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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Lawn Outlaws

Air Date: Week of

Producer Jeff Rice explores the whys and wherefores of our culture's obsession with lawns, and Salt Lake City's law that every house has to have one. His inquiry leads him from the savannas of humans' early history to the homestead of Mormon pioneer Brigham Young to the front yards of some Salt Lake residents who are living outside the law.


CURWOOD: Have you ever stopped to think about your lawn? No, I don't mean that feeling of dread on the weekends. I mean, have you ever really wondered why the lawn is such a totem of American culture? In India, grass is seen as a weed. But here in the US, we spend some $25 billion a year on the care and feeding of lawns, not to mention all those weekend hours. Despite its desert climate, Utah is no exception. In fact, Utahns may be even more obsessed with their lawns than the rest of us. Producer Jeff Rice recently set out to find out why.

(Music up and under: woman singing, "He rakes and trims the grass. He loves to mow and weed. I cook like Betty Crocker...")

RICE: If you're like a lot of people, suburban utopia means living somewhere that's green, in a house with a lawn. And i f you know anything about Utahns, you know we're serious about our turf.

(A lawn mower runs)

RICE: Despite the fact that Utah is the second driest state in the Union, there are green lawns here as far as the eye can see. My guess is you can hit a nine-iron from yard to yard here for the rest of your life and never hit the same shot twice. I grew up pushing a lawn mower, and as a young entrepreneur I was recognizable by my stained-green tennis shoes and my regular bouts of sneezing from my allergies to grass clippings. Lawns are second-nature to me, but one day I woke up and couldn't help asking: why are we so obsessed?

(A mower motor comes to a halt.)

RICE: In the spirit of cultural anthropology, I started checking around. One biologist I read about suggested that on a grand scale our deep attachment to the lawn comes from humans' early evolution on the savanna grasslands. That was where we spent our formative evolutionary years, he reasons, and may explain our current choice of grassy habitat. Not a bad theory, and it may also explain the phenomenon of the backyard barbecue. There is, after all, nothing more primal than the combination of fire and meat. Still others hold for a more recent origin.

(Water sprinklers running)

RICE: A lot of Utah's early settlers came from the Midwest, where it actually rains on a regular basis. So, according to this theory, Utah's desert settlers were homesick for green, and this led them to become some of the greatest irrigators that ever lived. Or, it could be our pioneering need to control the land, our distrust of wilderness, our conquering nature. All these are valid possibilities, but I think I came upon the most pressing reason at the City and County Building. The reason there are so many lawns in Utah is, because that's the law.

(A gavel is banged.)

TAYLOR: Section twenty-one point eight oh point two hundred of Salt Lake City Code, and that's from Title 21, which is a zoning ordinance.

RICE: Randy Taylor is the zoning coordinator for Salt Lake City.

TAYLOR: Yes, it is the law in Salt Lake City and every other city in Utah that I know of, at least.

RICE: Everybody has to have some green grass in their front yard.

TAYLOR: Well, everyone to be in compliance should, yes.

RICE: A quick look into Salt Lake City legal history revealed that probably the first example of civically mandated grass planning was the grass on the roads during the days of the first settlers. Grass served to hold the soil together so wagons and oxen wouldn't get bogged down in the mud on the rare occasions when it did rain. Later, grass became more fashionable and moved from the street to the front yard.

(Sound of a wagon being pulled.)

RICE: The epitome of Utah's love affair with the lawn seems to be the estate of pioneer Mormon church leader Brigham Young. Today, people can tour the estate on covered wagons. I did this recently and I noticed that, sure enough, the yard has a nicely manicured lawn of Kentucky bluegrass. I could picture it: Brigham Young tending to the barbecue, one of his 55 wives bringing him a glass of cold lemonade as they smile happily in their green oasis in the desert. But it turn out that there was a dirty little secret beneath that grass. The tour guide didn't really like to talk about it, but I dragged it out of him.

GUIDE: The Historical Society, when you look at old pictures, you know, it's dirt and you've got weeds growing up here and shoots of grass here and there. That's about what it was.

RICE: It turns out that when it came to his lawn, Mr. Young was not with the program. This is a fact that the park seems to have gone to great lengths to conceal. No doubt they suspect that if people found out that the founder of the community himself did not have a lawn, it might unravel the very fabric of our current system of lawn law. And it got me wondering. Is there anybody out there now who is so far out on the fringe of society that they don't even have a front lawn? Are their lawn outlaws?

(A car door closes; a motor revs up.)

RICE: It was a long search, but sure enough, I began to find what I was looking for. The warm glow of cultural consensus was beginning to fade. Here, in a hillside residential area, was a house with, of all things, native flora, and not a blade of grass to be found anywhere. In short, illegal.

WOMAN: I just don't know how to respond.

RICE: This woman was understandably cautious when I told her about the law.

RICE: Consult your lawyer, perhaps?

WOMAN: Yeah, yeah, I better consult him first. (Laughs)

RICE: Another woman was proud to show me her yard.

WOMAN: I've got a lot of, like, natural landscaping. I've got pine trees and ground cover and fitzers and quaking aspen, and some...

RICE: Until I told her about the law and pointed out the dearth of grass in front of her house. The things people will say to weasel out of trouble!

WOMAN: We inherited these (laughs) this design. It was some reverend that owned our house before. (Laughs.) It was Reverend Johnson. (Laughs.) He moved away a long time ago. (Laughs.)

RICE: And then there was one case where I just wasn't sure what to think. As I passed by one yard bordering a busy street near the University District, I had a vague sense that something wasn't quite right. It was green, yes. But ... I walked up to it for a closer look.

(Sound of brick landing on cement)

RICE: The brick test clinched it. I checked with one of the tenants.

TENANT: We have a landlord who had a cement patch in front of his apartment building and he wanted it to look, I suppose, a little more homey. And so he had some friend of his come in and paint it green, to make it look like a lawn.

RICE: So I'm wondering, like, are you guys lawn outlaws?

TENANT: Well, I " I never really thought of it that way. It's sort of a romantic idea, really.

RICE: I asked him if, perhaps, by painting the front cement green, his landlord was making an ironic statement on the dominant paradigm. Maybe it was a coercive gesture. Or maybe it was just an attempt to fool the lawn police.

TENANT: It's a fake-out, is what I'd say. Because I think the first thing you said about being coercive, I think that's far beyond our landlord. So yeah, it's a fake-out. That's all it can be now that we know about the law. I'm glad to be in on it.

RICE: So if you've ever wondered why there are so many lawns in Utah, now you know. And if you're allergic to grass or you prefer the low maintenance of green cement, consider yourself warned. The lawn police could be out there.

(A lawn mower revs up.)

RICE: For Living on Earth, I'm Jeff Rice in Salt Lake City.

(A police siren is superimposed on the lawn mower.)



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