a beard out of place, celebrates the chains and corruption of attributes that fabricated this nation abundant akin as it makes a advantage of the mind-cramping conformism decried, in the heyday of the ‘burbs, by books like The Organization Man. The beaming artificiality of its Astroturf boyhood proclaims the American acceptance in abstruse advance (brought to you, in this case, by Monsanto’s weed-killer, Roundup®), not to acknowledgment our abhorrence about agrarian nature—a legacy, perhaps, of our Puritan forebears, for whom the backwoods earliest was a backup of adverse citizenry and, akin added worryingly, Satan’s aphotic dominion. Whatever the reason, we like our attributes staring glassily aback at us, blimp and army on a knotty-pine wall, or axis cartwheels in a SeaWorld aquarium, or reborn as Audio-Animatronic fauna in one of Disney’s automatic Edens. Like the putting green, the ballpark, and, not coincidentally, Backwoods Lawn, the soft-as-suede, impossibly blooming backyard is a mortician’s abstraction of nature; a acrimonious canonizing to the agrarian abode this acclimated to be, afore bulldozers fabricated the acreage safe for sprawl. (Parenthetically, I accept to admiration if the appearance trend abroad from the beastly hippie bush, in American women, to baldheaded porn-star pubes is yet added affirmation of our aberrant abhorrence of agrarian things, an android mons for a CGI world.)

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Illustration: Los Angeles at dawn, by Rob Beschizza

The backyard has consistently been Dad’s domain, a fiefdom for the accepted man who ability be a blockhead at assignment but, astride his John Deere benumbed mower, is adept of all he surveys. Here, on suburbia’s altar to clandestine acreage and naked self-interest, the Lord of the Manor is chargeless to allow his control-freak tendencies to the fullest, weed-whacking the specters of amusing anarchy into submission, alive out his claimed issues, as we like to say, with mower and leaf-blower.

During the administration of the Abundant Golfer, as Gore Vidal dubbed Eisenhower, the audacious manicuring of the backyard affected the cachet of religious devotions. Like archetypal railroading and architecture ships in bottles, both hobbies associated with burghal men in the ‘50s and ‘60s, backyard perfectionism gave abounding rein to fantasies of able ascendancy and advisedly authority, if abandoned on a Lilliputian scale; as such, it was analgesic to the anatomy of the stressed-out Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, admitting it hinted, simultaneously, at the antecedent of those stresses: the aboriginal stirrings of feminist challenges to affectionate power, the growing obsolescence of the Ancestor Knows Best acceptance in Dad as warm, astute arch of the household. (“Your ancestor is consistently right” was Bukowski’s mother’s abandoned animadversion on her husband’s ritual beatings of her son.)

Of course, the allegation to accumulate up with the Joneses played into Dad’s obsession: aback the aurora of the ‘burbs, about 1870, the accessory lawn, a democratized adaptation of the circuitous area that in Europe abandoned dignity could allow and maintain, has been a cachet attribute in the States. Keeping the advanced yard, at least, in trim, as boxlike abroad as a marine’s high-and-tight crew or the hospital corners on a boot-camp cot, brought out the aggressive band in Dad, a sublimated anatomy of macho threat-posturing and territory-marking.

As well, the band of backyard affliction accustomed Dad to comedy Jeffersonian agriculturalist for a day, agreeable in audacious fresh-air action while accord with attributes (albeit with the aid of an armory of gas-powered toys for developed boys). A abeyant balance of the added arduous adulthood of pre-industrial days, mowing the lawn, like manning the backyard grill, was Viagra for overstressed admiral and alive stiffs alike, putting burghal men in blow (if abandoned symically) with their manlier sides.

Levittown in 1957

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As the agrarian way of action achromatic into Currier & Ives prints, bread-and-er and amusing armament swept millions out of rural America, into the anew automated cities.

In the postwar decades, the demographic beachcomber formed back: accepted whites emigrated to the ringworlds of suburbia, absorbed by the agent balladry of home ownership, accessible spaces, beginning air, and, account amid the lines, a award sanitaire amid Us and Them—between Middle American dreams of affair and canasta; of tidy, appetite lives lived on gridded streets, breadth the auto of the bus go ‘round and ‘round and Officer Friendly is on patrol; and, far from the burbs’ hissing lawns, the awash masses in apartment projects.

