This little song by Pete Seeger satirized the suburban culture of tract housing communities that developed in the late 1940's and 1950's. In addition to mocking conformity, it pokes fun of our desire for status and acceptance.
The title of this post is misleading. After all, the greenish collection of plant species that covers much of our front yard does not quite qualify as a lawn. It is more of a random assemblage of weeds with some patches of grass thrown in. Now don’t get me wrong. It doesn’t look all that bad. We pay gardeners to mow the lawn once a week and to keep our flowery bushes trimmed. So as long as the weekly mowing routine has not been disrupted by rain or holidays, things look neat, trim, and somewhat green and grass-like. And so long as people only see it from a distance while driving by or pay scant attention while strolling past our home, they will not be aware of the true nature of our “lawn.” But if anyone stops and looks for some strange reason, or, heaven forbid, if guests walk onto the lawn and discover the prickly little weed balls that stick to anything that moves, then they will recognize our somewhat dried out weed farm for what it really is.
This is not entirely our fault. When we moved into the house, the plants right in front of the house were overgrown, and the previous owners had clearly done little in the way of lawn care. So we have managed to plant some new plants, keep trim the previous inhabitants, and lay out some of those brick thingies to create a separation between “lawn” and plants. But I have not been willing to pay the cost in terms of labor or money to rip out the accumulated plant life of several decades and lay down a new lawn. So I try to water two or three times a week to create the appearance of green grass, and we get a good deal paying those guys to hide the weeds by keeping them short. It could be greener, but two factors keep me from watering more often. First, there is the simple fact that I have other stuff to do, and second, I know in the back of my mind that watering only encourages further weed growth. If I know that I am not doing lawn care correctly, then why do it at all?
If a bunch of money ever comes our way for some reason, then I will immediately get someone to install both a sprinkler system and a proper front lawn. Or, if we suddenly get really rich, we could just forget the current house all together and find another one with proper grass and irrigation. This fantasy that I often indulge when standing outside with a hose, however, forces me to ask a simple question. Why the hell do I care about the appearance of my “lawn”? How will green, “weedless” grass enhance my life?
I often like to pat myself on the back for being a person who does not care about the accumulation of material things and the luxury and status that they provide. I am just so damn down-to-earth and insightful, seeing right through the American delusion that happiness comes from accumulating stuff. So obviously, my desire for a nice lawn must be my innate love of nature and appreciation for beautiful things. I just want to lay down on the soft green grass, sniff my beautifully manicured flowers, and share all of this beauty with those who are fortunate enough to either pass by or visit. The only problem with that explanation is that it is largely a bunch of crap. The simple truth is that I want to make a positive impression with my home, and much of this desire, as much as I don’t want to admit it, is rooted in a desire for status.
Whenever I visit someone who has a nicer house than ours, I feel a tinge of jealousy. This only gets worse, of course, if they have a nice flat screen, a fancy kitchen, and if the place is obnoxiously clean. I feel similar emotions when I get a taste of luxury at a fancy event or during those rare occasions when we stay in a nice hotel or go to an expensive restaurant. I can’t help thinking, “Wouldn’t it be nice to do this all of the time, and wouldn’t it be cool if there were people out there who were jealous of me?” Apparently, the score is materialistic, status-loving American culture: one, Paul Swendson: zero.
It’s all a bit pathetic. I am, after all, a person who tries to keep up on current events and who has read quite a bit of history. I am well aware of the fact that I am, by any reasonable standard, already living a life of luxury. My house has running water, electricity, air conditioning, DSL, and DirecTV, so how the hell can I be bitching about my “lawn”? Fortunately, the rational part of my mind generally wins out over that whining, emotional, jealous part. This is why I don’t become a workaholic or take drastic steps toward changing my career in an effort to make more money, indulge in luxury, and show off my success. I can’t control my irrational, competitive, self-centered emotions. But I can control my behavior and recognize these emotions for what they are.
Watering our “lawn” isn’t all that bad anyway. It’s a chance to get outside and get in touch with nature for at least a few minutes a day. For a spoiled urbanite like myself, it’s the closest that I can often get to working the land as my tougher, less privileged ancestors once did. Plus, the smell of wet grass/weeds, either early in the morning or just before dark, can be a beautiful thing. Why let the sprinklers have all of the fun?