Lawn Reading

In “The American Lawn: Surface of Everyday Life,” Georges Teyssot begins by providing an overview of the evolution of the domestic lawn and cultural perceptions of the enigma. Tracing grass’s “roots,” pun shamelessly intended, back to pastoral time in England and Western Europe, Teyssot explains that the short, green lawn’s appealed to American colonists both for its practicality and its roots in the pastoral ideal. Ultimately, grass became the “canvas” to which all other adornments to an American home were added. As lawns became a cultural staple in the United States, they developed societal and psychological significance.

According to Teyssot, research indicates that Americans associate the maintenance of a lawn with the hygiene of its owner. Furthermore, a respectable lawn has become a staple of what defines an “ordinary man,” who, as defined by Robert Fishman, simulates the job of a pastoral farmer by tending to his own plot of land for the sake of the community. Psychologically, the lawn is another outward indicator humans use to assess those around them.

In relation to this class, I feel that this reading was very relevant in that it illustrates the most prevalent example of the trend toward controlled nature in our society. Despite its less-than-natural origins, I feel most Americans embrace a green lawn because in many cases it is the closest we get to nature amidst the development of cities and suburbs. I feel the lawn, more than anything, represents our desire to be close to nature but at the same time in control of it. As far as the essay’s analysis itself, however, I have mixed feelings. While I feel that much of Teyssot’s assessments of the American lawn’s significance are accurate, I do not feel that a lawn is any more impactful or oppressive than any of the other societal norms that pervade our world. Our clothing, hairstyle, expression of our femininity or masculinity, even the food we eat and the way we talk, all have as much of an impact on our psyches as a lawn. Teyssot does allude to this same idea by comparing the ideal of a perfect lawn to the ideal of a perfect body, both of which represent the American sense of competition and goal of perfection. Ultimately, we are products of our environment, and we are judged according to the standards of our society. So, while I will admit this reading provided some interesting perspectives on our societal expectations, I think that it would be unfair to argue that the lawn industry is “abusive” because it is no more powerful than—if not less powerful than—other components of our society.

While I felt the analysis of the psychological impacts of the lawn may have been overemphasized, I did find Teyssot’s analysis of Americans’ views of private versus communal property intriguing. In the latter part of his work, Teyssot describes historical opinions on fences, their functionality, their aesthetic purpose, and their underlying meaning in society. Ultimately, Teyssot’s testimony adds up to the idea that a fence, or lack thereof, represents a community’s opinion of shared property. In historical times when fences were preferred not to be used, Teyssot argues that Americans favored actual private property with the illusion of communal property. In contrast, opaque fences represented a desire for both economic division of property and a visual cue as to who owns what. Finally, Teyssot argues that the trend toward transparent fences produces an effect somewhere in the middle between that of a community with no fences and a community with opaque fences. Transparent fences, while providing distinct indications of where private property begins and ends, still allows for members in a community to view into one another’s lives. This careful sense of openness represents a desire to filter between those who are “family,” and those who are not. I feel that symbolic meanings to different types of barriers between properties are both accurate and relevant in today’s society. In this, I am reminded of our discussion of suburban neighborhoods with home-owners associations that forbid certain things, including fences. I find this both ironic and intriguing, because the enforcement of a policy about fences speaks to not just the aesthetic preoccupations of our society, but of our desire to create a sense of community—even if forcibly. Whereas in the past a lack of fences may have indicated a true sense of trust between neighbors, now it merely represents a neighborhood’s preoccupation with resale value and a superficial sense of kinship.

So having read this piece, I have a few questions:

1) Having grown up in suburbs, as we discovered many of us did, do you associate grass with nature?

2) Do you feel oppressed by the landscape of suburbs? If so, which parts of the landscape bother you the most and why?

3) What assumptions do you make when you see a lawn that is unkempt? What other violations of societal norms lead us to make assumptions about people and which do you feel are the most profound?

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