Get off my lawn

A pair of feet jumping off a lush, green lawn. Photo by Sharon McCutcheon.

Phsst-phsst-phsst-phsst-phsst-phsst-phsst-phsst…

On one of my morning walks in our suburban Los Angeles neighborhood, I took a detour around a home where a mass of sprinklers was dousing the lawn in little arcs. The lawn was green, lush and beautiful. If I played golf, I probably would have been tempted to tee up. Instead, I skirted the yard and went into the street to avoid getting my ankles splashed and my feet wet. Puddles formed on the sidewalk and the excess water not soaked up by the grass and dirt ran down the street in little streams.

Rather than pause to revel in the splendorous high pile of Kentucky blue grass, I thought about the fact that Southern California is in the middle of another drought year. As I watched the water run down the gutter, I imagined how much of it could have been used for drinking, cooking or bathing. Like the two expensive SUVs parked in the driveway, the lawn seemed like just another upper middle class trophy. Look! the lawn seemed to boast, they are doing so well they can even let their water run down the street!

Don’t get me wrong, I love grass. I love trees and thick, green forests. I grew up partially in the midwest, where lawns were ubiquitous. Unlike in the Southwestern desert, they didn’t need much tending to keep them going. They got plenty of rain and shade from the tall, mature trees in the neighborhood. It was a rare occurrence for my parents to put out the sprinkler on a scorching summer day to water the yellowing patches in the yard. For us kids, running through the sprinklers was an exciting rite of passage, a signal that school was still months away. It was also likely defeating the purpose as we trampled the grass on every pass. Somehow it always grew back anyway.

When I was ten, we moved from Chicago to Phoenix and I was full of questions. If it’s a desert, where will we get water? Will we have water? What if we run out? My vision of the desert at the time was taken from old TV and movies, where someone was always dying of thirst or covered in dust. I was surprised and relieved to find that our new home was in a suburb not unlike the one we just left. We had showers, sinks, toilets, running water and eventually even a pool. We were going to be okay.

Our yard, however, was a completely different story. It was covered in little rocks. There was a small tree and some bushes, but the ground cover was definitely not play-friendly. In fact, we were lectured not to ever walk or run through the yard because we would disturb the black plastic sheeting underneath that was keeping the weeds from growing. Because I was bad at listening, or following rules, or maybe just because I was ten, one of my favorite pastimes was running at full speed and seeing if I could clear the bush in the middle of the yard. Once my activity was discovered, I was given the job of pulling the weeds that were now popping up all over the place. If pulling weeds out of grass is annoying, digging your knuckles into sharp rocks is torturous.

A house in suburban Phoenix with rocks in the front yard.
A recent photo of the house where I grew up in suburban Phoenix. It looked almost exactly like this in 1980.

It didn’t take long for me to stop worrying about where our water came from. I splashed around in our pool without a care of water sources. I was satisfied after I learned that we had plenty of water because it was piped in from the Salt and Verde rivers, as well as the Colorado River. Plenty!

That’s still the case today. Phoenix largely gets its water from outside sources. Similarly, Los Angeles gets the majority of its water from the Owens River Valley, which in turn depends on snow melt from the Sierra Nevadas. If there’s little to no snow pack in the winter, there’s a drought in the spring and summer.

These systems worked okay when there weren’t almost 4 million people needing fresh water. It’s getting increasingly hard to serve such a huge (and growing) population. It’s fascinating to me that a majority of people seem to live as if the supply is endless. I don’t know if it’s willful ignorance or a genuine misunderstanding of the environment in which we live. It’s also both amusing and maddening that we blame avocado and almond crops for greedily sucking up all the water, when my own observations have shown me:

  1. Several cars waiting in line at the local car wash, all of them without a speck of dirt
  2. The aforementioned over watering and maintenance of golf-course level lawns
  3. The massively wasteful animal agriculture industry. If you’ve ever driven on I-5 through central California and held your nose for several miles, that’s what you smelled. But sure, almonds are evil.
  4. Overshowering, when George Carlin’s “four key areas” method works just fine.

Aside from just being cranky about the water waste from lawn maintenance, I am fascinated by the fact that in spite of all the gorgeous green carpet I see in our neighborhood, I notice one odd thing. I never see anyone actually using the lawn. No one ever sits on them, naps on them, or plays on them. They are purely decorative.

When we moved into our current home, the lawn had been very carefully built and maintained so as to attract renters like us. I admit that it worked. However, my just-spent-four-years-in-Oregon sensibility changed when I realized how much water we were losing every time the sprinklers came on. We slowly dialed it back until our landlord started complaining about how some of the grass was dying. To appease him, we dialed it back up until we started noticing mushrooms growing in the yard. So back down it went. We wondered how the trees and bushes could thrive without much water, but the grass could not. Our neighbors have beautiful rose bushes and other plants but they never water their yard at all. I started looking at my favorite yards, the ones with dirt and colorful desert plants, and decided that was really the way to go. Over the years our landlord has softened on the grass issue. We water the plants in the front yard with a hose a couple times per week, but I even wonder if maybe they’re getting enough water from the ground anyway.

Sometimes I miss the “accidental” green lawns of Germany, Chicago, or Oregon. I also miss the desert of Arizona. When I think about missing those things, I realize that what I miss is experiencing them for exactly what they are. I’m starting to understand what I used to hear people say about Los Angeles being fake. It’s not the people and it’s not Hollywood. It’s the day-to-day manufacturing of a different environment instead of experiencing the one we’re in at the moment.

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