When Walt Whitman wrote his self-conscious and self-celebratory work “Leaves of Grass”, he was not thinking about the lawns of Toronto, the earliest of which were being mown at about the same time. Yet it’s hard not to feel that, as well as foreseeing a culture that celebrated self perhaps more than any other before it, he also foresaw a continental culture that championed the lawn in a way the world had never seen before and perhaps will never see again.
The title of his landmark work was a self-effacing pun meant to describe pages (leaves) of not-very-good writing (grass). The poetic implication was seeing a field of grass or a lawn as one living thing like a tree that sprouts leaves. So too was America not a nation under a monarch with those below bishops, rooks and pawns, but a huge tree-like community of self-aware leaves. The tree was great because the leaves were great, not the other way around.
It would be almost as novel to see a tree as a community of single-leafed plants that create their own support infrastructure as it would be to see a lawn as one large organism. The individual plants of the lawn live and die not alone but as a part of a body. It is the body of a large symbiotic plant that only exists alongside people like the kind that live in North America.
But as much as we like and insist on lawns, few of us venerate them as we might an ancient tree. A lawn may have had its roots planted a century or two before the present but few from our culture of lawn-loving citizens would see the point of a plaque or a sign saying, “This lawn was planted in 1872 and has been mown in one way or another every year since then.”
What does it say about a people, who hold something so dear to themselves but at the same time take it so for granted?
Nor would people waste time thinking about the famous, infamous or simply quotidian characters whose boots had bent the grass, or whose young and attractive bodies had sprawled across it in mid-summer sun. A bronze tablet might be put up for the house of some historical character or to announce that some famous scholar had attended or taught classes, but little thought would be given to lawns they walked across.
When it was decided that the lawn of the Back Campus at the University of Toronto should be replaced with artificial turf, the opponents and critics of that plan were called nostalgic. If the same surface were to have been paved the critics of such a move would have been called environmentalists, or perhaps “lawn huggers”, but not nostalgic.
What does it say about a people, who hold something so dear to themselves but at the same time take it so for granted? Why is the lawn, a boring, green tedium, so acculturated in our psyche that it is not seen as a fabrication but as something that happens on its own. For a nation of people that claim nature as their birthright, the lawn should be an aberration. The clipped topiary of Florida parking lots and Parisian boulevards are no less unnatural than the lawn.
Our lawns are not seen as unnatural. They are seen as unpretentious and natural as dirt. They are cleaner than dirt though and that is why they are planted with such devotion. Children are more than happy to play in dirt but their parents are not happy with this, nor are they happy with dirty clothes or with dirt in their houses. Lawns are the most natural buffer between ourselves and the dirt of the planet we live on.
Whitman explains with his poem, This Compost. He muses that all new life springs forth from the earth, which is constantly kept topped up by “distempered corpses” and “the sour dead”.
“O how can it be that the ground itself does not sicken?
How can you be alive you growths of spring?
How can you furnish health you blood of herbs, roots, orchards, grain?
Are they not continually putting distemper’d corpses within you?”
“That when I recline on the grass I do not catch any disease,
Though probably every spear of grass rises out of what was once a
In the park beside where I live, children run to the playground outfitted with bright shiny play “equipment”. Much of it is unfamiliar to childless people since playgrounds are constantly being re-invented. Even if children are happy playing in the dirt with sticks, adults are mostly against this and are endlessly coming up with alternatives.
Swings are recognizable as the devices that have always existed and lawns cannot grow under them. There is always a gap in the lawn directly under any well-used swing. Anywhere there is a popular playground, you're sure to find patches of dirt where the feet of children have killed the lawn. So much for the idea that children like lawns; they kill them without a second thought. I have never heard a child expressing any concern for a lawn ever. Not so their parents who have developed a rather hypocritical attachment.
Even adults who say they like their lawns are also apt to hate everything about trying to get them to grow, or when they do, about maintaining them. As a result, ground covers and brick paving have been a popular “low maintenance” alternatives to lawns, mostly for the childless or for those families with grown children.
From the 1970s on, spreading patches of vinca, Japanese spurge, ivy, sweet woodruff and other woodland plants have favoured shady back gardens under Norway maples and Honey locust trees. When these colonies thrive and do indeed cover the ground, they produce a serene and meditative foil to hard-scaping of stone and brick patios. It’s easy to imagine the proud homeowners silently sipping coffee, unbothered by children on a weekend morning, perhaps reading but at the same time admiring their perfect lack of lawn. Or perhaps it’s evening and they’re grilling fish for other childless people who will not drink so much they fall over, flattening the pachysandra.
