Invasion of the lawn keepers

August 08, 2002|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- I've never been especially taken with extraterrestrial activity. There are quite enough terrestrials to feed my fantasies without going intergalactic.

You want aliens? Consider the northern snakehead fish from China that was walking around behind a Dunkin' Donuts in Maryland.

You want scary? Consider the giant hogweed from the Caucasus that is now causing blisters in Massachusetts.

You want aggressive? I give you the purple loosestrife, coming soon to a neighborhood near you.

As for crop circles, I never even thought of them before they turned up on the Pennsylvania farm where the corn is growing as high as Mel Gibson's eyebrow.

Signs of the times? If I were doing a horror film, it wouldn't be about navigational graffiti on the back forty. I'd start with a benign aerial view of a suburb -- manicured oddly and uniformly in rectangles. I'd close in ominously on a shot of a single blade of, gasp, grass.

To me the most verdant mystery on the national landscape isn't about little green men but about the little green spaces. It's the bizarre drama of the great American lawn.

Once upon a time the only lawns in the world were created by sheep. The father of the lawn as we know it was an 18th century British landscaper, Lancelot Brown, who got nicknamed "Capability" because he described every country estate as having "a great capability for improvement."

Our forefathers, nature's imperialists, wanted to make New England look like Olde England and then make the West look like the East. They went about wiping out the natives and replacing them.

So my lawn thriller would have something for every audience.

Conspiracy theorists? Lawns were promoted by the combined efforts of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Golf Association and the Garden Club of America, which held contests all over the country to make Americans turn their yards into putting greens.

Got a military-industrial complex? The horror story reaches its climax after World War II when the Cold War rhetoric was used to sell lawn care as a military operation. There were articles comparing crab grass to Fifth Columnists. There was "Weed-a-Bomb" and "Weed Gun," and one pesticide was advertised, I kid you not, as "the atomic bomb of the insect world."

Finally, do you prefer battles of the sexes? Lawnkeeping was and is mostly a guy thing. "Maybe riding around on lawnmowers," muses Yale environmental professor Gordon Geballe, "is like leaving pheromones around, marking your territory. It says, `My life is in order, my lawn is green, I'm the squire of the village.'" On a more humble scale, mowing is to housekeeping what grilling is to cooking.

And you think our lives haven't already been taken over by an alien?

Last weekend, millions of Americans went to the movies to see a father and fallen-away minister defend his family and recover his faith in a war of worlds.

But every weekend, millions more rev up their lawnmowers, their weed-whackers and edgers and spend hours defending their families from crabgrass and the disapproval of the neighbors.

In one weekend, we spent $60 million on Signs. But in one year we spend $25 billion on 20 million acres of a crop that we can't eat, wear or sell.

We use 32 million pounds of pesticides, 580 million gallons of gasoline and more water than we shower on ourselves in order to color and keep the grass green.

Somehow I don't think this is what Walt Whitman meant when he wrote, "I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars."

My movie? It would be about the struggle with an alien species that forced humans into slavery while it took over 20 million acres of land. If it works, I even have a sequel in mind, a terrestrial thriller for autumn: The War of the Leaf-Rakers.

Mel, sweetheart, have your people call my people.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun. Her e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com.

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