in the latest book i read by michael pollan, called second nature, there is a passage that was such pure poetry for me to read that i intend to copy it here word for word (although without capital letters. sorry). the title of this post also comes just before the part i am quoting, although his language was a bit more brash, but i am trying keep this blog family-friendly 😉
a case could be made that the front lawn is the most characteristic institution of the american suburb, and my father’s lack of respect for it probably expressed his general ambivalence about the suburban way of life. in the suburbs, the front lawn is, at least visually, a part of the collective landscape; while not exactly public land, it isn’t entirely private either. in this it reflects one of the foundations of the suburban experiment, which lewis mumford once defined as “a collective effort to live a private life.” the private part was simple enough: the suburban dream turns on the primacy of family life and private property; these being the two greatest goods in my father’s moral universe, he was eager to sign up. but “owning your own home” turned out to be only half of it: a suburb is a place where you undertake to do this in concert with hundreds of other “like-minded” couples. without reading the small print, my father had signed on for the whole middle-class utopian package, and there were heavy dues to pay.
the front lawn symbolized the collective face of suburbia, the backyard its private aspect. in the back, you could do pretty much whatever you wanted, but out front you had to take account of the community’s wishes and its self-image. fences and hedges were out of the question: they were considered anti-social, unmistakable symbols of alienation from the group. one lawn should flow unimpeded into another, obscuring the boundaries between homes and contributing to the sense of community. it was here in the front lawn that “like-mindedness” received its clearest expression. the conventional design of a suburban street is meant to forge the multitude of equal individual parcels of land into a single vista- a democratic landscape. to maintain your portion of this landscape was part of your civic duty. you voted each november, joined the PTA, and mowed the lawn every saturday.
of course the democratic system can cope with the nonvoter far more easily than the democratic landscape can cope with the nonmower. a single unmowed lawn ruins the whole effect, announcing to the whole world that all is not well here in utopia. my father couldn’t have cared less. he owned the land; he could do whatever he wanted with it. as for the neighbors, he felt he owed them nothing…
the summer he stopped mowing altogether, i felt the hot breath of a tyrannical majority for the first time. nobody would say anything, but you heard it anyway: mow your lawn. cars would slow down as they drove by our house. probably some of the drivers were merely curious: they saw the unmowed lawn and wondered if perhaps someone had left in a hurry, or died. but others drove by in a manner that was unmistakably expressive, slowing down as they drew near and then hitting the gas angrily as they passed- this was pithy driving, the sort of move that is second nature to a klansman…
as i read this, so many points hit home, from the slow-driving menaces to the nonverbal messages. for the first time, i understood why oak park may have hated my garden yet abhorred the idea of me having a fence or a hedge to hide it (although they themselves had no idea why this was, and were consistently unable to articulate any reasons for most of what they told me…). i had some insight into just how deep the continuous “common ground” of the suburbs was supposed to be, both in a theoretical sense and in an actual sense, although again, i think this operates on such a deep level that almost nobody would be aware enough of it to be able to explain it.
i love when i read something that sheds light onto an area where i didn’t have clarity. i appreciate it even more when it provides a unique way of looking at something when i didn’t even know i was lacking a perspective. i realized that part of the reason i have been unable to write anything new on this blog for a while is that i have let my life get too small. small minds don’t generate new ideas and new thoughts.
so i have resolved (being a new year is just an interesting coincidence) to try to live a bigger life. i’m looking forward to having some big new ideas.
i guess we’ll see what happens!