Well, you can always depend on folks to come up with a new word or two for the dictionary every year, and according to the news these days, those ignoring the water restrictions in Vancouver are now being called a ‘grasshole.’
So how did this all-important landscape feature come to be – and become – one of the biggest moneymaking, water gobbling, silence wrecking, polluting, hostility-inducing, maintenance monsters of all time?
Nearly 10,000 different species of grasses can be found around the world in all kinds of environments, but the ones we use for lawns and fields are called turf grasses.
‘Lawn’ comes from the 16th century Brittonic word ‘landa, which originally meant heath, barren land or clearing, but eventually it changed to mean ‘a managed grass space’ (not to be confused with a field or pasture).
Historians figure it originated from the early medieval settlements that kept their livestock inside the safety of the walls, so maybe they kinda liked the clean-cut look of it. There might, however, be more to it than that.
As Des Kennedy puts it in his funny book Crazy About Gardening, “Why this compulsion to swathe the earth with close-clipped greenery?”
The Savanna Syndrome hypothesis has had a lot of play because according to the author of Second Nature, encoded in our DNA is a preference for an open, grassy landscape resembling the shortgrass savannas of Africa on which we evolved.
Moving us along from hunter-gatherers to herdspeople, Thorstein Veblen thinks we take delight in lawns because we are a race “whose inherited bent is to readily find pleasure in contemplating a well-preserved pasture or grazing land.”
Curt Suplee concludes: “The origins of the lawn are shrouded in the mists of antiquity. Aztecs, Mayans, pre-colonial American Indians and ancient Persians are variously reported to have gloried in grass; so are the Chinese emperors of the second century B.C.”
But it was the Europeans, and the English especially, who began lifting the love of grass out of the natural and into the world of abnormal psychology.
The lawn developed into a pardonable fetish for British aristocrats and became a status symbol of grand estates and manor houses, which were maintained by labour-intensive scything and shearing before the invention of mowing machines in 1830.
The old term “lawn-meet,” referred to the gathering of a hunting party with horses and hounds, in front of an English gentlemen’s house. From these aristocratic roots, we fall heir to a conviction that people of the proper sort simply have lawns.”
Over time the colonists transplanted the lawn to North America, and even the poorer sods got to have one too. For the first pilgrims to arrive in a wild and hostile land, the lawn had a practical purpose in that it allowed them to see any beasties or enemies that may be lurking about.
Then it quickly became victim to the myths and symbols regarding attitudes towards class, democracy, morality and nature. Not to have a lawn then was considered a lack of breeding, and nowadays, what really drops folks down a societal notch or two is not keeping it up.
As Des says: “If one grows grass, the message is unmistakable, one keeps it trimmed. A badly maintained lawn is admissible evidence of sloth and failure, of moral rot infesting the ownership. Worse, it signals the thin edge of a weedy wedge which, unless repulsed, will drive the entire neighbourhood inevitably into the greedy clutches of slumlords.”
So maybe fear is the underlying reason why some of those grassholes are willing to pay the fines and suffer the wrath of neighbours if they are forced to have a low-class ‘blond lawn’!
Water restrictions are a pain in the grass and clearly bring out the worst in us at times, but we’re in this together, like it or not.
Our lawns can become hostile territory in a neighbourhood, but until the rains return, let’s all try to comply so that we can avoid all that colourful name-calling around here!
(For previous columns, see Gaiagardening.ca)