Green lawns. As Canadian as backyard BBQs, maple syrup and ice cream cones in the summer.
They are one idea of beauty. A beauty that is great for soccer, baseball, and lawn bowling. A beauty that is easily defined by its uniformity, and free from the nuisance of anything unwanted.
There are many other kinds of beauty, of course. Looking at some of the world’s most amazing gardens, we see great diversity in the types of beauty represented in what we choose to cultivate, and preserve. Without leaving our country, or even our city, different conceptions of beauty are presented to us. This street in Jasper (pictured below) has been left to flower, and has become a beloved alternative to the other grassy medians, for residents and visitors alike.
So where does this obsession with lawns and grassy boulevards come from? Are we addicted to grass? Why do we spend so much time, money and effort trying to maintain a crop that has so few benefits, beyond simple aesthetics? Is that not another definition of insanity, when we could be cultivating plants of greater ecological, economic or agricultural value?
Perhaps not. There is a certain beauty in creating order out of chaos. We know that humans have a preference for objects and images that exhibit specific proportions, and that the presence of different colours has an impact on our mental states. If it is true that the colour green is a ‘great balancer of the heart and emotions,’ does it not make sense to fill our field of vision with a uniform, verdant splendor?
Yet, something seems amiss, here – or incomplete. If what we want is a uniform, green carpet, why not go the way of astroturf? Is there something else to it?
Some may argue that there is also beauty to be found in the acts of maintenance and care. Beyond the discussion of specific aesthetics, we tend to react strongly to the act of caring, and the conscientious ordering of things in our environment. We are dumbfounded by the sheer effort of pointillism, awestruck by the patience exhibited by zen gardens. If aesthetics are important, the means by which we arrive at them can be equally important. If not, what is a bonsai tree, other than a tree that has failed to thrive?
There is also beauty in death and dying, the deconstruction and rebirth of things. Our conceptions of beauty often fail to acknowledge these concepts, preferring the ‘order’ of human intervention to the ‘chaos’ of ecological complexity. By failing to acknowledge the value of death as an essential ingredient for life, are we missing out on one of nature’s greatest teachings? Is our obsession with Kentucky Blue an admittance of our inability to reconcile this type of beauty with our aesthetic preferences?
In our work on compost education, this is one of the biases we must overcome – the perceived ‘ickyness’ of nature. Once people gain a deeper appreciation for the complexity of soil microbiology, the beneficial relationships between worms and dirt, the magnificence of mycorrhizal relationships, and the absolute necessity of creepycrawlyslimeythings in the production of fertile and productive soil, these perceptions tend to change. Aversion replaced by reverence, we gain an appreciation for the connectedness of things, which is part of the growing concern for the impacts of pesticides. We see that a functional ecology relies upon countless species’ overlapping roles, and that maintaining this ecology requires us to look beyond narrow concepts of productivity or aesthetics.
Looking at these issues together, it would seem that our perceptions of beauty include not only our innate and primal tendencies towards order, colour and proportion, but also our perceptions of the effort and values invested in the maintenance of a space. This makes sense in relation to the ongoing pesticide debate – if the hands of a doting gardener add a certain value to a space, then the broad application of fertilizers and pesticides seems a much cruder method of obtaining a desired aesthetic (even without considering the negative impacts of widespread pesticide use). Maybe part of the value in maintaining organic, pesticide-free green spaces is related to a different metric of care. Perhaps pulling weeds by hand is a preferred technique precisely BECAUSE it takes a bit longer. And maybe that extra time spent in our gardens is itself a gift, providing time for reflection and meditation in the course of our work.
While writing this article, I couldn’t help but think of my friend Rob, who has for years practiced his chalk art on a busy street corner in Halifax, NS. Unlike artists of pen and ink, Rob’s art is transient, ephemeral. It continues to exist in the world because he continues to create it, no two pieces the same, hundreds of his sidewalk murals layered in succession onto the same concrete slabs.
I know that when I look at his art, it has real value, even if it will inevitably be erroded by dust and rain and busy feet. And if that value exists because of his diligence and care in creating beauty in the world, I can’t help thinking that there’s more to this lawn and garden debate than what normally gets discussed.
Would love to hear the thoughts of others! Please share your perceptions below.