Last month, as I paddled my surfboard toward an oceanfront house in Point Judith to exit the water I saw a drain pipe running into the ocean, emitting a steady stream of water. A drainage ditch on the road was just below a tiny sign that said “Lawn Chemicals Applied”. This is a common sight, of course, but it was so easy in this moment to make the connection between the ocean, the drainage pipe, and the sign: It is possible that I had just swum through lawn chemicals!
According to Environment and Health, Inc., an organization devoted to protecting public health, popular “weed and seed” formulations like Scott’s Turf Builder often include 2, 4-D, Diazinon, Mecoprop-p, and Dicamba; research has linked these chemicals with neurotoxicity, birth defects, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and nervous system, kidney, liver and eye damage. It is important to ask where these chemicals go when they’re done killing plants on the lawn. Are they tracked into our houses? Do they run off into our drinking water? Do our children and pets play in them? Several times per year lawns public and private may become hazardous to our health when lawn chemicals are used to kill weeds. Are the risks to our health and environment worth it?
When I see white or red clover I think of a pretty, pleasant-smelling source of bee food and soil-building nitrogen-fixation. Likewise, bright yellow dandelions are a harbinger of spring, indicating the soil’s warm enough to plant potatoes; kids also love to pick the soft seed pods. In “The Chemical Free Lawn,” published by Rodale Press, it is noted that clover used to be “a sign of prestige” and was common in front lawns until the 1950s when a chemical company “launched a public relations campaign disparaging clover […] and this same company introduced a chemical to kill clover.” Thus, consumers were encouraged to wage herbicidal war on plants that were seen as threats to their yards.
In “The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession,” Virginia Jenkins argues that lawns are synonymous with American suburbs. The aesthetic of good taste, borrowed from English and French aristocratic landscapes, was broadcast through commercial mass culture. Advertisers fueled the chemical lawn industry’s sale of lawn management products like mowers and herbicides to new homeowners. Lawns are big business in America and have obscured many people’s ability to imagine a landscape other than the mass-marketed green carpet.
There is hope for letting nature flourish, however, and it begins with noticing what’s missing, like Rachel Carson did with “Silent Spring” when she raised awareness about the harmful effects of DDT.
Jose Amador, professor of soil science at the University of Rhode Island, insists that “Beneath the soil surface there exists a whole universe of microbes”, and that most people are unaware of how herbicides like Roundup and 2, 4-D (a cousin to Agent Orange), and inorganic fertilizers, impact the soil. Instead, he surmises that a cultural aesthetic of “good housekeeping” drives people’s relationship to their land. To give his students a broader perspective on land use, he has taken them to Old Sturbridge Village, where they can see how a household might have used its soil around 1835. Even in areas that were not planted with crops, he says that people saw their land as a source of utility, growing dyes, herbs and wildflowers.
There are wonderful examples of wildflower gardens throughout Southern New England, including at the University of Rhode Island, where a sign informs passersby that it’s not neglect, it’s a sustainable and beautiful alternative to energy-intensive landscaping. Here one might see small pink blooms of Daisy Fleabane and brilliant blue Bachelor’s Buttons. Milkweed, the only plant eaten by caterpillars before they turn into Monarch butterflies, perfumes the humid July air. Various types of Goldenrod explode in yellow exuberance from July through October. Stately white blooms of Queen Anne’s Lace, shiny yellow Common Buttercup and tall, red seedpods of Curly Dock (a relative of Buckwheat) are weeds to many homeowners, but they’re also a subtle source of food and habitat to multitudes of birds, bees, and butterflies.
Curiosity and careful observation are keys to appreciating the complex systems involved in fostering a holistically healthy landscape. The next time you’re enjoying a meadow, forest or wetland, consider the fact that no trucks come around to apply chemicals to them, and ask yourself why.
Much of the work devoted to controlling our yards is unnecessary, or at least could be scaled down, resulting in less noise, more birds and pollinators, and fewer synthetic chemicals. Perhaps people could do an experiment. Whether big or small, try leaving a small portion of the yard “wild.” How do the plants change as spring turns to summer, and summer to fall? Which plants produce seeds? Which plants do wildlife prefer? Instead of a leaf blower try a rake; it is good exercise and less noisy. If you hire a landscaper, ask some questions about what chemicals, if any, are used on your lawn; avoid synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides whenever possible. Let nature be your guide and teacher.