Lawn to earth

The lawn was once a unique marker of American life and class mobility. In Los Angeles and beyond, the drought has changed what that looks like.

Lawn to earth

The lawn was once a unique marker of American life and class mobility. In Los Angeles and beyond, the drought has changed what that looks like.

I see the end of the world everywhere. I think of it not so much as an anxiety about my personal mortality but as the logical endpoint of watching along as nature squirms to adapt to the circumstances humankind created for it, where there’s little we can do other than eat fewer burgers and be more diligent about sorting cans from mixed paper. Lately, the apocalyptic scenarios that haunt my dreams — skyscraper-height bursts of water, desert landscapes turned ice luges, flora and fauna gone wild — seem to have real-world parallels.

Climate change is not a hoax, despite the cruel and irresponsible proclamations made by the Trump administration. Its effects are everywhere: Earlier in the winter, the Arctic was 36 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than it should have been. This year, for the first time ever in recorded history, there was no snow on the ground in Chicago during the winter months of January and February. California is finally emerging from the clutches of a five-year drought, the worst in its history. (In March, the U.S. Drought Monitor lifted the most severe drought designation, and after a stretch of debilitating dryness, most counties in Southern California have been elevated to the slightly better “moderate drought” and “extreme dry” categories.)

Earlier this year, with a couple of unexpected months off between jobs, I spent close to a month in Los Angeles. I bought a ticket to escape winter in New York (which itself proved to be alarmingly warm this season). If L.A. didn’t inspire me to produce some creative work of genius or to become a hiker, I thought, well, at least there would be sun. Except there wasn’t: It rained for what felt like 10 days straight. It rained so much that wet socks and streaked glasses began to feel like a permanent state. It rained so much that, 450 miles to the north, in Oroville, California, a dam spillway started to crumble.

Instead of “the big one,” the impending earthquake projected to decimate swathes of the West Coast that had previously worried me, it was climate change I saw everywhere. For the past few years, evidence of the drought has been inescapable: At restaurants, servers are careful to ask if you want water before pouring any. Signs urge moderate water consumption. A friend recently spoke of Santa Monica, where she knew a family that had illegally filled up their pool under cover of night.

And then there are the lawns. For a long time, the lawn has been a distinct symbol of American life and class mobility. Once upon a time, to have a lawn was a clear-cut sign of wealth: Only a person who had the resources to employ a groundskeeper could afford to maintain that much turf, which in its purest form also suggests the privilege of leisure. In the 20th century, when garden hoses and rotary mowers became more accessible, the lawn became increasingly practical and ubiquitous, according to the Lawn Institute. In the cultural imagination, Levittown and the suburban utopia confirmed the lawn as an aspirational marker of class. If you wanted a white picket fence, you'd need a decently sized patch of green to fence in — and you’d need to maintain that turf’s height and health in accordance with the community’s rules.

But, in recent years, “the lawn’s symbolic meaning has shifted. Rather than wealth, it implies waste. And where Levittown residents once admonished their neighbors for scruffy grass, Californians now turn to Twitter to [drought shame] those who still water their yards,” wrote Sarah Kaplan and Nick Kirkpatrick in The Washington Post in July 2015, four years into the drought. Barbra Streisand reportedly agreed to use less water after pictures of her home, featuring needlessly large expanses of green, were released. A hashtag, and then a whole app, was created to shame people and businesses who selfishly and dangerously ignored new restrictions on watering lawns.

Even before this particular drought, researchers were concerned about the impact of inefficient lawn watering. According to a 2005 NASA study, residential and commercial lawns represent “the single largest irrigated crop in America in terms of surface area.” One of the study’s researchers, Christina Milesi, told NASA’S Earth Observatory that “[e]ven conservatively, I estimate there are three times more acres of lawn in the U.S. than irrigated corn.” And given measurable changes to the water table across the country, that is a problem.

Xeriscaping — a style of landscaping common in dry areas that requires considerably less water and maintenance than a traditional lawn — has become a trend by necessity. In Mid-city, the gentrifying L.A. neighborhood where I spent most of my time, drought-resistant lawns popped up everywhere. In front of some homes, there was a terrain of bright-red wood chips where there had once been green grass. In front of others, there were gorgeous, dense forests of cacti, succulents, and flowers. On many mornings, I saw landscapers carefully placing intricate patterns of colorful succulents, just feet away from hybrid cars.

In 2015, the Los Angeles Daily News pointed out that “[c]actus and succulents aren’t just trendy, they make sense in drought ridden Southern California.” In July 2016, the L.A. Times published a handy article encouraging readers to “Go beyond cactus: 8 drought-tolerant plants that can handle summer's blistering heat.” That same month, the paper profiled David Pixley, a Burbank resident who swapped out his lawn for an “unconventional mix” of low-water plants before it had become a trendy gardening practice.

But outside some homes and in other neighborhoods, perhaps where outdoor homecare isn’t quite a priority, I saw cracked, brown lawns. And on a couple of occasions, I’d see a green lawn made of real grass and wonder if that homeowner had voted for Trump. The perfectly xeriscaped front gardens began to feel like symbols, a way to wave a liberal flag and announce your values: a marker of class in the pre-apocalyptic age.

After the rain, things changed. Green sprouted up from cracks in the sidewalk, neglected lawns regained moisture and showed signs of life. The end felt just a little more distant.


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