When I refer to the shadow side of the Great American Lawn, I don’t mean the grass that is growing in the shade of a tree. When I say “shadow side,” I’m referring to the possibility that lawns of grass might not always be a good thing. Who gets to decide that freshly clipped grass lawns is a cultural good? A New York man mows an American Flag on his lawn, and he says, “You can look at it, and it makes you feel good.” Why?
What if a wild, over-grown lawn makes other cultures around the world feel good?
Michael Pollan says, “The irony of the American Lawn is that it is so exposed, that nobody spends any time there.” Pollan is referring to the front yard. It’s in the front where people drive by. So it’s unlikely that a person will sunbathe there, or sit and read a book or have a campfire. Why? It’s busier, noisier, and people happening by can look at you. Generally-speaking we prefer peace and quiet, and we don’t want to be looked at, like we’re in a zoo. So what do we do? We spend most of our time in the back yard. But we still mow and landscape our front lawn. We still invest resources in making a perfect front lawn. Just because we spend the vast majority of our time out back, that doesn’t mean we let the front lawn go to pot, right? As a result, Pollan says, “The front law is purely a symbol.” Our front lawns are status symbols. Statements about who we are. Can lawns, therefore, become idols?
They certainly can become idols, if we let them. Anything that we give worship to, anything we give inordinate amounts of time and money can become idols. Do you spend too much time, too much money on your lawn? The Scriptures don’t say anything about how much time and money is appropriate for lawn care and landscaping. When do you cross a line from healthy co-creative artistry (which we talked about in previous posts in this series here and here) into unhealthy obsession? I can’t say. Instead I would encourage you to talk about it with other Christians who have a different approach to lawns, ones that don’t spend as much time on their lawn as you do. Ask them to explain their rationale. Start to question why other cultures have a different approach to lawns. Is the American culture the only right way? Of course not. Perhaps a different culture might have a better way?
“We forget,” Pollan says, “Grass lawns are a very unnatural landscape.” We call them natural because they are made of nature. They are not brick, sidewalk, parking lot, building. They are green. But they are actually unnatural because left to themselves, they will never become lawns. Pollan says that our lawns are “more natural than asphalt, but that’s about it.”
Another theological consideration is that lawns can be about power and the domination of creation. And yet, our domination of creation just might be having the ironic counter effect of destroying creation. Lawn care can require the use of water for something that is most often unused space, while so many places in the world suffer drought. The spreading of pesticides and fertilizer has been linked to cancer. The greenhouse gases from our mowers and equipment affect the environment.
Are there alternatives? Can we legally have something other than lawns? What would happen if we just stopped mowing (which is an illegal alternative in most places)? We know. We would be fined and jailed.
Are there other options for those who feel compelled to have something other than lawns? Make front yard produce gardens. Plenty of Amish here in Lancaster County do it. It might look very different from your neighbors, but it could be done in a very appealing beautiful way. Some of the Amish front-yard gardens I run by are very attractive. If you have a home-owners association, please check with them first!
Another option would be to consider using landscaping that does not require water. This to can be a practice of artist creativity to glorify God. Also imagine the time and money you’d recapture that wouldn’t be spent on lawns. In 2022 Faith Church budgeted $4200 for lawn maintenance. That doesn’t include all the volunteer landscape work that is given to the church each year. That’s $4200 to maintain lawns that are rarely used.
Hear me clearly on this. I am not saying that it is wrong to have lawns. I’m saying that we would do well to consider every aspect of our lives theologically, from God’s perspective. Let’s not just assume that a part of our lives, like our lawn, is just a neutral part of life because everyone else has one. Perhaps God is calling us to something different, something that would be more in line with his heart and the mission of his Kingdom.
After reading this five-part series on a theology of lawn care, perhaps you need to take better care of your lawn. Or perhaps you need to scale back. I urge you to apply the principles we studied to your perspective on lawn care.