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Fixation with Lawncare Has Short History

With the coming of Spring also comes - for those of us who have one - our annual encounter with --- the lawn.

In the early spring, we fertilize and weed the lawn - removing all those unsightly dandelions and the ever insidious crabgrass. Having urged the grass to grow, it proceeds to do just that. Then we can spend a goodly portion of our time for the rest of the summer cutting and watering it.

And all of this so that we will have a sward of green that will reflect well on us. Because - to many people - a lawn is nothing more than a sort of green mirror reflecting who we are - at least to the neighbors.

Washington Irving - the creator of Rip Van Winkle, Ichabod Crane and others - put it this way - and I quote "Society is like a lawn where every roughness is smoothed, every bramble eradicated, and where the eye is delighted by the smiling verdure of a velvet surface."

So as we sit on our porch and patio and admire our well-tended lawn, it is often tempting to think that we are following in a long and ancient tradition of lawn care.

And of course we would be wrong. The American lawn in its current form is a relatively recent invention.

When we look at an old picture of Statehouse Square in Columbus with its well-trimmed lawn, we might be inclined to think that the tradition of closely cut grass has been with us for a very long time.

But when we stop to consider that the lawnmower in any form did not really exist until well into the 1800's, we might wonder how that famous lawn was mowed.

And the answer is - it was either mowed by hand or mowed by mouth. For a number of years after Statehouse Square was surveyed in 1812, its grass - such as it was - was kept short by roving bands of cattle, sheep and other livestock. Any further trimming that was needed was done by hand with sickles and scythes. And for most people who wanted a lawn of any sort, this is the way it was maintained.

For that reason, lawns were usually the province of the wealthy and the powerful and came to be a symbol of same.

It is no accident that the first exclusive residential neighborhoods in Columbus were built near Statehouse Square and to the immediate east of town where the Blind and Deaf Schools were located. Their large and well-maintained grounds were really the equivalent of parks in a city that that did not have a public park until Lincoln Goodale gave the city one in 1851.

Over the years, lawns came to be identified with success in American life. So it should not be surprising that a new middle class - created by 20th century enterprise - and possessed of suburban space, ample water and a motorized lawnmower - should try to make their lawns attractive as well.

Thus was born the great postwar ritual of suburban America - On most pleasant Saturday mornings in America, half the population can be seen cutting its grass - while the other half is washing its cars.

In recent years, many people have become convinced that the immense amounts of effort given to America's lawns might be better applied elsewhere - to housing the homeless or feeding the hungry. Looking about me on any recent Saturday and watching America's homeowners start their engines, it would appear that the lawn is not in any danger of imminent demise.