Now, a new cultural activating is abiding the Don and Betty Drapers of our day to the nation’s big cities. Increasingly, the ‘burbs and exurbs resemble corrupt alternate colonies, maintained by a abbreviating citizenry of homesteaders too old or too cash-strapped to accompany the departure aback to Planet Earth. Poverty, akin in the ‘60s and ‘70s with boyhood neighborhoods in the close city, is added a agency in what ability be alleged burghal blight. So, too, is auto exhaustion. The car, which already seemed so liberating that suburbia, with its mile-wide streets and absent sidewalks, was around a cairn to it, now feels, to suburbanites arctic in commutes beeline out of the cartage jam from Hell in Godard’s Weekend, like aloof bonds on wheels.

“Many Americans are backbreaking of the concrete aspect of the suburbs, the architecture of which has afflicted badly over the years to gradually advance bodies further and further afar from one addition and the things they like to do, authoritative them added codicillary on their cars and, increasingly, on Thelma and Louise-length commutes,” writes the Fortune editor Leigh Gallagher in The End of Suburbs: Breadth the American Dream is Moving. Every decade aback the apparatus of the automobile, she notes, “suburban citizenry advance has outpaced that of burghal centers”—until 2011, when, for the aboriginal time in a century, the trend alarm swung back: “Construction admittance abstracts shows that in several cities, architecture action that was already concentrated in the burghal binding has now confused primarily to cities, or what planners alarm the ‘urban core.’”

Water sprinklers on a drought-stricken lawn, by Surveyor

Despite such tectonic shifts, the burghal backyard charcoal an abiding attribute of the American Dream, akin of America itself, the anticlimax of its allegorical bill and its ecology unsustainability notwithstanding. The absolute backyard has consistently been environmentally unsustainable, its non-native grasses acquisitive adored baptize and nourished by actinic fertilizers, its chaste common a achievement over anarchical flora and fauna accomplished through abiding carpet-bombing with baneful herbicides and pesticides. In an age of baptize wars and all-around warming, it’s about obscene. According to a 2002 Harris Poll, 50-70% of all burghal beginning baptize is blown on lawns, added than bisected of which is ashen “because of inappropriate timing or dosage. Nearly all the baptize acclimated could be adored by adapted use of built-in agriculture that does not crave any watering above accustomed rainfall.” We dosage our lawns with 67 actor pounds’ account of constructed pesticides annually, three times the bulk used, per acre, on agronomical crops. We absorb $5.25 billion on fossil-fuel-derived backyard fertilizers, whose binding allowances accommodate contagion apparent and arena water. Our gas-powered mowers aftermath as abundant abuse in one hour as our cars do over the advance of a 20-mile drive; every year, they t 580 actor gallons of gas.

Whether men—whose amusing cachet and gender roles accept been annoyed by the annihilation of blue-collar accomplishment jobs, the 2008 recession, and the growing cardinal of households breadth women are the primary breadwinners—will bifold bottomward on their adventure for the absolute lawn, adhering to the lawn-care rituals of their ‘50s fathers like action amaranthine in a agitated world, charcoal to be seen. But there’s little agnosticism that, in a country breadth a man’s home is his castle, his backyard is his pride, and the acknowledged aberration of stand-your-ground laws and the defense-of-habitation article are official writ, in abounding states, the burghal backyard will buck attestant to added than one amusing tragedy.

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The aboriginal is already on the books: in February 2009, a homeowner in Union Township, a Cincinnati, artlessly a a 911 operator, “I aloof dead a kid.” Charles Martin, a retired Ford Motor Company worker, blew abroad his neighbors’ 15-year-old son, Larry Mugrage, with a shotgun bang to the because the boy had been “making the added kids annoy me and my place,” as the 66-year-old Martin told the dispatcher, “tearing things up.” According to a CBS new report, “Police said bridge that backyard is what got Mugrage killed. Martin, who lived alone, told admiral he’d had several disputes with neighbors about walking on his grass…”

Known in the adjacency as a quiet man (aren’t they always?), Martin could generally be apparent sitting in advanced of his one-story home, advertent his neatly circumscribed bracken and obsessively maintained lawn. A flagpole aerial Old Glory and a U.S. Navy banderole provided the finishing touch. In the CBS story, a adjacency boyhood offers what could be a conge for any one of bags men in suburbia, active lives of quiet sociopathology: “He was absolute careful over his backyard and mowed it a lot, and sometimes akin abstinent the grass with a yardstick.”

—Mark Dery

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