Ah, summer in central Maine.

The cold, snow and ice-covered — or worse, barren and ugly — landscape of winter and what we optimistically call spring are long forgotten. Lush greenery and wildflowers burst out of every crevice.

Some days are hot, but not too bad. Cool breezes ruffle the leaves. The air is rich with birdsongs, and, for those of us lucky enough, the cries of loons.

And, of course, there is the non-stop every waking hour brain-shredding whine of lawnmowers.

Because, for those few months when something is actually growing or green, we put a huge amount of noisy effort into hacking it down.

When did a shaved-down expanse of totally unnatural turf, and all the work that goes into it — all the chemicals, and all the noise and pollution maintaining it involves — become the norm?

We laugh at lawn-obsessed Californians who are fined for watering their lawns during drought — People! You live in a desert! — yet we water ours when we live in a state that gets its fair share of wet stuff coming from the sky.

Some of those same Californians, tho ones who don’t break the watering rules, are reduced to painting their burned lawn green. We laugh at that, too.

But is what many of us here in lush, wet Maine do much different?

Americans spend $6.4 billion a year on lawn care, according to a 2012 Bloomberg report. Some of that goes to 70 million pounds of chemical fertilizer, according to the same report.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s latest figures maintain that mowing a lawn for one hour with a newer gas-powered mower produces the same amount of emissions as driving a car for 45 miles. It could be worse — EPA estimates of a few years ago for older lawnmowers were 350 miles.

Looking at that stat another way, the EPA points out, one hour of lawnmowing is the same as 11 new cars being driven for an hour. But hey, it’s only eight new cars an hour, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The EPA also estimates that homeowners spill 17 million gallons of fuel a year while filling their lawnmowers. Lawn Valdez, anyone?

“In addition to groundwater contamination, spilled fuel that evaporates into the air and volatile organic compounds spit out by small engines make smog-forming ozone when cooked by heat and sunlight,” according to the website Peoplepoweredmachines.com.

The EPA also warns about the pollution the treatments we use on our lawns cause.

Scientific American also weighs in, pointing out that while greenery helps cleanse the air, “Ultimately, however, the consequences of our obsession with pristine grass lawns may undercut any benefits. In addition to depriving both native pollinators and honeybees of wild habitat and food — and thereby threatening our agricultural system — lawncare guzzles water, spews smog and soaks the earth in potentially harmful chemicals.”

See? It’s not just me.

Common sense tells us that something that takes that much work, that much unnatural attention, isn’t natural.

And on top of all of it, there is the peace-shredding constant drone of lawnmowers shattering the few precious months we have to relax outdoors in Maine.


The concept of the “lawn” began among the wealthy in Europe — those who could afford the amount of work it took before lawnmowers and fertilizer. And the climate was right. No underground sprinkler systems, just what nature provided.

We may have rejected a monarchy and land-baron hierarchy, but we brought with us to America a serious case of lawn envy. Maybe we wanted to show them that the American dream is hey, we can have a royal lawn too.

Lawn obsession went nuts in the 1950s. The post-World War II Levittown developments were considered the first modern suburbs and in many ways a model on which all suburban America aspired to. One of the things Levittown touted was landscaped, manicured lawns.

Back then, being a good American meant hating communists, and William Levitt, one of the founders of Levittown, forever tied a well-maintained lawn with patriotism when he said, “No man who owns his own house and lot can be a communist. He has too much to do.”

Good lawn? Good American.

Levittown, by the way, for years also had a written policy that it did not sell homes to black buyers.

We’ve redefined, or at least have struggled to redefine, what makes a good American in the decades since, though current events show we still have a ways to go.

Maybe it’s time to rethink what makes a good lawn, too.

As Levitt pointed out, having a lawn means we have a lot to do. We spend a lot of time working on the lawn and obsessing about it.

As James Fish pointed out in “The Tyranny of Greenery“: “The greatest irony is that after all the yard work, the workers go back inside and watch TV, exhausted after having spent the best part of their weekends trying to make nature conform to advertisers’ fantasies.”

Just think of all the things we could use that energy for.

If we started thinking for ourselves as far as what makes a nice lawn, maybe we could start having a more realistic view of the rest of the landscape around us, both physical and social.

In Scientific American, Ferris Jabr, discusses the history of the American lawn as we know it and the growing movement — again, it’s not just me! – to find solutions to our lawn-care culture.

The EPA gives lots of advice on how to have a more environmentally friendly lawn that fits in with the area’s natural species.

A reel mower can be had for about $100 with no more costs associated. It’s a nice workout without being too strenuous, and the clack-clack of the reel is a good companion to thought, rather than drowning it out.

We’re lucky we don’t live in Califoria — for a lot of reasons — but one of the biggest is that instead of living in a desert, we live in the opposite of one.

Left to its own devices, our summer landscape is rich, green and varied. Take a look outside this time of year and note the birds and butterflies. Check out the wildflowers that grow everywhere they haven’t been cut down.

We’re all part of one, big beautiful picture.

Nature does the work just fine on its own, and only a little bit of help is needed from us.

Wouldn’t it be cool if we approached our lawns with that in mind?

Maureen Milliken is news editor of the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. Email her at [email protected]. Twitter: mmilliken47. Kennebec Tales is published the first and third Thursday of the month.

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