Monday, July 21, 2008

Regulating "the general slovenliness of rural America"

While the satirical Obama cartoon got all the attention in this week's New Yorker, author Elizabeth Kolbert explored of the history lawns in America in the issue, as well as the accompanying regulation that enabled what was apparently a rapid shift in ornamental horticulture. While in the neighborhood in which I grew up the HOA was the reliable enforcer of all things lawn, the article discusses widely adopted "weed laws": municipal ordinances regulating the type and care required for front yards. Instead of being vaguely-worded upkeep laws, these ordinances are often fairly specific.

A recent case in Sacramento illustrates how: Anne Hartridge, apparently a fairly crunchy East Sacramentan, let her lawn die to do her part in the regional water shortage. She got a citation in the mail shortly after. Sacramento's municpal code requires front yards be landscaped and irrigated (and during which hours they may be irrigated). While Hartridge avoided a fine, it seems unclear whether her mulching compromise will suffice long-term. Others have been less fortunate: Kolbert noted that a seventy-year old woman in Utah was briefly incarcerated for her brown lawn.

The connection to the rural might have escaped me without Kolbert's discussion of the origin of the lawn phenomena. Apparently much of it went back to some mid-nineteenth century writings of Andrew Jackson Downing, a widely published horticulturalist. He was apparently quite concerned by "the general slovenliness of rural America, where pigs and poultry were allowed to roam free, 'bare and bald' houses were thrown up, and trees were planted haphazardly, if at all." (quoted by Kolbert). As Kolbert charted the evolution of the perception of the lawn from a luxurious distinction to everyman communitarian project, I found myself wondering to what degree the lawn has been about people's impressions, thoughts, and feelings about rural places and people.


Lisa R. Pruitt said...

Also of interest, I think, is the phenomenon of rural gentrification, which means that rural lawns are increasingly subject to HOA law regulations in rural developments/subdivisions. So, lots of rural residents are no longer free to let the pigs roam in their front yards, but I suppose the folks who buy into such developments aren't the type to do so anyway.

Anne said...

Along the lines of Prof. Pruitt's comment, I'd add a side note to the story about me posted here. Apparently the folks who lived in our house ten years ago kept chickens in the backyard.

Another little side note you might find interesting is the conversation I had with the city's code enforcement officer in which it was suggested that I could pave part of my yard rather than leave the brown grass apparent. "Cement" was her term of art, and when I wondered out loud how that could possibly be more esthetically pleasing than what I had, I was encouraged to wait for further written instruction, which never came.

-Anne Hartridge, a fairly crunchy, though not particularly slovenly, alum (and former ELS co-chair)