IF YOU’VE EVER FOUND YOURSELF WANDERING THROUGH ANY OF AMERICA'S ENDLESS SUBURBS, you’ve likely had a close encounter with poa pratensis. Poa pratensis is a pervasive perennial that occupies as much as 128,000 square kilometres of land in the lower 48 alone. It’s an invasive species, whose presence in wild spaces like the Canadian grasslands often serve as signs of environmental downfall. It’s also known as Kentucky bluegrass, which is largely a situational misnomer. Poa pratensis is not native to Kentucky, and it is nearly always seen green, not blue. Poa pratensis can grow up to 20 centimetres, although you’ll rarely see it that tall. That’s because you probably know poa pratensis by a much more household name. After all, poa pratensis—Kentucky bluegrass—is the stuff of lawns.

Lawns are intensely peculiar precisely because of how boring they appear to be. After all, it’s hard to give much attention to something that we have been told is an irrelevant consequence of suburban development. American culture has immortalised lawns to such an extent that you’ll only notice them when they’re not there, or if someone has left theirs in poor, uncaring neglect. Of course, it is behind the guise of irrelevant things that the important things usually hide. So then, what unspeakable secrets hide in the bluegrasses of Kentucky?

For one thing, the secrets of lawns are hardly secrets at all—it’s just that nobody ever bothers to look. According to the EPA, nearly one-third of all residential water use in the United States is spent on landscape irrigation alone; that’s a sum of about 9 billion gallons per day. Lawnmowers, too, guzzle hundreds of millions of gallons of gas, and that’s assuming they’re operated correctly. Lawn maintenance-related gas spills from across America add up to more than 17 million gallons per year—more than was spilt off the coast of Alaska by the 1989 Exxon Valdez. Chemical pesticides and fertiliser use further contribute to further damages, which manifest their corporeal forms in health risks, emissions, runoff, and contamination.

And what for? A well-manicured lawn is suitable perhaps as eye candy, and maybe as the occasional site for a match of soccer, or possibly even a game of tag. That aside, they don’t do much else. Lawns are practically just distilled irony. They’re the most artificial that nature can be, controlled by humans to be so pretty and clean through processes that continue to set the wild ablaze. There is nothing more ironic than how we dump so much water, only to burn so much more gas, so that we may scavenge for what water there is left in order to give ourselves a reason to rev our lawnmowers one more time.

Yet, there is one thing that lawns do particularly well. In all its idle green glory, poa pratensis is an excellent symbol. We’ve seen that much already. But more specifically, lawns excel as a status symbol. It’s a cultural symbol, an ornament of the American dream. It’s a way of telling the world that I am rich, that I have the wealth to maintain a field which does not produce, a lawn that does nothing but look good.

The joke, of course, is that the American lawn is not native to America. Kentucky bluegrass is native to much of northern Eurasia, a place most notably known for not being America. It wouldn’t be until the Spanish Empire brought the grass to the American continent in the 1400s that Kentucky would finally have its invasive bluegrass. Even then, the idea of the lawn would not exist for another three centuries. It wasn’t until Founding Father Thomas Jefferson brought the aristocratic mannerisms of lawn care overseas to his estate in Monticello that the first American lawn would be born.

Etymologically, the word lawn originates from the English dialect laude—meaning “pasture” or “glade”—which itself was derived from the Old French word launde, meaning “wooded district.” The word originally intended fields or pastures used for animal grazing. By the 17th century, however, landowners in England had devised a new definition for the lawn. The lawn, distinguished from field and pasture, was a patch of well-kept land that served no functional purpose. As you might expect, the lawn was a luxury exclusive for the wealthy and affluent. Prior to industry, to keep any field well-manicured required a ridiculous amount of human labour.

I think that America’s obsession with its lawns is largely a product of its history. The lawn is useless, and it is its uselessness in history that makes it the perfect status symbol. If you had the time, the space, and the money to afford a lawn, it made sense that others would view you so highly. Naturally, the lawn intertwined with the other growing idea in American culture—the American Dream—to become a status symbol. There is a lawn in front of every American home, because America says that to be middle class, you must have a home, and that every homeowner must also be the proud caretaker of a small patch of Kentucky bluegrass.

The unusual fact about lawns is that, like pretty much everything else in modern society, we have accepted lawns as normal. The truth is that nothing about lawns is “normal” in the same way that nothing about driving a car is “normal” and that nothing about watching a stock line go up is “normal.” We accept that in every suburb, there will be lawns, in the same way that we accept that there will be suburbs and that there will be roads to those suburbs and that there will be jobs to pay for those lawns and suburbs and roads and that those jobs will give us meaning because really, what else will?

I believe that you can learn a lot about humanity by looking at the ways that we carry ourselves. In the case of lawns, it is fascinating how far we humans are willing to go—whether that be in resources, time, or space—in order to maintain a semblance of status and order. Maybe that’s what lawns are really about; a futile attempt to hold onto a semblance of order in a disorderly world. Even as climate change scorches our Earth and chars our forests, melts our glaciers and decimates our species—even as political strifes and inequities and our collective inability to act drags our world closer to an edge. Even as we pretend that all is well, that all is well, that all is well.

Poa pratensis is neutral, but the way we use it is not. Kentucky bluegrass, too, is ironic, but only in the way that humans have made it so. Perhaps we find comfort in knowing that we can always just mow the lawn, turn on the sprinkler, and know that, if only just for now, we still have control over this little orderly patch of the world.

All 128,000 square kilometres of it.

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