Prairie in Progress

In May of 1675 or so, Father Louis Hennepin set out with fur trapper and explorer Robert de La Salle to explore some of the vast western lands of New France. The expedition set off from Quebec to explore the Great Lakes, find a couple of pretty impressive waterfalls, and wind its way through a good portion of the Mississipi and Illinois Rivers, to see what it could see.

What the explorers saw was, according to Father Hennepin, mostly a lot of grass. He wove together some good stories of adventure as well, many of which have made him a little suspect as far as trustworthy historians go, but about the grass, he was absolutely right. There was a lot of it, and he was perhaps the first writer to refer to the middle of what would become the United States as “prairie.”

Depending on who you ask, the tall grasses of North America once covered anywhere from 142 to 200 million acres across what would become fourteen states, where it provided homes for abundant wildlife, occasionally caught fire, and swayed in the wind causing a fair few settlers to feel a little seasick. I realize there is a pretty wide gap between 142 and 200 million, but one thing we can pretty much all agree on is that there’s a lot less of it now.

Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

Roughly one third of my own Great State of Missouri used to be covered by prairie grass. Today, the state contains only about 1% of its original grassland, about 70,000 acres in total. Obviously, a lot of that is inevitable because the land got more densely settled and people built cities and suburbs filled with suburban houses that have suburban yards and suburban homeowners associations that don’t like tall grass.

Spring is firmly upon us here in Missouri which means so is lawn mowing season and unlike previous years, this one has found me doing a lot of back and forth and back and forth through my lawn, cutting down the very same plants I am attempting to grow. I have done this maybe four or five times so far this year. As of this moment I am the only one of my household to have completed this task.

That’s not because no one else in my household would willingly take on this job, but it’s because of an unfortunate set of circumstances that include the complicated timing of rainy weather, minor injuries and illnesses, busy activity and work schedules, and one fairly substantial grass allergy. In a normal year, I might mow the grass twice, because my husband actually loves to mow the yard, and is almost always the one to do it.

He’s also a lot stronger than I am and has a strange devotion to his old non-self-propelled push mower. It’s difficult to maneuver, at least for me, through our yard which is fairly large, oddly shaped, terribly uneven, and extremely hilly. Oh, and it also has some areas of really poor drainage. Mowing it is not fun. And it takes a long time. And I am, objectively, really bad at it.

I can’t say for sure that the fact that I don’t like to do it isn’t a factor in my ineptitude, but I am not intentionally bad at mowing. I do try to work in straight lines when I can and I even attempt perpendicular lines from one cutting to the next, but the lot includes curvy landscaping, and big trees, and garden boxes, and even a footbridge to nowhere. There’s a lot going on. In my head, my neighbors are watching out the windows snickering and shaking their heads at the number of times I go back over the same strip of grass for the third time and completely miss the one next to it.*

To my husband’s credit, he has not said a word about how poorly I mow the lawn, and really seems grateful that I have been doing it while he hasn’t yet been able to. If either of my sons were responsible for the sloppy work, I know he would have some thoughts to share. That’s probably why they are both better at it than I am.

But I assume he knows that he needn’t bother offering me constructive yard mowing criticism. I can see he is itching to take over the job again, and I am itching to let him. Because if that doesn’t happen soon, then I’m just going to put up a sign. I’m not sure the homeowners association will much like it, but the Great State of Missouri is fixing to regain a little more prairie. 

*My neighbors are all lovely people who probably have better things to do than snicker at my poor grass cutting skills. Though I’m sure they will also be relieved when the hubs is back on the job.

Get Off My Lawn!

On May 7, 1947 real estate lawyer Abraham Levitt, along with his two sons William and Alfred, announced a plan to build a community of middle class homes on Long Island. Responding to a growing urgency in the US for family housing after World War II and the corresponding baby boom, the Levitts built nearly identical slab homes just as fast as they could. By 1951, they had produced more than 17,000 houses in Levittown and surrounding areas.

The houses and nice lawns weren’t the only things that looked the same in Levittown. The building project also carried a legacy of racial discrimination for many years. By Gottscho-Schleisner Collection [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Each Levitt house came complete with a television, a well-manicured lawn, and plenty of rules to maintain the right sort of neighborhood vibe. People snapped up the houses as soon as they could be built. The project was so successful that in many ways it became a model for suburban housing developments all across the US.

And with them spread the idea of the Homeowners Association with all its various limitations on backyard chicken farms and exactly how long the stupid grass is allowed to be in order to maintain the look of turf lawn perfectionism. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you at this point, but man, I hate to mow.

We had a long, cold early spring here in the Midwestern US. If you know anyone from this corner of the world, I’m sure you heard about it. The weather was all anyone could talk about for a while. For weeks, I couldn’t go to the grocery store without a stranger stopping me to discuss the cold. I even blogged about how March was throwing a toddler-worthy tantrum.

weather meme
Actually the worst part may have been the steady stream of weather memes. So. Many. Memes.

I hate to be one of those people who is never happy, no matter what the weather does, but frankly now that our nice warm spring is finally here, with stunning blossoms, and the constant drone of suburban lawn care, I kind of wonder what we were all complaining about.

The Levitts certainly weren’t the first people to ever have grass lawns. Researchers point to the need for our ancestors on the savannah and later tucked inside medieval European castles to be able to see oncoming threats. Like lions. And invading armies. And door-to-door missionaries.

Medieval lawn care service. Or the black plague. It was hard to tell. Image via Pixabay

But for a long time, personal lawn space was a luxury unavailable to other than the wealthiest individuals, who could afford to hire an army of scythe-wielding caretakers, didn’t need to dedicate every available patch of land to growing food, and had time to play lawn darts.

But now we have lawn mowers, grocery stores with shelves full of Doritos, plenty of time for lawn darts, and persnickety homeowners associations that make those of us in suburbia promise not to hang our laundry out to dry in the sun, raise chickens in our back yards, or let our grass grow three feet high.

How people used to mow their lawns. Also against the rules of my HOA. credit: Tambako the Jaguar Grazing Highland cows via photopin (license)

Most of the time, I don’t mind. Even though I’d like to know I have freedom to do so, I don’t really want to raise live chickens. And if I’m being perfectly honest, my husband does most of the mowing because for some reason he finds it kind of enjoyable. When he’s too busy or when this crazy beautiful weather we’re finally having leaves us with jungle grass every other day, I grumble and step up to keep the HOA off my back. These are tradeoffs I’m willing to make at this point in my life for good schools and quick access to city amenities.

Someday perhaps I’ll move further away from the city where I can dry my laundry on a clothesline in the sun and raise as many chickens as I want (still probably zero, but the freedom is the thing). Then I suppose I won’t have anything to complain about. Except for the tract-wielding missionaries that snuck up on me through the waving prairie grass. And of course the weather. I’ll always be able to complain about that.