Dandelions and civilization

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Whenever I see a lawn with dandelions, I think, “This is the home of civilized people. This is the home of people who care about the environment and their community. This is where bees are welcome.”

When I see a monoculture lawn, bereft of weeds or dandelions, I think, “Here is the home of an anti-social family; a place where life is restricted, wildlife discouraged; where community and the environment don’t matter.”

I feel the same when I see a lawn sign advertising that an anti-“weed” toxin has been applied: “Here is the house of someone who dislikes their neighbours, the local wildlife, and pets.” It’s the home of someone who doesn’t care about their and their neighbours’ drinking water, either, because everyone knows that those poisons drain off into our local water supplies and eventually poison everyone.

Bland lawns bereft of texture and colour, bereft of even a single dandelion just seem so artificial, so hostile, so arrogant. So anti-bee, so anti-life, so impoverished.

Dandelions, on the other hand, are a bright icon of civilization and conscience. After all, who doesn’t know that bees and other pollinators are in trouble, are suffering from the excesses of toxins sprayed egregiously on lawns and fields? Who really believes a drab, one-colour lawn is more attractive, let alone beneficial than a flower garden?

Dandelions have a long, storied history in human company: brought over from Europe in the 17th century for their healing properties, they have spread across the continent. 

Weeds get a bad rap, says Dan Kraus, national conservation biologist at the Nature Conservancy of Canada:

Weed is a very subjective term. There is no scientific definition that says: this is a weed, this is not a weed. They’re basically plants that are in a place where people don’t want them. People consider dandelions to be a weed, but if you just change your mind about dandelions, and you don’t mind them on your lawn, then they’re no longer a weed.

Just google lawns and weeds and up pop a horde of commercial sites offering to cleanse your lawn of weeds, mostly by spraying some toxic concoction on them that will also poison wildlife and your drinking water. And they do it for money, of course.  But that’s modern life and the culture of me-me-me: as long as your lawn is perfect, who cares the consequences?

Lawns have a long history, mostly as status symbols rather than anything useful. The word itself comes to us from the Old Enligh launde, meaning a communal grazing space. It devolved into laune by 1540. Back in Henry III ‘s time it meant a private area exquisitely and laboriously manicured (first by livestock, then by peasants’ hands, and later by paid workers) to show off your wealth and status. Nothing communal about them.

Initially, these lawns had other ground cover, such as chamomile or thyme. Lawns were places where the wealthy could play games, too: bowling, tennis, and croquet were popular sports for the rich. But since these games require greater surface consistency, grass soon became the plant of choice. And with that came the other sport of the rich: golf. Golf courses turn hundreds, even thousands of acres of productive farmland and bio-diverse wilderness into sterile playgrounds, usually maintained through toxic sprays.

And it’s not just any grass: it’s only a handful of species of this ancient plant that are popular for lawns. Some taller grasses are used for ornamental plants in gardens, true, but of the 12,000 or so species of grass (of which about 1,400 are in North America), only a very few – including  bluegrass, fescue, and ryegrass  – are among those popular for lawns. Bamboo, by the way, is a grass.

Golf courses opened in North America in the late 19th century (the first in Montreal, 1873). Around the same time, major cities in North America were developing public parks (smaller communities had their civic squares) where cut-grass lawns were a main feature.

Lawns really shifted from the domain of the elite to the hoi polloi with the development of cookie-cutter subdivisions (suburbia) after WWII. At the same time, the invention of the small, easily-maneuvered (and soon mass-produced) lawnmower made it easier for individuals to maintain these areas – one didn’t need servants to do it (and when the service culture died, post -WWI, it became incumbent on the homeowners to do their own chores).

A well-kept lawn was seen as a sign of respectability in the suburbs. But keep in mind that smoking was also considered socially acceptable back then. So was racism. As Dan Kraus adds,

The whole idea of the perfect, monocultured, uniform lawn is manufactured. It’s like the fashion industry. That thought has been put into our mind. But when you look at other things, like art, nobody likes just a blank painting with nothing on it. If you find a natural forest with wildflowers, it’s much more interesting than a monoculture of planted pine trees in rows. As humans, we are attracted to diversity, but for some reason that hasn’t been applied to our lawns – but I think it is changing. It’s important that it changes, because in most urban areas, lawns [collectively] are the largest area of green space, and how we manage those ecosystems can have an impact on urban biodiversity.

Lawns became de rigeur for new homes and developments post-1960, even when they were completely unnatural to the local environment, and had to be maintained artificially at great expense and egregious water use (9 billion gallons a day used in lawn watering in the USA alone).

Lawns and golf both appealled to the growing middle class as a way to emulate the rich: adopting them meant garnering a patina of status, much like silver plate emulates actual silverware, until, of course, the thin plating wears off.

