I grew up in a land of conformity. The houses were all on 1/4 acre lots in a new subdivision and the measure of a family’s social standing had a lot to do with whether their lawn had dandelions and if the edges which met the sidewalk were cut razor straight, with no blade of grass allowed to bend over the cement. I always fought this. It was enough to cut the grass I thought. Let the next door people worry about getting on the cover of Lawn Beautiful. Flash forward 40 years and not much has changed. Now instead of pushing around a gas powered mower most suburbanites contract out their lawn care to a company like “Chairman Mow, we cut the grass of the ruling class“. Even at SeaCat’s Rest it’s common to hear the roar of internal combustion engines and the smell of exhaust, unchecked by the pollution controls common to the cheapest of cars, wafting in from neighbors. How did this all begin and why does it continue?
There’s a simple caveman explanation. Imagine your cave is in the middle of a thick forest. Now picture it higher up, overlooking a broad meadow or lake. In which would you feel safer? The one with the broad vista, of course. You can see ’em coming. Bloodthirsty foes or hungry relatives. Time to lock the door and pretend you’re not home. Could our love of lawn be any more than just that? Actually, yes.
Consider the English colonists. They came from a pastoral land where every square inch of rural land was used for crops or grazing. They brought grazing animals with them and forest cover meant hunger, for animals and humans alike. Massachusetts was not Somersetshire. Trees had to be cut and grass planted. By 1640 we had established permanent markets for importing English meadow seeds like timothy and alfalfa. As our farms flourished, trends in English landscape architecture reinforced the ideal of lawns. In 1830 the lawnmower was invented by the Englishman Edwin Budding. By 1850 the lawn was part of the American preferred home landscape, with no other purpose than to look good.
As the lawn grew in popularity from Maine to California and south to the Gulf of Mexico, measures were taken to ensure its health in a variety of climates. Drought resistant grass varieties were planted in the south and when nature couldn’t provide, the Industrial Lawn took up the slack. By the 1950s the modern lawn required watering, chemical de-weeding with herbicides and greening up with fertilizers. It was cut, in ever greater frequently due to the fertilizers, with enormous inputs of fossil fuels. By the time I was in college it was said that Americans put more fertilizer on their lawns than India used on food crops.
For a while now there has been a movement afoot to reverse this trend. There’s a “freedom lawn” movement which seeks to develop a method of taking the industrial component out of the American lawn. Ornamental grasses, perennial flowers, native varieties and relaxed cutting and interference are part of this approach. Mainers are a little less serious about their lawns anyway. Sometimes, meadows are allowed to grow and only bush hogged when woody plants (usually alders) appear. That might be every two or three years. I’ve never seen anyone in Maine apply lawn chemicals. Lawns are mowed, but weeds are free to flourish for the most part. Visitors from the south often comment that our lawns look a little wild and uncared for. I guess there are parts of the country where the industrial lawn still rules.
It’s no wonder Maine is lax on lawn care. Our own Hannah Holmes, who lives in Portland on 2/10 of an acre wrote a book called Suburban Safari, A Year On The Lawn in which she describes in great detail the ecology of her freedom lawn. On page 104 she says,
Whatever you call it, it’s a popular landscape choice around here. Maine has been slow to recognize the genius of turning a perfectly good vegetable-patch-with-garbage-dump into an outdoor shag rug. And if we must have a shag rug outdoors, by gorry, we ain’t gonna manicure the blasted thing.
Here at SeaCat’s Rest we maintain a strip around the house of mowed grass, which I cut with an electric mower. Other parts of the property are covered by either woods or Kathleen’s extensive perennial flower and ornamental grass extravaganza, where butterflies and hummingbirds find plenty to eat. We still have the caveman expanse in the form of the North Atlantic. Just this side of the shore we allow nature to prevail with wild blueberries, raspberries and bunchberries. I like to cut back the woody plants by hand every spring to maintain the view, but most of the vegetation is untouched to preserve the integrity of the bank. At least one of our guests remarked that our setting was “rustic” and I don’t think she meant it as a compliment (see reviews here). So there it is, if you book lodgings here you have to deal with a Maine Lawn Rebel.