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Notes From the Lawn

Landscaped Beyond all Recognition

We bemoan the rise of the McMansion, the slash-and-burn path of the strip mall—but the real problem may be lurking in the shrubbery.

If the three prongs of the suburban American dream are family, job, and house, there is a ghostly, under-discussed consequence: yard work. It takes a hell of a lot of time, which is why many people I know hire landscaping companies to take care of the maintenance. This is fine for some. Sadly, I cannot join the club. Apart from the expense, there are too many gardeners in my family who would scoff, too many people who would shake their heads at me if I suggested that paying someone thirty dollars to rake my leaves and let me spend a Saturday with my husband and three-year-old daughter sounds like a good deal. “Spend the Saturday raking leaves with your family,” they would suggest, and this is, after all, one of my most vivid childhood memories. So why doesn’t it sound appealing?

I have a friend who confessed recently to outsourcing everything she could: house cleaning, landscaping, carpooling, even cooking—she buys lots of prepared meals. “There just isn’t enough time,” she said, and I agreed. But what are we saving time for? I might have said an afternoon of playing in the yard, but a recent trip home convinced me that no one does this anymore. The neighborhood where I grew up in Ann Arbor was, in the 1970s and ‘80s, very sweet and somewhat dilapidated, with reasonably sized houses on reasonably sized lots. The gardens, I recall, were nothing special. Here and there someone might have extra-nice grass because they used ChemLawn, or a fine bed of roses because they knew what they were doing, but that was all.

Now, nearly every house seems to have either an addition or one under way. Yards, even small ones, are landscaped with a variety of shrubs, flowers, pathways, and lights. Every tree has a mulch skirt, every house is freshly painted. It seems to me that the rise of decent, mass-produced furniture spawned a generation of house-proud consumers, and now our perfectionism is spilling into the yard. Grass doesn’t just grow anymore, it has to be aerated. Beds must be mulched. Paths require lighting. It’s as if we want our yards to be as groomed as a Crate & Barrel living room. The catalog offers outdoor furniture as well, so this just might be possible.

But I remember playing tag happily across what I now realize must have been scraggly, weed-infested lawns. We hid behind naked, neglected trees, the pathetic grass growing right up to the trunks. We used these yards nightly and loved them, though we didn’t know it at the time. When I was home for a visit recently, I walked through the neighborhood every day. Block after block, the houses and lawns were polished and beautiful—and almost completely devoid of the sound of children playing. I thought of a scene in Evan Connell’s Mrs. Bridge, that masterpiece of life simmering under a perfect veneer. When Mrs. Bridge finally goes to Europe after years of waiting, she leaves the protective covering on her leather luggage, preserving it for future trips she’ll never make. Walking the blocks of my childhood, I imagined the new families living in these strangely familiar houses, men and women who probably dreamed of having a yard someday, and now have little landscaped parks too nice to play in.

True, I would have taken down the mechanical, lighted reindeer by now, but, on the other hand, I don’t have to worry about fertilizing the rhododendrons. The rage for landscaping extends to businesses, too. It seems no chain store is complete these days without its bank of polka-dot shrubs, ground cover meant to fill in over time but frequently planted too far apart for this to be a realistic goal. Often it’s a variety of juniper plunked down in a bed of mulch dyed red to cover the wood impurities, making our landscape as homogenous as the big-box architecture it’s meant to complement. Gas stations, banks, fast-food joints—all now seem to have a token bit of odd-shaped ground, bounded by street and parking lot, mulched and planted with tiny, disposable annuals.

According to an article on Slate.com, self-storage companies, in an effort to improve their image (among other unsavory things, several corpses were found in units last year), are turning to landscaping, including 30-foot waterfalls. This isn’t gardening, this is obscuring reality with water features. And it’s not just lowbrow settings playing the game: Three university campuses I’ve seen recently, one each in the South, Northeast, and Midwest, all seem to favor planting liriope in huge swaths as a sort of greener, shinier alternative to grass (of course, you can’t sit on it). There’s something strange and obsessive about it all, as if both privately and publicly we’re constructing Potemkin gardens to hide the wasteland at our core.

At any rate, I’ve found a temporary solution to my own small troubles. Two months ago I was despairing about finding time to finish the winter cleanup in my garden in Virginia. Now I’m enjoying Fitler Square in Center City, Philadelphia, where we’ve moved for a semester. (It’s a shame one can’t abandon problems so completely more often.) We have space to play and grass for picnicking, and my daughter adores the three large stone turtles, which I never would have thought to include in a garden. True, I would have taken down the mechanical, lighted reindeer by now, but, on the other hand, I don’t have to worry about fertilizing the rhododendrons.

If we sometimes lack privacy when we’re out there, I don’t mind. I won’t be the first to suggest that the privacy of the suburbs is overestimated. To me the city square offers the perfect balance between landscaping and enjoyment, the work of a few providing leisure for many. As far as I’m concerned, they should be our yards of the future.
 

biopic

TMN Contributing Writer Jessica Francis Kane is the author of a story collection, Bending Heaven, and a novel, The Report, which was a finalist for the 2010 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and the Indie Booksellers Choice Award. She lives in New York with her husband and their two children. A new story collection, This Close, has just been published by Graywolf. More by Jessica Francis Kane