APRIL 15, 2004
I saw the first dandelion in my lawn yesterday, and today two advertisements for lawn care companies arrived in my mail-box. Call it a coincidence, but for many in America, such a conjunction of signs would be the trigger of a largely unconscious religious crisis.
Lawncare is big business in America. Estimates of the amount spent on professional lawn care services vary, but a recent Harris Survey put the total at $28.9 billion in 2002, which calculates to roughly $1,200 per household, spread over the 24.7 million households who use such services.
And that doesn't take into account the products consumers purchase for do-it-yourself devotion to the righteous icon of the American lawn. According to a 2002 article by Craig Wilson in USA Today, there are roughly 30 million acres of these little shrines to uniformity across the U.S. Their care demands 300 million gallons of gas per year, 70 million pounds of pesticides, and roughly one billion hours in labor.
All in all, something must be motivating so many in America to devote themselves to a blessed rage for order that may have bad implications for our public life together.
Most notably -- pesticides and herbicides kill things. Take dandelions, for example. The impact of lawn care chemicals on humans and domestic animals is open to debate, but most children find dandelions pretty, and they are (in fact) a food source. What happens to make adults want to kill them?
Virginia Scott Jenkins, in her wonderfully researched The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession, traces the desire to kill weeds historically. She notes that the current rage for a chemically-dependent lawn emerged after World War II, and argues that "American front lawns are a symbol of man's control of, or superiority over, his environment."
Such a symbol is, by the definition of a lawn, a public one. Is it also religious? One of the ads I received was on four-by-ten inch card stock. It featured a long picture of a green hedge with a man staring over it with the words "TRU envy" next to him. On the flip-side of the card, it encouraged me to call the company "now for a greener lawn. Your neighbors will notice." Then, in smaller print, it continued: "You can enjoy a lawn your neighbors will envy."
Now, call me old-fashioned, but I thought envy was a sin? And I'm supposed to inspire it in my neighbors? I suppose a way to put the best construction on this ad would be to say that it appeals to my pride: that in the eyes of my neighbors I will appear noble, good, and pure for the greenness and uniformity of my lawn.
Or maybe the ad appeals to my fear and shame: that my neighbors won't love me if I grow a motley lawn. And isn't that a dangerous facet of many religions? Believers have their identity defined for them over and against some other, who is defined as a threat and to whom they must demonstrate their superiority -- even to the point of sacrifice and killing -- to display that their faith is real and true.
Even more pointedly, isn't that the way much of public religion works in America? We seem somehow uncertain of our salvation, so we seek enemies to conquer and control, and we seem driven constantly to display our power for others to see. Can there be a connection between the way we treat dandelions and the way we treat our neighbors? The way we treat the poor and sick and suffering of the world?
Honestly, I hope not. And the structures are in place for people to make wiser spiritual choices: to devote ourselves to places of grace that are not constructed for us by corporate products. That is the beauty of the lively experiment that is protected by the First Amendment.
But, at present, that $28.9 billion we're spending seems to be leading us directly into the temptation to kill things with poison, to try to control the uncontrollable, and to desire to be the envy of our neighbors. Not much seems "tru" about that.
Jon Pahl teaches American Religious History at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. He explores the lawn as icon more fully in Shopping Malls and Other Sacred Spaces: Putting God in Place (Brazos Press, 2003).