The Green Thumb: Don’t Mow Your Lawn
by Donna Schoenkopf
There were two things Carole told us that made a deep impression on me about the summer in 1987 when she went to the Soviet Union and walked from Leningrad to Moscow in the Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament: Russian men and women and children coming out of their homes and lining the little streets in order to greet their American friends, offering sweets and hugs along the way, and the waist-high unmowed grass.
“Yes. The Soviet Union has summer, of course,” I thought. I saw wild greenness replacing my image of a frozen country full of people with heavy coats and fur hats, and I realized that the glory of tall, green grass wasn’t something a person would want to cut down after such a long and bleak winter. It was totally understandable why those yards were full of summery grass.
That was the first time it had ever occurred to me that people did not have to mow their lawns.
Our American culture has its own rules and regulations and one of them is that you must mow your lawn. To not mow your lawn is a sign of laziness and/or is seen as contempt for social mores, and consequently a general low-life (or crazy) label is slapped on the offender’s forehead. And worse, if you don’t mow, you lower the real estate value for the whole neighborhood. That is hitting your neighbors in their pocketbook, and that is serious. So the whole issue of mowing is not an inconsequential one.
Luckily, I live in the country, so nobody has to see my wild piece of land, the neighbors believe in the “live and let live” philosophy, and I can do what I damn well feel like doing.
And what I feel like doing is notmowing. Besides laziness, my reason for not mowing is ... are you ready? To save the planet. And I’m not kidding.
As you know, we’ve had a horrible drought/heat wave here in Oklahoma since June. The drought seems to have abated—temperatures are lower and very sweet rain has drenched all living things here at Chigger Lake, not once but twice this past week. But ominous news comes from the weatherman about La Niña setting the Midwest up for a warm, dry winter, and it makes me fearful for the future and glad that I haven’t mowed all summer.
Don’t laugh: not mowing is my contribution to saving the world. Not mowing preserves the moisture in the ground and air and creates microclimates that allow all kinds of plant and animal life to exist. You should see how cleverly small plants thrive beneath larger plants and how shade-loving plants nestle under sun-loving ones. I see tiny worlds beneath and between the bigger plants that tower over them, kind of like the tiny people on the dust mote called Whoville in Dr. Seuss’s book Horton Hears a Who. These little communities of life are graceful and gorgeous and unnoticed by us large, lumbering folk, but the creatures who live among the grasses and dig into the dirt and climb up the stalks know them well. Levels and levels of existence would have been wiped out with a single pass of my lawnmower.
I see my wild and overgrown yard as something akin to the Amazonian jungle. Or the Northwest redwood forests. Or Central Africa. Or the rainy side of the Big Island of Hawaii. These are among the places that are the lungs of our world. The large, uncivilized swath of vegetation of our planet’s rainforests produces 40% of the world’s oxygen and metabolizes about one ton of carbon dioxide in two acres of forest.
But our forests are disappearing at the rate of one and a half acres per second. Rainforests used to cover 14% of our planet’s surface and it’s down to 6%—with their complete devastation, by some estimates, in 40 years. The Amazonian rainforest is being destroyed at the rate of an area the size of Rhode Island every week. The hardwood forests of Southeast Asia are being cut down for lumber and chopsticks, for crying out loud. Myanmar has lost about 18% of its forest since 1990, and huge swaths of African rain forests have been burnt to plant African grasses for pasturing cattle.
Here is something else to alarm you: It is estimated that 137 species of plants and animals a day are eliminated in the Amazonian rainforest, resulting in 50,000 species a year gone. Gone! And that means your lives are affected, dearies, because all kinds of medical breakthroughs, such as cancer treatments, heart disease medication—in fact 25% of all medications—come from plants in those forests.
For years I’ve struggled with the fearsomeness of human devastation of the earth. Being in the city of Los Angeles for so long, seeing the blanket of toxic air hanging above us, watching my students struggling with asthma, crawling along in the dense traffic and thinking of the tons and tons of emissions emanating from the tail pipes of the cars all around me, seeing the Styrofoam and plastic bags floating in the ocean and washed onto the beaches of Southern California, feeling the heat rising from the asphalt of the school’s playground and the streets all around it, all made me WANT TO DO SOMETHING about it. I could not stand it anymore. I could not stand by and watch the world go crazy in poisoning itself. So when it came time for me to retire I thought and thought and decided I wanted to buy a piece of pretty, untouched land and keep it that way.
