About a month ago, I went down my driveway to go to work, and I saw my neighbor had torn up his lawn. It wasn't just a part of the lawn, and it's not a small lawn: we're talking a half acre of land turned to naked dirt. Our neighbor has a lawn maintenance business, so I knew he'd done this himself, on purpose. But I was mystified as to what would bring a man to take such drastic measures. Had there been some toxic spill on his lawn that required draconian clean-up? Was he installing some massive new sprinkler system that meant digging up the whole plot? Turned out, he'd dug up his lawn because he had weeds. He'd decided it was easier to re-sod his entire property with fresh-farmed Bermuda grass than to try to get rid of those weeds. A few days later, his yard was (once again) a flat plane of green.

It no doubt annoys my neighbor, but my yard is ALL weeds, 100% pure natural Native Florida wild-growing groundlings that float in on the wind. My landlord pays our neighbor (the same one who tore out his own lawn) to come over once every couple of months and beat them back with a weed-wacker, but if he didn't, they would grow about a foot high. And stop there. They ain't bamboo.

Although we do have a stand of lovely bamboo in the front yard, which I love: it shades the house in evening and provides a little privacy. But our neighbor who takes care of the place, who de-turfs at the first happy dandelion, hates the bamboo. If it were up to him, our yard would look like his, complete with a sign warning:

Comical in its over-politeness (I picture a lab on his hind legs reading this over the rim of his glasses, a newspaper under one arm), but the message is clear: this is a household that cares about its lawn. Don't tread on this.

I will admit I feel a constant glare of disapproval coming from that house. This is a free country, and every family maintains its property the way it chooses, but one person's "au natural" is another person's "au neglect." One person's shady, privacy-granting bamboo is another person's nuisance.

It reminded me of a short (27 minute) documentary I'd watched recently, about grass. I met the filmmaker, Isaac Brown, at an artists' conference, and he generously handed out DVDs. Most of us are busy, and most of us are not looking for new things to be outraged about, but after watching Gimme Green, I definitely feel it's worth at least 27 minutes for us all to become aware of what our lawns (or our neighbors' lawns!) are up to.

I love the length, by the way. Compare that 27 minutes to a TED video, which is usually about 18 minutes, and those are just "person on a stage with slides" videos -- Gimme Green moves and travels, it gives us great "characters" and great visuals. It's perfect for the web. Go here to watch the full movie, but here is the trailer:

There's a fellow in the film who shows the film makers his yard: it's lovely. Lots of tall trees (probably ficus?) protecting a cool, shady ground where grass won't grow: a great place to sit and relax, a cool comfortable haven from the hot Florida sun. But then the man points out that he's being hassled by his neighbors and code enforcement. They want him to cut down his trees and lay squares of sod. It seems to run in the face not just of individuality, but of common sense: in Florida, where it is steamy and hot, a flat plane of green grass is a useless patch of work: you must mow it and maintain it and you will derive no joy from it. A cool shady grove is not just his choice, it's a wise choice.

But as the film's interviewee's frequently imply, that flat, useless product of pointless labor we call a "lawn" is a signifier about one's relationship with a god, or his neighbors, or the state of one's life or mind, and what it seems most to signify is "a nice, safe nothing": that there is nothing unique (and therefore nothing threatening) about the person or his mind, that his "god" is a mindless platitude (safe), that his concept of his neighbor is of nice, safe strangers, that his life and mind are nice, safe blanks, too terrified of a thought to do anything unexpected. The flat lawn is the blank slate of the subconscious, sitting in the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind, made obvious through a ritual so accepted as necessary that people who live in desert places sacrifice their water to it.

I'm not going to sum up the film or give a blow-by-blow, but I do want to point out that the film primarily takes place in two places, Florida and Arizona, and that these two places are as different as can be. Florida has its droughts, but it is generally a wet and sunny place; things grow here. But when we learn that in Arizona (in the desert, where massive projects have already diverted all the water than can be diverted and it is running out) that households are pouring three times as much water onto the ground as they drink or use to flush the toilet just to have those plots of grass -- grass that has no business being in a desert at all, it smacks of the same madness that drove the Easter Island people to destroy themselves.

Hey, those Easter Islanders may have cut down every tree and destroyed their civilization, but look at that sweet lawn!

It seems to be an article of human nature that we will destroy ourselves for our totems. In one society that might mean a giant statue, but in ours it means (at least in part) a clean square of green.

This is the fourth in my series on Florida Artists, especially the ones I just met. Previous posts here and here and here. Cross-posted to The Electronic Girl

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