Disclaimer: The author of this article was once responsible for a lawn. Over a few years, he killed nearly everything green in it, until the dominant species were a thick subterranean thorn vine and fire ants, which he tolerated because neither required watering. Which is to say that he may not innately understand the widespread reverence for lawns, but has nevertheless made a good-faith attempt to research the phenomenon’s history.
Not quite 1,000 years after the invention of the front lawn, Sen. Rand Paul was reported to have stepped off a riding mower outside his Kentucky home and promptly been tackled by his neighbor.
“Competing explanations of the origins of the drama cited stray yard clippings, newly planted saplings and unraked leaves,” the New York Times reported. In any event, the Republican senator broke five ribs Friday, and his neighbor may face felony assault charges.
And this was by no means the worst thing to have befallen two neighbors in the long history of our obsession with trimmed grass.
NASA once conducted a satellite study of U.S. lawns. (This fact alone should tell you all you need know about their importance.) As our Wonkblog wrote, the unruly foreign weed we call “grass” is the single largest irrigated crop in the United States. It covers one-fifth of New Jersey, consumes 9 billion gallons of water each day, and the average American spends 70 hours a year keeping the stuff alive — though not so alive it offends the neighbors.
Let’s go back to the beginning.
The Garden of Eden, as imagined in much medieval artwork, was essentially a nice green lawn. Here it is in a Hieronymus Bosch painting from the end of the era — on the left, mind you. That grassless brown eyesore on the right is hell.
Some believe that we evolved to love lawns, as Paul Robbins writes in his book “Lawn People” — a remnant from our ancestors who got a better view of the savanna when the grass was short.
But the author is skeptical, noting “the total absence of the home lawn throughout history.”
“No green meadow welcomed the visitors to the Athenian Acropolis, the Roman Capitol, the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem or the Forbidden City in Beijing,” writes Yuval Noah Harari, a history professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in his book, “Homo Deus.” In it, he argues that front lawns first became popular among French and English aristocrats in the Middle Ages for the same reason fancy cars are now popular among middle-class Americans — the lawn was “a status symbol nobody could fake.”
“It boldly proclaimed to every passer-by: ‘I am so rich and powerful, and I have so many acres and serfs, that I can afford this green extravaganza,’ ” Harari wrote.
King Henry II’s “wealth of lawns” were the talk of 12th-century England, two lawn researchers wrote in a paper. The next King Henry had the garden around his palace leveled, covered in turf and mowed thereafter.
By the beginning of the 1300s, wealthy people in Southampton, England, were playing lawn games on the manicured expanse of Old Bowling Green — which coincidentally is the name of the Kentucky town where Sen. Paul was beaten beside his lawn mower 700 years later.
The idolization of lawns crossed the Atlantic with the first settlers, although it was a while before the reality of lawns took hold on American soil.
Even with the presence of slave labor, Thomas Jefferson’s famed lawn at Monticello began as a “weedy, disheveled” mess, according to the foundation that now owns it. Jefferson’s lawn was likely scythed no more than twice a year, and while it eventually leveled out, it sounded like a hassle to keep up — as when a groundskeeper accidentally covered the grass in charcoal instead of manure.
Nevertheless, the Atlantic wrote in its historical retrospective on grass, “lawns became aesthetic extensions of Manifest Destiny.”
The twin miracles of lawn mowers and suburban sprawl finally allowed that destiny to manifest in the 20th century — when a lawn adorned nearly every house, and every homeowner became a little English king.
And only then, after beautiful yards covered much of the United States, did things really get ugly.
“You’re trespassing in my f—ing yard!” William Mason screamed this summer as he pinned a teenage boy by the neck to the grass in front of his house in Lansing, Ill.
Millions of people watched a Facebook video of that incident, in which Mason threatened to kill the boy there beside his flower bed, and which early news reports headlined as a “lawn dispute.”
The story wasn’t that simple, as the Chicago Tribune later reported. Police said teens had been fighting in the area, and the sheriff’s office said it dropped an investigation of Mason for lack of evidence after the boy refused to cooperate.
But Americans are by now long acquainted with the notion of a lawn as conflict grounds — almost as often as they give us peace.
For many years, David Shoemaker mowed the little strip of sidewalk grass in front of his house in Howell, Mich., with no trouble.
Then, in 2009, the city uprooted a maple tree on the strip and re-landscaped it, and told Shoemaker to keep on mowing.
He refused on principle, being of the mind that if the city could do as it pleased with his grass, it should mow said grass itself. The weeds grew high, and Shoemaker eventually sued the city to dispute a $600 fine.
All this was recounted by a federal judge in 2015, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ordered Shoemaker to pay the fine after a multiyear lawsuit with the city.
All over $600 and a patch of grass. Not that the rich seem any better at managing their lawn disputes.
By 1997, the New York Times wrote, Martha Stewart had spent a quarter-million dollars in a fight with her neighbor over several trees and shrubs he had planted on the border between their yards. Nearly two decades later, TMZ announced that three California neighbors, Billy Corgan, Eric Dane and Rebecca Gayheart, had managed to “SETTLE RAGING TREE DISPUTE.”
And then there are the prisoners. Owners of unkempt lawns have been jailed in Texas and Florida, according to the Atlantic. And the author of “Lawn People” interviewed inhabitants of a well-mown neighborhood in an unidentified U.S. city to learn that, candidly, few of them cared as much about their lawn as they cared what their neighbors thought about it.
“In fact, the actions and opinions of the neighbors suggest that residents have a comparatively small range of actual choice in the management of their lawns,” the author wrote.
In other words, we’re all prisoners of a tyranny of grass.
But we don’t mean to trivialize this. If lawns have been revered for centuries, human passions will run high. Bad things will happen.
By all accounts, Paul was seriously injured in his confrontation with his neighbor. We wrote at the beginning of this history that the senator’s injuries were hardly the worst thing to have happened to someone in a lawn dispute, though.
This may be the worst thing:
Charles Martin lived in a one-story house just east of Cincinnati, where CBS News reported he was often seen in the front yard, among his flags and immaculate shrubs, sometimes measuring the grass with a yardstick.
Martin mowed regularly and lived quietly — until one spring day in 2006, when he stepped outside with his shotgun and killed his 15-year-old neighbor, who had just walked across his lawn.
“Killed over some grass,” a police lieutenant remarked to CBS at the time.
Martin apologized for the killing, the Associated Press reported, but noted that the boy knew how much he loved his lawn. He was convicted of murder and committed suicide in prison.
This sad story was all over the news, and some who read it remarked that Martin’s lawn didn’t really look that special anyway.