Masanobu Fukuoka was a student in Japan before WWII and studied microbiology and agricultural science. When he was in his twenties he had some sort of spiritual awakening, or breakdown, or something. As he tells it, he suddenly realized that human endeavor was futile against the enormity of the universe and that the best method of farming was to get as close as you could to the natural way of doing things.
This led him to the practice of Natural Farming. He invented it. He’s the one who prescribed a no weeding, no plowing, no chemical fertilizers or pesticides regimen. He’s the person who started modern organic farming. Good old Masanobu Fukuoka.
He began to specialize in stopping and reversing desertification. He went all over the world teaching what he knew. I won’t go on and on about the organizations, nations, and people who recognize him as a person who has the knowledge to reverse a dangerous planetary trend, but he has awakened the world (at least some parts of it) to the dangers of unthinking “progress” and the truth of natural processes.
Desertification. The word causes terrible angst in me. I see the possible future of our world as a dry and desolate planet, devoid of life, if we don’t change our ways. I see desertification happening today in my little forest of oaks and ash and redbuds, which is dying because of the heat and drought of this past summer.
Overgrazing is one of the primary reasons for erosion and loss of topsoil. It’s happening all over the planet. Here in Oklahoma there is practically no grass left for the cattle to eat because of the drought, so ranchers are bringing their mother cows to slaughter before their time. It surely does sound like Oklahoma during the 1930s, the era of the Dust Bowl. Anybody see the huge dust storms in Arizona this past year? If you put photographs of the Oklahoma dust storms of the 1930s alongside those in Arizona, you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart.
Deserts are growing. But it is so easy to stop their growth. If you plant something and let it grow into its genetically predestined life, desertification stops. The roots of those plants hold the soil down with their little fingers and the leaves and stalks and trunks of those plants capture the moisture from the air and the earth. If you don’t mow, those plants will go to seed and plant themselves. All naturally.
Aren’t life cycles amazing?
Pruning is a type of mowing, too, but for trees. Masanobu Fukuoka knew that pruning made trees vulnerable to invading insects. I’m wondering if that’s what happened to my cottonwood. (I shall not go into how or why the cottonwood was pruned. But I will never do that again.)
And Masanobu says to let weeds grow. They are the homes (and food) for all the little critters who live in Whoville. Not mowing the lawn or pruning the trees or weeding means wildness. Naturalness. Life.
Today animal life is thriving at Chigger Lake. It’s because, I am convinced, I have a large, lush lawn that has not been mowed. All creatures, large and small, are attracted to my “yard” because it is an oasis in the middle of a drought-stricken land. There are so many critters here that I feel like I’m living in a wildlife preserve—a little patch of green, wet, happy land. My citified brain sometimes gets freaked out at the various kinds of reptiles, insects, and mammals that live here, especially when I come across some wild creature unexpectedly, but I shake myself, give myself a talking to, and settle into being really happy that I have saved their habitat and that we coexist.
It’s been a summer of wildness and naturalness and growth and health. All the grass is tall and bursting with seeds. It is sowing itself all over the hill I live on. The tree seedlings have sprouted and will be part of the Lungs of the Earth. The wildflowers have spread themselves everywhere and planted their seeds. I look out at everything and imagine that it’s close to the way Nature would have done it Herself.
But, as the Bible says, “There is a season for all things,” and it is the end of summer and it’s okay to mow now. I will soon have my dear human friends, The Cell, coming to my house here at Chigger Lake. I am mowing the grass so that the snakes and the ticks and all manner of other things won’t bother them. We shall have a long and langorous day of eating and drinking and talking on top of the hill under the cottonwood tree, which will shade us for the last time. It’s almost completely dead now, so at the end of our day we will cut it down and lay it on the ground, for a bench. Just like the Giving Tree.
Hey, Masanobu. Not perfect, but not so bad, eh?