You know those bank advertisements that say "it all depends on your point of view?" My lawn is just like that. From one point of view, my yard is a portrait of responsibility. From another, it's the scourge of the neighborhood.
I only have the one yard, relatively unwatered, unmaintained, unsprayed by pesticides. I do mow it fairly often, but the landscape is a tangle of crabgrass, dandelions, and other "weeds" which are far hardier than the grass seed I put down earlier in the springtime. And because I think mowing the lawn when I'm not around is a waste of energy (and money), it sometimes grows wild when I go away for a week or two. To many greens, this is the paragon of eco-stewardship. But sometimes I think I can hear my neighbors scowl.
Oh, and to top it off — last year I discovered that one of the most persistent weeds in my yard is actually garlic mustard. Garlic mustard is an invasive plant common (indeed, pervasive) in the Northeastern United States, and I can see why: The stuff is everywhere, and seems to pop up overnight. So it's not exactly a friend. But it is also quite edible, and yummy when sauteed. No more trips to the farmers market for kale or salad greens — I've got all the greens I need growing right here in my yard, with no effort from me.
But, of course, tall spindles of garlic mustard make the yard look even worse. To me, I look out on an acre-sized salad bowl, but to some of my neighbors, I'm sure it looks like a case study in negligence.
On many blocks in America, I wouldn't even be allowed my eccentricity. Since how people "keep up their homes" is a crucial selling point for new home buyers — presumably it indicates more than just aesthetics, but rather an entire weltanschauung of bourgeois responsibility and care — there are many communities that require a certain degree, and kind, of lawn maintenance. Forget saving water and sparing toxic pesticides; we're talking home values here. And of course, on many other blocks, no one would bat an eyelash at the way I let nature run wild.
But Putnam County, where I live, is a curious sort of hybrid. It's only an hour north of New York City, and includes its share of commuters, and of working-class quasi-suburbanites who settle here instead of Westchester because homes are more affordable. These are the people who, on my street, have carefully manicured lawns — many of which feature accoutrements (stone statuary, flags, ornate mailboxes) that I find tacky but they, no doubt, regard as charming.
But Putnam County used to be rural, and still has a (dwindling) number of farms, as well as ex-urban folk like me who fled the city to live in the woods. Indeed, just down the block from me and my stone-angel neighbors is a farm raising pasture-fed Angus beef cows. Putnam County is one of those places where eccentric writers in the woods, politically conservative families, and uber-rich second-homers all live together. And we all bring our differing values to the street.
Now, this is a live-and-let-live sort of place, and no one's actually complained to me about my lawn gone wild. But the way I feel guilty about it — and the way some visitors avert their eyes, as if to spare me the humiliation I must be feeling — is a fascinating example of a green value that hasn't quite made it into the mainstream yet. By now, my Prius is unremarkable — no longer a novelty, if anything it's a kind of status symbol. Likewise my many bins for recyclables, compost, et cetera. But my yard, although clearly the Green Thing to Do, still seems to stand out. It's still too "dark green," I suppose — too fringey, like not using deodorant, or letting the yellow mellow in a shared toilet.
What all these "dark green" habits have in common, I've noticed, is that they depart from the creature comforts of the American middle class. One of the great successes of environmentalism has been its relative painlessness: You don't have to be an unshowered hippie to live a green life (though unshowered hippies are some of my closest friends). But precisely because it's possible to lead a green, uptight suburban existence, we look askance at those green practices that depart from it. Is my lawn really more radical than eating only organic food? No — but it sure is messier. And so it seems a little crazy.
I'm all for mass-market environmentalism, and I don't want to tell all Americans that their lawn should look as messy as mine does. But I wonder if, after all the light bulbs have been changed and all the insulation's been replaced, we'll hit a wall where things suddenly have to get messy. I hope not — but if we do, I feel like I've got a head start.