Using Susan Sontag to consider the American devotion to lawn culture.
Enjoy Nature! I am glad to say that I have entirely lost that faculty … My own experience is that the more we study Art, the less we care for Nature. What Art really reveals to us is Nature’s lack of design, her curious crudities, her extraordinary monotony, her absolutely unfinished condition.
—Oscar Wilde, The Decay of Lying
This year’s growing season was longer than expected, and gave my family tomatoes, copious greens, pale peonies, and Russian sage that grew with a fury, reaching over the beds, shaking a flush of tiny purple blossoms onto the paths. I was too busy to tend these plants and edibles in spring, so they bloomed into something wild and tangled, potentially man-eating. Only when there were novel edits to make or difficult phone conversations to endure did I go to the garden to weed on my knees, bare-handed, desperate for the distraction of physical labor.
Working with one’s hands feels meditative and purposeful when the mind is overheated. It is therefore not unusual to find a connection between writer and gardener; we have more need than most to find balance between what Hannah Arendt called the vita activa and the vita contemplativa. Emily Dickinson claimed she was “reared in the garden.” Virginia Woolf warned friends that her expansive garden at her country home, Monk’s House, was “the pride of our hearts.” In a 1911 letter, Edith Wharton claimed she was “a better landscape gardener than novelist, and this place, every line of which is my own work, far surpasses The House of Mirth.”
Wharton and Woolf both admired the gardens of Versailles, a touchstone for any plant enthusiast, but when I visited last year, the lawns seemed less a feat of natural beauty and more a feat of money, impersonal human labor, and irrigation. My husband and some friends and I blazed through the gardens in electric golf carts, bars of Verdi tinkling through the cart’s speakers. We careened around a circular fountain with a seminude goddess statue in repose, when the GPS-enabled, erudite guide spoke over the strings to tell us about the fountain’s restoration. At some point, my friends’ two-year-old broke loose into a tantrum; good humored, our friends shrugged and waved as we floored the carts through a wall of twelve-foot-tall manicured hedges, pointing at waxen, pink camellias.
In her 1964 landmark essay, “Notes on Camp,” Susan Sontag accused Versailles of belonging to the “camp aesthetic”:
In the 18th century, people of taste either patronized nature (Strawberry Hill) or attempted to remake it into something artificial (Versailles).
Camp, she says, prides itself on love of the unnatural, artificial, and highly stylized. Nothing in nature can be campy, Sontag claims, so camp can only exist in a place of striking exaggeration. When a plot of land is decorated, pruned, and enhanced with color and ornamentation, it moves from nature toward artifice. Cue the hedges of Versailles, and cue the American lawn, unnaturally green, weedless, and adorned with foreign species, mirror balls, gnomes, and shaped boxwoods.
Eight years ago, when I moved from the suburban South to a rural community in Vermont, I immediately noticed the lack of fixation on lawn care. Vermont is still proudly agricultural. There are no homeowner associations in my town, and you are more likely to receive dirty looks for using Monsanto-made pesticides than letting a front lawn go unkempt. People who work with their hands, it seems, can tolerate a little wildness in their yards, and, in my case, grow to appreciate it. My husband and I have a brush pile the size of a truck, and last month a bear pulled up our old pumpkins from the garden and dragged them toward the house. An old goat roots through our vegetable scraps while the rooster waits for seconds. Our “lawn” is dotted with moss, clover patches, rocks, and dandelions. We prune our apple trees and grow flowers, but most New Englanders tend to value utility over appearance. Still, I’m thankful there are no neighbors within shouting distance of our farm to impress.
The American devotion to lawn care is rooted in social aspiration. The nouveau riche and middle class of the forties were inspired by the manicured gardens of American Old Money, who were inspired by French royalty. But what if keeping up with the Joneses is actually in questionable taste? The ideal of expansive lawns and shaped hedges indicates leisure time, hired help, disposable income, and balanced, if not sentimental, notions of beauty. The drive, one figures, is to move away from agriculture and labor—rocky pastures, native grasses, edibles—to the ornamental. But the conception of a lawn, its very idea, is, at least in Sontag’s terms, camp.
The Great American Lawn is camp because it poisons and abuses the very thing it seeks to sentimentalize and exaggerate—nature. “Camp taste effaces nature, or else contradicts it outright,” Sontag writes. Many see working on the lawn as a relationship with the outdoors and would rather toil over an over-handled green rectangle than walk in the woods. It is not just turf grass and plastic flamingos that make a contemporary lawn camp; it is the sincere, personal investment in the creation of a prosperous image, and one that comes at a sizable personal and environmental cost.
It is stunning that our predilection toward conformity and commitment to an ideal leads us to such expensive, toxic activity. The idealization of the hypergreen, uniformly cut monoculture with tidy flower beds is a study in environmentally suspect suburban aesthetic. Ornamental turfgrass, which covers over 128,000 square kilometers of U.S. lawns, uses a large percentage of potable water. Fertilizers and pesticides kill bees, and when swept into water systems, cause algae blooms and dead zones. Why do we not question the impact of our collective taste?
The impulse likely comes from what Sontag refers to as “the spirit of extravagance.” Not maliciousness. Some people don’t know that their fertilizers emit, rather than absorb, carbon dioxide. “Naïve camp,” Sontag writes, “is a seriousness that fails.” It’s human nature to decorate our surroundings. Look at Lascaux’s Paleolithic drawings, or consider routine home embellishments: empty urns, faux flowers, gilded porcelain china displayed on a wall. Humans have the urge to make the beautiful more beautiful still, to pile on, to surround ourselves with what we find most appealing. I have a friend, an artist, who once came home one day to find his Cajun grandmother spray painting her camellia bushes silver.
The South where I grew up has always had a taste for hyperbole, leisure, and amped-up beauty; you see it in women and in the home; you hear it in the language. Committing to the ideal of beauty matters, whether it’s the type of hat one wears to the Derby or how green the lawn appears. For my thirty years in the South, I never once questioned the creation of ornamental lawns. I found them beautiful and watched the people around me tend to them with extraordinary care. When I was young, I thought deeply tanned women with blonde hair teased skyward were the pinnacle of attractiveness. Now my idyll looks more like Georgia O’Keefe, something weathered and elegantly simple, at home in the lake and woods.
I moved to a place known for its austere and puritanical ways, and my taste often feels indulgent next to my Quaker in-laws’. Once, I brought home a large antique statue of a woman cradling an urn, which I placed among the roses. I like vibrant, genetically modified tulips and set a Home Depot hydrangea next to heirloom beans. But I have cured myself of a longing for the useless manicured hedges of Versailles and refuse to use the pesticide that would keep our apples from becoming gnarled and nibbled goat food. I weed not because I fear the judgment of my neighbor, but because my novel is late, and the basil thrives in the sun.
Megan Mayhew Bergman is the author of Almost Famous Women and one of the Daily’s correspondents.