We humans consider our control of the planet to be so self-evident that we've never really given it another thought. I mean, we have by far the greatest impact on the overall environment, make the longest lasting monuments to our presence, and utilize every form of energy Earth has to offer. But in sheer acreage colonized, we get our butts handed to us. And not only handed to us, but driven relentlessly to assure the dominance of our real masters.
Admit it, we're slaves. Slaves to the family. The plant family Poaceae that is, the grasses. Think about it. What are the primary obstacles to the grass family's colonization of Earth? Forests? Steep slopes? Water? All of which we gladly bust our humps to help grass overcome. We cut down more forests and plant more cereal grasses every year. We terrace steep mountainsides to make grasses more comfortable. And we bring water to help them grow. Think about how much of Earth's land surface is covered in wheat, rice, corn, barley, oats, sorghum, millet - you name it, if there's a lot of it around it's probably a grass. Bamboo, the most useful plant on Earth, with more than 1500 recorded uses, is a grass. Hell, we even renamed our favorite flowering plant "grass," so as not to anger our masters.
My friend, Mark, committing treason against his master, contemplating how to exchange some of his grass for more useful...I mean stupid flowering...crops. Sorry.
Next, a Bit About Lawns
Ever consider just how much energy it takes to maintain a lawn? Nature maintains grasslands in 3 ways: 1) regular fire, 2) lack of water, 3) grazing pressure from hooved animals. Now your average suburban lawn owner is not terribly likely to maintain his prized monoculture with a regular burn regime. Which is probably for the best; I don't think the neighbors would be very keen on that. He's also just as unlikely to graze ungulates across the front yard, despite the obvious, and free, benefit of manure to fertilize, and pointed hooves to aerate, his plot. And he damn sure isn't letting his lawn dry out to avoid pulling those pesky maple seedlings.
But those maple seedlings aren't just there to annoy landscapers. That's nature's way of proceeding with ecosystem succession, and without the free environmental services Mother Nature offers for grassland maintenance, that considerable energy falls on the shoulders of the landscaper. Without fossil fuels the sheer comic folly of a lawn would come into focus pretty quickly, but with that magnificent energy subsidy, we humbly bow to our lords, and mow, water, fertilize, and remove competition. Anything else, your grace?
In ecological terms lawnscapes fall under one of two main categories: prairie or savannah. The archetypical prairie would look like an expanse of grass, perhaps bordered by a few flower beds. The garden-variety savannah would include a few trees. Probably not the most useful trees though, as that red maple provides shade in summer, lovely foliage in the fall, and some wildlife habitat, but no real contribution to self-reliance for the humans in the landscape. One can have their tree and eat it too.
Without those 3 ecosystem pressures I mentioned above, however, the energy required to maintain a prairie or savannah in the suburbs is immense. Nature's fecundity is relentless, pushing lawns to become pioneer shrublands, followed by primary forest, and eventually maturing into whatever the dominant local forested system might be. The lawnkeeper has to stop her. And stop her. And stop her again. Every time we mow, pull, and spray for weeds, we are in essence setting back the successional clock. And every time, like clockwork, Nature responds by sending out her army of maples, privet, dandelions, chicory, plantain, coinwort, and myriad others, bent on fixing the problem we've created. The imbalance in the system.
In the United States alone, our graminoid masters have hoodwinked us into the conversion of 50,000 square miles of (originally) old-growth forest into grassy landscapes. Sargeant St. Augustine, Captain Centipede, First Leiutenant Fescue, and more recently the Zoysia Czar, have whipped us and cajoled us into prostrate servitude. Literally. How many suburbanites can you find on their knees every weekend, wrenching dandelions out by their enormous (and terrifically useful) taproots, so that King Lawn can prosper? When you awaken from the Poacic Matrix, the vista will make you nauseous. For what do these lawns have to offer besides a popular cultural asthetic? There's no dog food out there, or cat food, or goldfish food, and certainly nothing a human could eat. We fill our homes with animals that require energy to maintain, including us, then turn right around and waste the very gift of land that could be used to maintain them.
Our masters have our complete attention. Their conquest of planet Earth is nearing completion. Maybe as individuals we can't fight effectively against the banks and corporations that seem to have a free pass to rape and destroy, but we can do something about the lawn out front. We can turn 50,000 square miles of toxic wasteland into productive horticultural space, and in the process take a significant burden off of our dying farmland. The header photo of my blog is a shot of my front yard in Spokane, WA, USA, 2009. We ate like royalty that summer, and paid for chiropractic care with produce. Now I'm not sure just how many layers of biosphere-destroying formal economy that removed from my family's footprint, but it was the most delicious civil disobedience I've ever engaged in!