The sprinklers of war

by Gautam Raja

Just over three years ago, a Southern California homeowner was in the news because of her lawn. She didn’t like it or want it, so she grew a beautiful desert garden instead. But she got into trouble with the neighbours who thought this variegated blight would bring down the value of their homes. The city fined her, telling her it was a civic duty to have a lawn.

Three years later, the same woman could get into trouble for having a lawn in place of that desert garden.

No doubt you’ve read about the severe drought in the region, with water levels at lakes and reservoirs at historic low levels. Cities keep cutting back on the number of watering days, and today, depending on the neighbourhood you’re in, having a green lawn can get you dirty looks, citations, maybe passive-aggressive notes scrawled on the pavement outside your house.

We see the latter at several different locations in a nearby neighourhood. “Water waster” says the message dryly, written in permanent marker, an arrow pointing towards the offender’s home.

“It’s green to go brown” say the more official signs on the median of a nearby road, explaining why the city has chosen to stop watering its landscaping. The lawns of a number of well-known buildings and landmarks in Los Angeles have been allowed to go brown. Water-saving messages are everywhere, from the digital freeway signs, to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s “Water Lover’s Station” on Pandora, filled with songs the length of a water-conscious shower: five minutes or under.

It’s working. By its fourth year of drought California reduced water use by 27.3 per cent, exceeding the 25 per cent mandate by Governor Jerry Brown. Even before the drought though, people who travelled to the US for the first time, especially to suburban locations, were struck by how much of what they saw was lawn. Out in the verdant, rain-kissed East Coast, it doesn’t seem too out of place. But as you travel west through the dust of Arizona, Nevada and California, the green stands sorely from the brown. Of an evening, the switching sound of sprinklers are like distant warfare.

Considering the lawn’s roots in noble profligacy (what better way, in an agrarian society, to announce your wealth than to have acres of cultivated land that produce no crops?), it’s not surprising that the US holds on to this excess. And excess it still is; with landscaping accounting for half of urban water use.

My older neighbour, raised in the lawn’s 1950’s heyday, is clearly embarrassed by the brown patches on the shared lawn in front of our homes. He’s from a generation where the state of one’s lawn was connected with the values of the family that owned it. And to the values of the neighbourhood as a whole. You can see how, in the right neighbourhoods at the right time, keeping your lawn green was an act of patriotism.

But idealising the homogenous is outdated. We are exposed to too many ideas and cultures to let swathes of green represent us. As we slip more into sustainable lifestyles, and away from the idea of “conquering” nature, lawns in future will be “as common as Hummers”, as Mark Bittman wrote in the New York Times in 2013.

In California, where nature is both experienced and celebrated in all her rawness, the lawn is the very antithesis of the spirit of this state. A mowed lawn is such backhanded, puritanical celebration of nature: a mere nod to her existence without acknowledging her wildness, fertility, unpredictability and majestic danger.

First published in Gulf News, September 1, 2015