The Green Desert

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While looking out my window in the middle of farmland in SE Indiana, I see woods at various distances from approximately a quarter to three-quarters of a mile away.  In between me and those woods are soybean and corn fields, scattered houses, their lawns, a few roads and lanes, the margins of those fields and roads, and (closest to me) our yard, that we decided not to mow this year.  It is mid-July, and in all of this very green, rural scene, the only substantial group of flowers of any kind is our yard.  A little island of “proper” flowers, and flowering “weeds”.  And it is full of bugs, namely BEES.

Across countless acres, I see nothing but fields and lawns.  

In the fields, only the corn or soybeans grow, as they are “Roundup Ready”, and only the GM (genetically modified) crop will grow there.  Everything else there is dead: poisoned.  The corn will be tasseling soon, so there might be a good situation for the bees there then, but on the other hand, is the Round Up bad for animals as well as plants?  Obviously, (I think), humans can eat the crop without harm, but it still causes much irritation to us as it is being sprayed on the field, and when you walk through areas where the plants are dying from it you definitely sense the poison of it.  If I were a bee I doubt I’d go on those plants with that stuff on it, dying or not.

Other than the fields, we have the lawns, where scarce is the flower, and even scarcer is the flower not sprayed with insecticide (if it is considered a “flower”) or herbicide (if it is considered a “weed”).  The grass is a sea of green, and, if it is “well kept”, has nary a single bud or flower for a bee.  Not only that, it takes hours of human effort, along with gasoline and heat, to keep this lawn so pristine.  In many locales, it also takes a supply of water shipped in (read: robbing some other area of its natural water) to maintain it as well.

So here in the midst of rural America, with the nearest town less than 3,000 people, and a population density of 15-50 per square mile, depending on the mile, a bee can find hardly a place to go. It’s all green, but to a bee, it’s a desert.  My god, if they can’t find much here, what on earth of the many, many more densely populated areas?  And whereas at least the GM crops do produce much more food than was grown on this land 180 to even 30 years ago, I can see no benefit to the lawns which ring each house, other than the vanity of humans and the never-ending quest to subdue nature to our creature-comfort-at-all-cost wills.

All in all, this colossal waste of time, this immense labor that works to push us off a cliff even faster than we were going anyway, is not even beautiful.  The monotonous green of uniform length, acres and acres of astroturf, which, if they were astroturf, would be better because at least they wouldn’t take resources to maintain, is by no means beautiful.   It’s some kind of perverted notion of beautiful.

It was in this light that we made a decision that puts us in fear of social repercussions and potential action by our neighbors, and/or the local zoning board.

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Basically we decided to take a small part of our lawn, a back part hidden (mostly) by our house, a part all of 1500 sq. feet or so, and let it grow up.  We threw around some wild flower seeds, even digging up a small bit and planting them proper.  Around the edges were our existing flower beds, holly hocks, peonies, sunflowers, daisies, along with the equally beautiful weeds:  Queen Ann’s lace, dandelions, thistles, and many more I can’t name. (I’m still astounded at what is described as a “weed” and what is not by our society. )

So the grass kept getting taller, and my parents (who live about 75 yards away) kept asking if they could cut it, and the cats and dog kept deciding that it was their absolute favorite place to hang out and play in, and it just kept getting higher, until wind, rain, and animal walkthroughs left it something like it is today.

And when I went out into it, literally for the first time in a month or so, I was so impressed to see the micro ecology going on there:  Lots of bugs, lots of flowers, buds, leaves.  It was very humid, and also fragrant.  And there on all the flowers were so many bees.  Lots and lots of bumble bees, which you still see often.  But also in there I saw a few HONEY bees, 3 or 4 at least.  Which is about as many honey bees as I have seen total the last 5 or so summers (2003 was our first year here).  

There used to be many honey bees here 30 to 40 years ago, and it did seem sort of strange when we returned here that there were so many less bees.  Then reading articles about the disappearance of bees worldwide, we got to thinking…

I’m not kidding about expecting the zoning board to give us a call.  We are both on a citizens committee to review and rewrite our county’s zoning law.  On a weekly basis, we are involved in an often heated debate about land use, and quite a bit of legislated aesthetics:  design standards, approved materials, approved plants, etc.

