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Why are we obsessed with having a pretty lawn?

Does your neighbor trim his lawn with scissors? Tidy it up with a shop vac? Smuggly zip around on his souped-up John Deere and trim your unkempt lawn? I’m trying to understand this growing obsession with fetching fescue. The plot thickens....

Gary Clement

The love for lawns escapes me. I live in the city. My lawn is a 5-by-10 patch in front of my Fenway apartment building that the maintenance people mow when it gets scruffy. Whether it’s crab grass or Kentucky bluegrass or the fake grass stuffed in Easter baskets, I have no idea.

It hasn’t always been that way. As a kid growing up in Roslindale, my experience with lawns included mowing (first with a push mower, later with the potentially lethal motorized variety) the side yard. Then there was the embankment, a ragged 8-foot berm that erupted in stones, clods of dirt, and clumps of prehistoric-looking vegetation. One time the mower slipped from my grip and went rolling and roaring down Aldrich Street.

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Later, David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” confirmed my negative associations with turf-tending. The film opens with an old man watering his lawn. He grabs his heart and collapses, the hose spurting ineffectually behind him. The camera swoops down and burrows below the green surface to reveal a hideous world of insects in mortal combat. What better metaphor for bourgeois American culture, I would point out — frequently — to my fellow grad students.

Nonetheless, I still have a Proustian recall of the lawns of my childhood, the scent and the golden aura of cut grass in the dusk. And this spring it seemed as if the barren linden tree outside my window would never revive. But suddenly everything was green and singing like a Disney cartoon, and I admit I was tempted to roll in strangers’ yards and jump through sprinklers.

In fact, though, like many aspects of lawn adoration, the impression that the hard winter meant a brighter spring was illusory, a subjective overcompensation for expectations long denied.

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At least according to the experts. Like David Fiske, gardens curator at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society’s Elm Bank in Wellesley, who said he sees no effect on growth that can be credited to our winter miseries.

Nonetheless, I, too, greeted the sudden verdancy as a sign of a greener summer to come. Could it be that I was just another sucker for sod?

This lawn mania has a long history, according to Ted Steinberg’s 2006 book, “American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn.” It started in the 1870s when Frank J. Scott (no connection to the Miracle-Gro people) published “The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds of Small Extent,” in which he maintained that a “smooth, closely-shaven surface of grass” was not just a matter of aesthetics, but of morality. In 1928, the Miracle-Gro Scotts started publishing Lawn Care magazine, and the perfect plot became a symbol of individual integrity and community pride.

Was Frank J. Scott right? Was mowing your lawn a sign of spiritual purity? Or, as Steinberg contends, a compulsion exploited by cynical corporations (it is a $40 billion-a-year industry), addicting consumers to something they don’t need and could kill them?

I consulted lawn-owning friends. For some, a lawn brings guilt and anxiety. Tim Gower from Harwich, a self-described “failed lawn keeper,” told me: “Owning a house with a significant-sized yard has made me fairly antilawn, mostly because nothing but crab grass grows on part of it. I’m trying to replace that section with clover. Ten days after planting, all I have is green nubbins. If this fails, I may try asphalt.”

But for others, lawn care does have a spiritual side, serving as a refuge from the stress and anxieties of the daily routine. “I love my lawn,” said Paul Kearnan of West Roxbury. “I may be one of the few who vacuum it. Working on the lawn is meditative, takes my mind off things. Or maybe I just have OCD.”

Steinberg leans toward the obsessive-compulsive disorder explanation. In his book, he looks at other explanations for lawn idolatry and finds them wanting. He discusses one theory, proposed by ecologist John Falk and others, that because the first humans inhabited grassy savannas, our lust for lawns is genetic. Personally, I’d prefer not to be reminded of the good old days on the savanna — hunting and being hunted. Besides, Steinberg says, the evidence points to wooded regions as our species’ original stamping ground.

Instead, Steinberg insists, we crave sod because lawn supply and maintenance companies want us to.

“The perfect lawn is alive and well,” he wrote in an e-mail, “but we are beginning to see cracks in the empire of green. With the price of energy and water increasing, the quest for perfection is under the gun. Moreover, there is a trend toward more practical uses of the land.”

But lawns offer an escape from daily drudgery, freedom from iPhones, and reconnection with the grit and smell and ephemera of nature.

Now I’m not sure how I feel. Maybe I’m missing out. Looking at our scruffy patch, I can’t decide. So I visit the most beautiful lawn the commuter rail can take me to — the Grand Allée of Castle Hill, a National Historic Landmark on the Crane Estate in Ipswich.

One of the attractions of the 1,200-acre estate, the Allée mall lawn undulates for half a mile from the Versailles-like Great House to a cliff overlooking the Atlantic.

Operations manager Bob Murray described the maintenance requirements: “We try to demonstrate sustainable landscape practices where we can.” That includes applying “an organic fertilizer twice a year, in late April and early September. During the peak growing season we cut this lawn twice a week, following the best management practice of not removing more than one-third of the plant at any one time. Each mowing cycles takes about four hours to complete. And periodically we apply lime to the lawns to maintain the optimum soil pH for turf grasses.” As for watering, they have revitalized the Crane’s original 134,000-gallon cistern.

Sounds like a lot of work. Is it worth it?

It’s a sinuous climb to the top, with goldfinches, mockingbirds, and juncos darting about the pathway. Behind the Great House, the Allée opens up like one’s first glimpse inside Fenway Park. The lawn, about 100 yards wide, rolls up and down to a glimpse of the ocean below.

The turf feels comforting to my bare feet. In the brush off to the side, a tom turkey fans its tail, looking exactly like the clichéd Thanksgiving icon, enticing a bevy of females. And at the edge of the Allée overlooking the sea a kid does cartwheels and a wood thrush sings.

Nice job, Bob. I’m convinced. And the best part is I don’t have to mow it.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.
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