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Life on a Large Lot

Acres of Turf, Days of Din

By Ilene Sternberg
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, August 19, 2004; Page H01

On any given day, my neighborhood in large-lot suburbia has all the serenity of midtown Manhattan during rush hour, hosting, as it does, Olympic-caliber lawnmower relays.

As soon as one mower halts, another seems to accept the challenge. Cranking up the mower once or twice a week should suffice for most of us, but my neighbors mow every day, pretty much all day long. When the noise stops abruptly, I fear I've gone deaf.

Family members take turns. First, there's dad, who sweeps back and forth, back and forth, with his self-propelled walk-behind mower. He crafts pretty stripes over his two acres, followed by several more hours' drive on the ol' Kubota garden tractor for good measure. Some models have headlights, in case you want to make noise well into the evening.

Next it's the wife. Then the kids. Together they mow probably every other day from late winter until snow blowing season. As soon as they're done, the family next to them takes over. What's more, an alarming percentage of these folks -- accountants, frying pan salesmen, their wives and offspring -- have taken up motorcycling!

Welcome to Hell's Acres.

Biker dudes, though, mount up and depart swiftly. Planes and trucks go by quickly, too. But bellowing lawn and garden equipment is forever -- or at least seven years of incessant circling, given the average lifespan of a standard piece of machinery. Once, I mentioned casually to the "Mowmores" next door that a tour group was coming through my garden, hoping they'd take the hint and delay their ritual until my visitors had gone. They did. They rented a wood chipper for the day instead.

How did we ever wind up as lawn lackeys anyway?

Front lawns began as a luxury of the wealthy and a status symbol of the middle class. Before the Civil War, few Americans had lawns at all. They were popularized by late 19th-century industrial and agricultural revolutions and the rise of suburbia, encouraged by mass marketing and the concerted effort of the Garden Club of America, the U.S. Golf Association, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to Virginia Scott Jenkins in her 1994 book "The Lawn -- A History of an American Obsession."

Lawn evangelists promoted a flawless carpet of velvety grass as a work of art that soothes the mind and gladdens the eye, that elevates our status and property values, and mirrors the homeowner's character, a symbol of good citizenship. (If they only knew....) World War II soldiers returning to tract housing with all-American front lawns were bombarded with grassland propaganda. By the mid-1980s, overall revenues for lawn-industries services and materials were $1.8 billion a year. Other countries don't even have lawn-care industries.

Many people hire lawn services, which arrive in force to mow and blow. This becomes a noisy relay from yard to yard. Of course, when you hire a lawn service you are denying yourself the pleasure of controlling the ruckus.

Riding mowers (the bigger the better) are promoted as status symbols, playing on people's competitive tendencies. Beyond spewed soundless hydrocarbons or the silent 70 million pounds of fertilizer, herbicides, fungicides and pesticides needed annually for lawn upkeep, there is another chemical at work here: testosterone. Call me sexist, but "lawn order" is undeniably a man thing. A lot of women mow and may enjoy it, but they aren't as nutty about marking their turf.

Before Edwin Budding invented the lawnmower in 1830, people kept sheep. Or else they cut grass with scythes and other crude instruments. Years ago, living in a Gaithersburg townhouse with a postage-stamp-sized lawn, we had little room to store a machine or keep a ruminant so my husband clipped ours with scissors.

Few of us keep sheep nowadays, but in Orinda, Calif., there is a very successful rent-a-goat company, Goats-R-Us (goatsrus.com). Goats, I caution, are rather indiscriminate and are as likely to shinny up a tree and decimate a fruit crop as eat grass. While grazing goats can clear vast acreage of rampant weeds, they'll also blithely devour vegetation of any kind and a garden ornament or two for dessert. Still, aside from an occasional bleat, they're relatively quiet about it.

Sadly, noise is a low priority of the U.S. government. In 1982, the Reagan administration closed the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Noise Abatement and dropped noise-emission labeling on such items as power tools and lawnmowers. According to the National Institutes of Health, more than 10 million Americans already suffer permanent noise-induced hearing loss. A typical gas-powered mower offers prolonged exposure to 90 decibels. Sounds in excess of 85 decibels can damage hearing, but noise at only 65 to 75 decibels can cause hypertension, stress, heart damage and depression. I'm already depressed.

Numerous municipalities ban or restrict leaf blowers, but Americans still use close to 20 million of them. Other loud equipment is rarely regulated, except for occasional time-of-day bans.

Is hope on the way for action against aural assault weapons? There are robot mowers, electric mowers, reel mowers, all of which are quieter and have their respective advantages and drawbacks.

A non-profit organization, the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, as part of its Quiet Lawns Project, has just published a list of comparative lawnmower noise levels, online at www.nonoise.org, or they'll be happy to send you a copy: 888-200-8332. Perhaps I'll distribute some to my neighbors.

I dream of a world where I can lie peacefully in a hammock, reading a book. A world where squirrels won't need hearing aids. I dream of AstroTurf .


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