Session 2

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1 Hong Jung 11/17/2011 Session 2 Paper The American Lawn: Beyond the Spontaneity There aren’t many things that seem as natural and self-explanatory as the American lawn. This spontaneity of lawn keeping creates the impression that it is done through a cultural choice. In a historical sense, this is true; maintaining a lawn has come to symbolize the responsible and civilized American citizen. But Paul Robbins, in his book, Lawn People, argues that such a short explanation may not include the who
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  1 Hong Jung11/17/2011Session 2 PaperThe American Lawn: Beyond the Spontaneity There aren’t many things that seem as natural and self  -explanatory as the Americanlawn. This spontaneity of lawn keeping creates the impression that it is done through acultural choice. In a historical sense, this is true; maintaining a lawn has come to symbolizethe responsible and civilized American citizen. But Paul Robbins, in his book, Lawn People ,argues that such a short explanation may not include the whole story. Complexity is addedwhen the historical, moral, and economic contexts surrounding the American lawn areanalyzed. Through such analysis, Robbins makes it clear that the relationship between the lawn and the American culture isn’t simply that the lawn is a volitional product of American culture, but more specifically they are part a web of influences that mutuallyaffect and construct each other.Robbins argues that, historically, the modern American lawn has been arepresentation of particular ideologies and hence cultures, but it also played a role inconstructing them. In Lawn People , Robbins refers to the 19 th century era when AndrewJackson Downing first began to advocate the cleanly cut turf grass yards for the “urbanagrarian gentry,” or the emerging middle class (32). In his vision, the uniformity of the lawnwould not only beautify the landscape, but also unite this class of people under a sense of community. A similar mission was taken on by Fredrick Law Olmsted, who was anothercelebrated landscape designer. Although their intentions were to create a form of expression for a particular class of citizens though the turf lawns, they also served to  produce such citizens in the process. Olmsted also sought to popularize the vast and  2 uniform image of the lawn, frozen in its peak green condition. By naturalizing these landscapes in such a way, Olmsted made them “appear inevitable , timeless, and appropriate” ( 28). Thus the lawn presents its pristine, intensively maintained image as itssrcinal and natural state that it has always possessed. From these examples, it is clear that from a historical perspective, the lawn appears to be a cultural expression preciselybecause it was designed from the beginning to create the cultural values it expresses whilehaving its unnatural srcin veiled.As a result, the present lawn continues to express the moral character outlinedabove, where residents must think about the community before the individual. In LawnPeople , Robbins interviews a group of upper middle class residents living in KingberryCourt, a Midwestern suburb. He argues that in such typical neighborhoods, well maintainedlawns give a sense of dignified status. Aware of this appearance, individual members of thecommunity are hesitant to keep their lawns less than perfect. One of them, a man namedPatrick, explains his lawn chemical use as something he did to meet the expectations of his neighbors: “I know that this neighborhood has a certain status. A certain look. I surelywouldn’t want    to ruin it for anybody…I want to do   just enough work to fit in” ( 111). It isapparent that Patrick is personally ambivalent about having a perfect lawn, but he worriesabout how that would look on the community as a whole and how his neighbors would takeit. In addition to stature, another collective value in their community was property value. In Robbins’s case study, the residents showed extensive awareness of their neighbors and of unkempt lawns for it decreased the community’s overall economic value. W alter, a resident of the Court, described his experience when his yard was damaged from over- treatment: “If something happens to your yard, the neighbors are on you. That’s the reason I changed  3 from [this lawn care company]. When they killed my yard and it went absolutely dead, Iwas ostracized around here. People wanted to know, what the hell are you doing? You aredec reasing our property values!” ( 112). Thus, Robbins concludes that the decision toupkeep a lawn for moral expression is heavily affected by living in a community. Though it can be solely be an expression of the American moral character, that can hardly be saidwhen the acute cognizance of the community plays such an influential role.A similar mutual influence can be seen in terms of economics in the modern turf lawn. The maintenance of a lawn can seem like an individual choice free of influencebecause the lawn unanimously represents a moral American citizen. Thus investing in alawn is investing to express oneself as a model member of the community. But Robbinsargues that there are underlying economic incentives that influence the lawn people. Forone thing, the agricultural chemical industry is in a crisis. To increase sales, the industry has changed their “push” tactic to a “pull” tactic. While the “push” tactic focused on pushingtheir products on to the customers, the essence of “pull” strategy “…concentrates on creating demand at the customer level. Rather than relying on a retailer to sell a specificbrand, the formulator presents its products directly to the consumer using carefully crafted imagery”( 91). Pull tactic would heavily invest in direct advertising and marketing byrepresenting the luscious lawn as a space for innocent family engagement (93). Thus thechemical companies draw customers to them by advertising the ideal family culture madepossible with the ideal lawn. This method creates desire for their products under the guiseof choice, which is why it can seem so cultural and innate. According to Robbins, theincentive to create the ideal lawn is not a choice formed from culture, for the ideal isconjured by outside forces, which in this case is the chemical industry. With a broader  4 understanding of the economic context, the creation of lawns is inexplicable of the far reaching economic incentives and is never just an “expression” of American culture. From these analyses made by Robbins, it is clear that the act of maintaining thegrassy lawns was never done just for cultural expression; many outside influences haveaffected it. The inverse is also true; the act of maintaining them supported those outsideinfluences. Historically, the lawn was manipulated to express a certain class of citizenship,while creating it. In communities, the lawn imposes groupthink moral pressures upon theresidents to maintain it. And in economic contexts, the lawn industry creates the desire inconsumers to upkeep a perfect lawn. In addition, the historical, social, and economicinfluences are mutually inclusive of each other, not just the lawn. The resultant picture isno longer that a certain culture produces lawns; rather, the lawn is at the center of a web of circular influences that direct the lawn people toward the perfect grassy yard. As Robbins puts: “... the lawn was as much a vehicle for the creation and maintenance of social systemsas it was a product of those systems” ( 32). In my opinion, the very appearance of the lawnsas a spontaneous cultural phenomenon owes itself to this network of influences. Because so many comp onents influence each other, one can liken it to Indra’s net; there cannot be made a clear distinction between what strictly causes what since everything is partially causingeverything else, including itself. This twister of logic creates the illusion of self-justification, as if the upkeep of lawn had been always natural, always moral, and always desirable.
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