Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Taming Nature: Idiots 5, Flora and Fauna 0

I stepped outside last night, as I often do, around 8. This is Magic Time: The temperature cools, a choreography of color and light make a spectacle of the sky, and a Surround Sound of birds orchestrate the moment.

But not last night. Last night, birds could be heard though not in Surround Sound. Same goes for this morning.

It’s not that the birds aren’t singing. They’re simply not here. Or there, for that matter.

I started to write about this yesterday as events unfolded, except I was too angry. Today I’m still angry, but also mournful.

Stranger In A Strange Land – No. 19
Lawns could have been the subject of my very first Stranger In A Strange Land installment, yet I held off thinking I was being too judgmental. Now I know better. If the “Angry Birds” game replaced the pigs with landlords and Lexingtonians*, I’d probably play.

As a gardener in the Windy City who long battled tall buildings and their consequent shade, who had to settle for blossoms of white rather than the riotous color potential of sun-drenched spaces, I had really looked forward to being in a new hardiness zone where birds and butterflies would be plentiful.

However, upon arrival to the Horse Capital of the World, I was disappointed by the ratio of sun to flowers. The city seemed to me nothing but yard upon yard of monotonous yard punctuated by boxwood. Folks here prefer grass to all other flora. Any semblance of a garden is generally the very ordered and formal kind. In a region blessed with ample amounts of rain and sun, grass is the predominant plant.

Arguably, carpets of grass provide jobs: This city has an untold number of lawn-care services (my favorite name is Miss Mow It All). On the other hand, carpets of grass also provide environmental nightmares: Up to 5 percent of America’s air pollution each year stems from lawn mowers that use 800 million gallons of gas.** (I’ve considered getting a couple of sheep and starting my own lawn-care business.) Factor in the chemicals that are harmful to animals and children and the ridiculous amount of water needed to maintain those lush green lawns and it starts adding up to disaster.

Perfect lawns can’t sustain the kinds of complex ecosystems that trees and bushes and flowers sustain. They give no shade, no cover from weather, no protection from predators, little food, and they don’t play a role in pollination or supporting the migratory paths of birds and butterflies.

When pioneers first crossed the mountains into the region now known as Kentucky, they called it “God’s country.” It was fertile and rich in woodlands; it was heavenly. So why divest it of everything but grass?

“A lawn is nature under totalitarian rule.”
—Michael Pollan

Frankly, I believe it has something to do with maintenance. If all you have is a straight shot of grass, it’s easy to take care of—a few back-and-forths on the old lawn mower and you’re done. Bushes require pruning and shaping, flowers require cutting and separating, trees have to be monitored for dead branches and disease.

In fact, I’ve noticed a trend here this summer. The folks who have bushes in need of trimming have simply cut the bushes down to the ground or removed them altogether. This is exactly what happened yesterday.

I kept hearing power tools all day, but couldn’t figure out why until I stepped out our back door. The owner of the apartment building next to us was having all the bushes and trees cut down from the back of his/her property. This is where I’d been watching and listening to scores of birds from our backyard (as I’ve written previously, our landlord already stripped this property of its only tree and the bushes in the back). The devastation made me sick. And disgusted. (Now we can clearly see the hideous apartment building behind us.) Then it got worse.

Two bushes at the end of our front walk had become so overgrown that you could no longer walk between them or use the sidewalk; you had to go around them. With one set of manual clippers, I could have fixed the situation. But NO! The landlord ordered the yard guys to REMOVE the bushes. What’s more, our “neighbor” on the other side cut down all but one of his property’s stand of mature trees we had enjoyed seeing from our apartment.

I realize this may not seem so bad to you. Three properties, several trees, a bunch of bushes—not a big deal in the grander scheme of things. Yet there’s an IMMEDIATE difference in birdsong, which means there will be a difference in bird population here . There’s no more cover for the baby birds I’ve been watching—from finches to crows—as they received life lessons from their mothers. There’s no perch for flying passersby. There are no flowering plants for bees and butterflies—no honeysuckle or trumpet vines or lilacs or holly. All gone.

I doubt any of this crossed the minds of the property owners. I doubt it even matters to them. So this goes beyond a mere difference in aesthetics, which is easy enough to acclimate to. It’s a difference in mindset and sense of stewardship. It’s an uncomfortable difference that changes how I feel about these people and this place, that separates me further from any notion of fitting in. I just have to decide what’s next.

* Thankfully, the few people I’ve befriended since moving here share my gardening aesthetics and concerns.
** Stats are from the EPA.

This is part of an ongoing series regarding my transition from the Land of Lincoln to the Bluegrass State. For a list of previous articles in the series, just select Stranger in a Strange Land from the right of Lull, under “Choose a topic that interests you.”

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