Prairies – those critically endangered and complex ecosystems understood by few and misunderstood and destroyed by millions of people.
Lawns – those myopically obsessive (and evil) urban, suburban, and increasingly rural monoculture eyesores that displace native ecosystems at a rate between5,000 and 385,000 acres per day* in favor of sterile, chemically-filled, artificial environments bloated with a tremendous European influence that provide no benefits over the long term; no food, no clean water, no wildlife habitat, and no foundation for preserving our once rich natural heritage. And there’s the unbearable ubiquitousness of mowing associated with such a useless cultural practice, which creates a ridiculous amount of noise pollution, air and water pollution, and a bustling busyness that destroys many peaceful Saturday mornings. The American lawn is the epitome of unsustainability.
As one internet commenter named Carrie eloquently said, “as a nation, we have far too much lawn doing far too little for us.”
How much lawn is too much? 41 million acres. That figure makes lawn the most widespread plant under irrigation in the contiguous US. Three times more acreage is covered in irrigated lawn than in irrigated corn, and that’s aconservative estimate. All of that once precious water used on those 41 million acres of ridiculous, non-native turfgrass to keep it unnaturally green – how can people be so blind?
Lawns, along with row-crop farms, “improved” grazing pastures, and urbanization, are some of the biggest negative land conversions of native landscapes, and are direct contributors to the destruction of wildlife and native plant habitats throughout the world. As native landscapes disappear, wildlife disappear, and important ecological processes that insure outcomes such as clean drinking water, climate change buffers, and flood control also disappear. The future of mankind depends heavily upon the health of native landscapes.
Prairies matter because of their immense root systems; dense, sprawling, complex biological systems that store one third of the world’s carbon and subsequently clean our future water as it precipitates from moisture-laden clouds onto diverse plant communities, and filters down through the mass of litter, roots, soil organisms, and soil horizons. Water quality always follows soil carbon levels, and prairies are the best soil carbon factories in the world. Lawns do not compare and never will.Illustration by Heidi Natura, 1995, of Living Habitats. Click on image to see larger version. 80% of a prairie’s biomass is below ground, which is a part of the reason why prairies are the greatest soil carbon factories in the world. Those roots break up compacted soil, and as a portion of those roots die each year, they add organic matter and decompose into carbon, further enriching the soil; all of this is done without deadly pesticides or equally deadly petrochemical fertilizers.
Photo above: On the far left is a common lawn grass, Kentucky Bluegrass (Poa pratensis), a native of Europe. The rest of the plants are native prairie species.
Other common lawn grasses are Bermudagrass (Cynodon dactylon), Zoysiagrass (Zoysia spp.), and Bahiagrass (Paspalum notatum), to name a few. None of those are native either, originating from Africa, Japan, and Brazil, respectively.
Kentucky Bluegrass did not originate in North America (a handful of sources say otherwise), so why are we planting it and other weedy non-native grasses? Is it out of fear of nature? Is it out of ignorance of the true beauty of natural ecosystems? (Homeowner associations and neighborhood zoning laws are famous for that). What is so wrong with native plants that we bring in non-native junk from other continents? It’s because most people are impatient when it comes to plants, and they want something that grows fast, is green, stays green, and can be kept as flat as a table top – something the Scotts Company has successfully brainwashed millions of people into believing they can achieve via weekly and noisy toil, though not without taking a chunk out of their paychecks and making them do a whole lot of work with nothing to show for it. How vain, futile, and suicidal.
“The American lawn now represents a serious civic problem. That the space devoted to it continues to grow—and that more and more water and chemicals and fertilizer are devoted to its upkeep—doesn’t prove that we care so much as that we are careless.”
The carelessness of the American people’s obsessive compulsion for such silly and lowly turfgrass goals extends far beyond the failure they are set up for in regards to their quest for the unsustainable and unattainable “perfect lawn”. As noted before, lawns are suicidal – we are poisoning ourselves, our children, and our water for something that is wholly obtuse and unneeded. Why not be productive and grow a garden instead? A garden, prairie, woodland, forest or xeriscape are far better than the high-maintenance and pervasive European-style lawns.
To sum up the nearsightedness of lawn lovers, here’s a quote attributed to Mark Twain: “You can’t depend on your judgement when your imagination is out of focus.”
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For more on why prairies matter and lawns don’t, read Paul Gruchow’s wonderful essay, “What the Prairie Teaches Us.