Why I can’t give up my lawn
I learned to ride a bike on the lawn. Not a rough-as-guts Aussie lawn, but the softer, feathery kind from my UK childhood. The lawn cushioned the blows when I grew too old for training wheels but not old enough for the open road.
Photographs from a sunny afternoon in the late 1960s show my large extended family languishing on rugs on the lawn. The men looked like extras from an Al Pacino movie, swarthy, with cigarettes on their lips and gazing directly into the camera. The women wore clouds of backcombed hair and dresses with shouty floral prints. The kids, who wouldn’t hear sun safety messages until adulthood, wore bikinis without sunscreen, hats or sunnies. Years later, the same family group sat on garden chairs, fashions had changed, there were fewer cigarettes and more grey hair. But we were still on the lawn.
I watched as my dad mowed the lawn most summer weekends with a smoky mower that drank petrol from a red rusty tin.
I remember tipping out the paddling pool on the lawn at the end of one of those rare British summer days when the temperatures topped 25 degrees.
A lawn isn’t about grass. For me, it’s about memories.
A place to call home
It’s hardly surprising, then, that when I moved to Australia and bought the house that I still live in, I chose a house with a lawn. It was a way of reinforcing that familiar sense of home. It was a garden I would share with my friends and later my own young family.
More than 200 years ago, British colonists recreated home in Australia just like I had. Though, they faced a very different scenario, as writer and farmer Eric Rolls describes in Australian Environmental History: Essays and Cases:
“When Europeans came to Australia, the soil had a mulch of thousands of years. The surface was so loose you could rake it through the fingers. No wheel had marked it, no leather heel, no cloven hoof. Digging sticks had prodded it, but no steel shovel had ever turned a full sod. Our big animals did not make trails … No other land had been treated so gently.”
The colonists then set about transforming the landscape with European farming methods and gardens. For them, cultivating the soil and making gardens wasn’t just an exercise in supplying food or growing pretty roses. It was also an act of ‘civilisation’, of taming the wild and unfamiliar landscape.
Eventually, creating a familiar garden with a lawn became a way of belonging in a strange land. And the lawn formed an integral part of Australian culture.
Between 1908 and 1912, a lawn even made it to the nation’s coat of arms.
University of Sydney historian Dr Jodi Frawley told ABC Radio National’s Off Track program recently that the original design had the kangaroo and the emu standing not among native wattle, but on a patch of grass.
By the 1950s and 1960s, the suburban lawn on the quarter acre block and the Hills Hoist had become a symbol of middle Australia, maintained by an army of dads and their Victa mowers.
That idea lives on today, albeit in a modified form. We now tend to have smaller blocks and it’s not just dads who mow them. Yet as a nation we still use litres of water, fertiliser and a lot of time and effort to maintain this living relic from our colonial past.
The difference now, of course, is that we’re more aware of how scarce water is on a continent that plunges into drought as regularly as it floods.
When the weather tops 30 degrees for months on end with no rainfall, a ban on watering the lawn is one of the first restrictions we notice.
In a drying climate, we city dwellers talk about our brown, crispy lawns while hundreds of kilometres away our country counterparts are killing livestock, watching their crops wither and enduring hardships that we cannot begin to imagine.
I’m saddened by how trivial our city concerns have become.
City talk soon moves on to saving water and replacing the lawn with something more water-wise.
I get it. I’m miserly with water. I can’t remember watering any lawn in any garden that I’ve looked after. Not even on a 46 degree day like we had earlier this year.
Then there’s the call to replace our lawns with one big vegie patch, to live more sustainably and to prepare ourselves for times of food insecurity.
I get that too. I already grow my own vegies, in their own patch, away from the lawn. I also mulch, compost and do all the other things a 21st century aware and considerate gardener is supposed to do.
But I just can’t get rid of my lawn. It’d be like denying my history and the history I want to create for my family.
Riding bikes, family gatherings, paddling pools, ancient lawnmowers.
No weekend warrior
I’m not one of those weekend warriors who weeds, waters and fertilises to a schedule. Even the most basic of care, mowing, I leave until I can’t stand it any longer. So, you could hardly call me, in the traditional sense, lawn-proud.
What I am proud of though, is that for minimal effort and zero extra resources, my lawn is helping to create memories for my family, just like it did for me as I was growing up. Weeds, bare patches, divots and all.
On summer afternoons, I lie on the lawn with my daughter under the shade of the maple tree. We make ‘grass angels’. On our backs, heads together, we look up through the leaves into the sky – our own patch of blue sky.
Maybe one day, if she has children, she’ll do the same.
That’s why I can’t get rid of my lawn.
Beattie, JJ and Holmes, K (2011): Reflections on the history of Australasian gardens and landscapes, Studies in the History of Gardens & Designed Landscapes: An International Quarterly, 31:2, 75-82 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14601176.2011.556366
Holmes, K (1999) Gardens, Journal of Australian Studies, 23:61, 152-162 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14443059909387485
Lawn Love, Off Track, ABC Radio National (Broadcast 1 June 2013) http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/offtrack/lawn-love/4726426