99% Invisible | Podcast Review | August 18, 2015 | By

99% Invisible #177: Lawn Order

Puns, Lawns, and the Fate of Civilization


Puns abound on 99% Invisible. Last week, I played along through the tangential-at-best 007-themed introduction to architext Ernő Goldfinger. This week, too, I indulged Roman‘s re-imagining of the Law & Order theme (find it at 0:23 seconds):

In communities across America, lawns that are brown or overgrown are considered especially heinous. Elite squads of dedicated individuals have been deputized by their local governments or homeowners’ associations to take action against those whose lawns fail to meet community standards. Call them—lawn enforcement agents.

Groan-worthy? Sure, but the silly conceit helps with levity as the show moves briefly into some darker topics that—if presented differently—might be too grave to fit the show’s generally light tone. Framed by the goofy opening, Roman and producer Sam Greenspan signal that the impending serious moment (here, an anecdote about an elderly man who served jail time for an under-maintained lawn) won’t define the episode.

The show moves quickly from there into a discussion with Paul Robbins, author of Lawn People: How Grasses, Weeds, and Chemicals Make Us Who We Are. It’s in this segment that the episode makes its case—namely, that the lawn is a “designed object,” and is, in truth, about everything except the grass. I’ll let Robbins speak for himself here:

“It’s about everything else. It is about community. It is about proper moral behavior. It is about participating in the life of a community.” (4:55)

The lawn, apparently, is an invention of Italian pastoral art.  Like centaurs and fat, winged babies, the lawn exists no where naturally, but was instead a figment of the artists’ imaginable. Unlike centaurs and winged infants though, lawns soon began cropping up in places other than the canvas. The paintings took hold in the minds of the English elite, who attempted to recreate them on their estates. They became a symbol of power—a way to show that you didn’t need to use your land to grow food. It wasn’t for many years, until the birth of the suburbs, that lawns began appearing around the homes of the middle class.

It was then, Roman says, that the lawn “shifts from being about the flagrant display of wealth, to a moral force for the good of civilization.”

In essence, the lawn represents the dream of suburban life achieved: perfect order and flourishing, on display for the neighbors. In its most poignant moment, the episode notes that lawn grass lives an unnatural life: not allowed to grow tall enough to reproduce, but watered and fertilized to keep it from going dormant. Greenspan invokes Michael Pollan, an American food writer, who wrote that “lawns are nature purged of sex and death.”

The show also briefly considers how to reconcile this societal pressure to manicure and maintain one’s lawn with the American neo-liberal individualist ideal. It would be socially and, as we saw with the imprisoned old man, sometimes legally unwise to leave your suburban lawn untended—despite the fact that it is your personal property, theoretically to do with as you wish. It was a great reminder of the joy of HOA tyranny and its associated evils. Wallace Stevens, famed American poet and life-long insurance executive, has some good thoughts on suburban stifles here.

I’ll leave my review there—I’d love to hear your thoughts about the issues raised by “Lawn Order” in the comments. Until next time, I’m (not) Roman Mars.

Lawn Order” was produced by Sam Greenspan, and soundtracked by a whole bunch of folks who you can read about over on the episode’s page. As always, 99% Invisible is hosted by Roman Mars.

About the Author

Eric McDaniel is the founder of Audiologue, where he covers 99% Invisible. Right now, his favorite shows are Mystery Show and Cortex. Find him on Twitter @ericmmcd, or by email at eric@audiologue.xyz.

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