Pachysandra, or Japanese spurge, was said to be the favourite ground cover of Frank Lloyd Wright. Slow spreading, it likes a layer of duff or mulch to send its rhizomes through. A perfectly situated rock or group of rocks can become a dramatic landscape in miniature set in a healthy carpet of the semi-evergreen plant.
Even the most robust lawns are jeopardized by plastic sandboxes, playhouses and kiddie pools.
The main difference between a yard and a garden is the dominance of the lawn. If you have a lawn behind your house with either a long hedge or a bit of hedge with a wall or fence, a lilac bush or a single tree or a few trees, you have a yard. Gardens have beds, patios and paths. They are dominated by plants and may have a lawn or no lawn. They may also have water features like fountains, decorative sculpture or occasionally more serious sculpture. Containers, planters and potted plants are definitely the domain of gardens rather than yards.
Sometime in the '80s, gigantic plastic toys became a feature of many back yards. Large plastic playhouses, pedal toys and kiddie pools do not work well with moss-covered Buddha heads and Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired swathes of pachysandra. Children, who are often given not just one, but many brightly coloured balls to play with, both large and small, seem to be anathema to anything but lawn and its main alternative, dirt. Working in a low maintenance garden that also contains these plastic toys you'll find many forgotten balls hidden in the battered, struggling ground-covers.
Sand boxes are also made out of unnaturally coloured plastic and often take the whimsical shape of creatures like turtles or ladybugs. The backs of these come off and go back on to protect the sand from real animals defecating, most usually cats. The main concern is dirt and contagion.
Even the most robust lawns are jeopardized by plastic sandboxes, playhouses and kiddie pools. Not only do they make mowing difficult, but any left in one place for more than two weeks will also result in weakened, pale yellow grass, if not a patch of dead lawn. If children are inconsiderate of lawns, lawns find children stressful to the point of exhaustion.
Pity the poor couple who buy a house with a shady garden and who do not notice the lush green lawn is sod that was laid a week before the showing. Doomed from the start by a lack of sunlight, unconcerned sellers and distracted buyers, the green buffer between the dirt of this planet and those in their back yard soon disappears.
When they reach that point where there is no lawn, just dirt for children to kick their many balls around, or no place but dirt for a turtle-shaped sandbox, they may choose artificial turf. But their children may find the feel of it uncomfortable and take their play somewhere else. Hard decisions have to be made
So too do universities like the University of Toronto have hard choices regarding their playing fields. Humans must have developed games and sports like soccer on the rough turf of pastures but now that is not enough. Mere grass is no longer barrier enough between our feet and the dirt and mud of the planet.
Whatever the base is for the synthetic turf, it isn’t earth.
On playing fields like the Back Campus there’ll be no flocks of starlings picking through the grass, no early bird getting the worm – because there'll be no worms. There’ll be no bees buzzing in the dandelions and there won’t be millions of leaves of grass breathing in carbon dioxide and breathing out oxygen. Whatever the base is for the synthetic turf, it isn’t earth. It has none of the magical purifying properties that so amazed Walt Whitman.
Far from it, it is made from oil and requires manufacturing and shipping. It is as far from carbon-neutral as possible. When it is worn out, it will need recycling or disposal. Whatever ecological sins a lawn commits, it is many layers of hell closer to heaven than artificial turf. The Back Campus is little more a green space than the cement pad of an outdoor hockey surface. Only its colour is green.
After many years of being cover by synthetic turf, the soil will be affected in the same way as if it were paved. No organic matter can enter the soil, even if rain water can. Leaves or tree needles will have to be cleaned off the turf with powerful blowers or vacuums.
It doesn't even really look like grass. Manufacturers may have made great strides at making artificial plants mimic the real thing, but a close inspection is all most people need to tell the difference. From that instant on they give us less and less satisfaction. Whatever visual appeal artificial turf has that is greater than a spotty lawn, it depends on a lack of scrutiny. It is the opposite of something you would want in a contemplative garden, demanding that you not think about it or take any more than brief notice of it. There must be something to distract or you will always become dissatisfied.
“Now I am terrified at the Earth, it is that calm and patient.
It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,
It turns harmless and stainless on its axis,
With such endless successions of diseas’d corpses,
It distills such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,
It renews with such unwitting looks its prodigal annual, sumptuous crops,
It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts
such leavings from them at last.”
GENE THRENDYLE is a professional gardener who has been planning, building and maintaining private and public gardens in Toronto for overr 2 decades. He was a participant, consultant and in charge of maintaining the Artists’ Gardens at Harbourfront from 1998-2008. Gene is also an artist and has exhibited work and been involved in the arts in Toronto for over 20 years. He has featured in solo or group shows arlound the world.
Photos: "Artificial turf with driftwood"; "Cleaning the turf"; and "Loom lines in the turf", by Gene Threndyle.