Parks, too, emulated the palatial grounds of the rich, although they arrived somewhat later. In Canada the parks’ movement didn’t get underway until that end of the nineteenth century:

Parks were originally defined (following the British example) as the private grounds of a gentleman’s estate. Public parks were not an integral element on the landscapes of the earliest Canadian cities and towns. The city park as we know it actually entered North America during the 1830s through the “rural cemetery” movement. These burial grounds were landscaped, and served as quiet places to stroll or to have family picnics. Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Toronto, which was designed by H.A. Engelhardt in 1874, was one such area.
The period of intense park building (1880-1914) was stimulated by an interplay of 4 factors. The first was a belief that the city dweller’s increasing separation from nature caused physical, mental and moral distress. Parks were seen as healing antidotes to this urban malaise. The second factor was the rise of the “CITY BEAUTIFUL MOVEMENT”, a loosely integrated philosophy of urban improvement which promoted beautification planning including grand civic centres and aesthetic streetscapes, as well as parks. The third motivation stressed the economic benefits of parks, and was part of the popular promotion of cities and towns called “boosterism.” Parks raised the value of adjacent land and were touted in real-estate campaigns as visible proof of a prosperous community, a “wide-awake” community concerned about the welfare of its residents.

Parks, like lawns, are symbols of human dominance over nature: “taming” the wild. They represent our power over the wild. Like trophy hunting: they are part of the masculine culture that needs to control and dominate.

Lawns were also a sign of conformity and obedience. In the Red Scare of the 1950s, Communism and crabgrass were both symbols of unpatriotic dissent. Weeds were invaders, like guerillas, to be waged war on and destroyed. Whole industries developed to create chemicals and tools to help defeat the enemies of conformity. Which is ironic, especially in America where Communism is viewed as a lockstep ideology of unwavering obedience and sameness. 

Yet in suburbia, conformity is the standard. Even the most left-wing suburban homeowner has a lawnmower and cuts the grass regularly like it was some religious obligation.

Mowing your lawn to unnatural shortness is an act of obedience and concession to faith in the body politic. It is the “moral imperative” of suburban culture not to stand out, not to dissent, not to be unorthodox. Failure to comply with lawn maintenance is a failure to integrate into the community. Independence is unwanted. Homeowners are under community scrutiny to conform with the suburban borg. Resistance is futile.

As noted in Scientific American:

The goal—as confirmed by the efforts of Abraham Levitt in his sweeping exercise in conformity (although it had been established well before that)—is to attain a patch of green grass of a singular type with no weeds that is attached to your home. It should be no more than an inch and a half tall, and neatly edged. This means you must be willing to care for it. It must be watered, mowed, repaired, and cultivated. Lawns are expensive—and some regard them as boring in their uniformity—but they are a hallmark of homeownership. Why do Americans place so much importance on lawn maintenance?… Lawns are indicative of success; they are a physical manifestation of the American Dream of home ownership. To have a well maintained lawn is a sign to others that you have the time and/or the money to support this attraction. It signifies that you care about belonging and want others to see that you are like them. A properly maintained lawn tells others you are a good neighbor.

Many municipalities even have laws that dictate the height of the grass on a lawn. Disobedient homeowners have been fined and even jailed for failing to conform. And, of course, the lawn is the bastion of masculine culture:

The yard—where kids play, where dogs frolic, where fun is had and jungles are gymed and meat is grilled upon open flames—became portrayed, commercially, as a semi-wild domestic space whose wildness required taming by a masculine influence. Which is an idea that carries on in pop culture, not to mention in pretty much every Father’s Day-timed ad for Home Depot or Lowe’s or John Deere. A few years ago, Yankee Candle took the unusual step of marketing one of its candles to men. Its scent was evocative of freshly cut grass. Its name was “Riding Mower.”

An opinion piece in the Washington Post called lawns a “soul-crushing timesuck” and suggested that “most of us would be better off without them.”

In his book Homo Deus, Yuval Harari writes,

“Well-kept lawns demanded land and a lot of work, particularly in the days before lawnmowers and automatic water sprinklers. In exchange, they produce nothing of value. You can’t even graze animals on them, because they would eat and trample the grass… Humans thereby came to identify lawns with political power, social status and economic wealth.”

Aside from being unattractive, lawns are by design useless. They don’t feed anyone or any livestock, serve as support for local biodiversity or wildlife, don’t provide shade, demand watering, and very few owners use them for games, other than the odd badminton or croquet game.

If you google it, you can also find many sites touting the benefits of dandelions both to health and lawns. For example:

Dandelions are good for your lawn. Their wide-spreading roots loosen hard-packed soil, aerate the earth and help reduce erosion. The deep taproot pulls nutrients such as calcium from deep in the soil and makes them available to other plants. Dandelions actually fertilize the grass.

And this:

…while in flower for most of the year, the dandelion’s peak flowering time is from late March to May, when many bees and other pollinators emerge from hibernation. Each flower in fact consists of up to 100 florets, each one packed with nectar and pollen. This early, easily available source of food is a lifesaver for pollinators in spring.
Bumblebees, solitary bees and honeybees all visit dandelions for food, along with hoverflies, beetles, and butterflies such as the peacock and holly blue. Goldfinches and house sparrows eat the seed. Yet most of us gardeners miss out on the spectacle of watching wildlife feast on our dandelions, because we wage such a war against them as weeds.

I suspect that this message is lost on those who think a bland lawn is better without them, in large part because those people do not give a rat’s ass about bees or other pollinators. And lost on government bureaucrats who myopically assign them to the noxious weed category, to be erased and destroyed.

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