Now a small bit of background.  I am a graphic artist, and have paid my rent for the past 20 years on my artistic skill, and more recently my artistic opinion.  I understand implicitly that art and taste are subjective, and often (or more accurately, always) the most popular art is not the best art.  And I also understand that there is no way for me to “prove” what is the “best art” and it is just my opinion.

But having said that, I can see no way that a green lawn, devoid of flowers, is prettier than one full of flowers.  And I can also see no way that a bed of flowers of all one kind, is prettier than one of many different flowers-especially when one considers that each only blooms for part of the season.  If you want sustained flowers, than a diverse group of them is the only way to go.

During the midst of this spring and summer of zoning and letting our lawn grow “naturally”, we saw a news report on TV about a town fairly close to us enacting “weed laws”, which basically say you have to cut your grass or else face fines and/or imprisonment (yes imprisonment, I kid you not).

Now of course our little oasis puts not much of a dent in the problem of disappearing bees.  And it uses barely a drop less gasoline than we would have otherwise.  But how is it that we have legislated, at the threat of incarceration and fine, something contributing to our doom, while it wastes our time?  How is it that we find “beautiful” something so bland and monotonous, and something so colorful, so full of life, and good for us and the earth, “unkempt”?

32 comments

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  1. wish I could recommend you twice!

    • bigtwin on July 9, 2008 at 4:32 am
      Author
  2. how “sterile” and “efficient.”  So much for genetic diversity.  It would be faster to just shoot ourselves.

  3. Welcome aboard.  Good to see you here, bringing your breath of wholesome nature!  

    • Robyn on July 9, 2008 at 5:07 am

    …with my poem from last Thursday.

    🙂

  4. having abandoned two-thirds of an acre of garden and grass in the ‘burbs, I am happy on less than half of that, consisting of dog-hair lodgepole and “pucker-brush”, replete with the critters, from voles to “dumbdumb” bugs, swallows and flickers and WOW!  I’m always amazed to see that some of our neighbors have invested the time and energy, not to mention the chemicals and scarce water, to grow manicured lawn patches around their neo-rustic abodes in the middle of the wilderness.  Control freaks, all I can figure.

    Best luck on your nature preserve & coddle the bees!

  5. It all makes such perfect sense and, yet, as you say, you fully expect to be fought because of it.

    I guess it’s something like how alternative energy resources will also be fought — G forbid, we do what is RIGHT for the earth and the world.

    Thank you for this — thoroughly took it in.

    BTW, would be interested in knowing what part of Indiana you are in — live in the far south suburbs of Chicago, myself.

    • geomoo on July 9, 2008 at 6:15 am

    There’s a connection with fear, I hypothesize.  In the savannah in which “we” evolved for a long time, there were clumps of trees and bushes surrounded by wide open plain.  I have read it claimed by experts that we are attracted by such places.  Along similar lines, i.e. evolutionary, high grass can harbor snakes, tigers, etc.  We don’t want to live in the jungle no more and take our chances with nature.  These things are unconscious fears, driving behavior nonetheless.

    You sound like a bit of a dangerous person yourself.

  6. Thats My-Lun with the same “a” sound as hun, and the accent on the first syllable, for those of you effete snobs that would pronounce it Mee-Lon like in Lon Chaney, that is not the way we do it in Milan, and if anyone thinks thats bad, guess how we pronounce “Versailles” (Ver Sayles, just like its written, eh?)  Anyway Milan is my ancesteral home, with the State Champs and all, and grew up in N. Central Ind at Fairmount.

    welcome aboard, I love Indiana in the early summer, I was there a couple of weeks ago and it was very nice.

  7. Watch as all the surviving birds gravitate to your yard.

    Especially watch in fall as the migrants spot your oasis from the sky and drop in for a few seeds ‘n’ grubs.

    Get a pair of digital-photo-shooting binoculars and collect some bird pix as collateral in case you have to defend your property to the zoning board.

    • bigtwin on July 9, 2008 at 2:25 pm
      Author

    I couldn’t reply (at least in the conventional way) as I was sleeping….

  8. toward prairie restoration in the Midwest — it sounds like your yard project may be in that category.  Maybe that can be a defense against zoning complaints.  The Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation has some more info, including state and federal assistance programs.

    Thanks for posting, bigtwin!

    • brobin on July 9, 2008 at 5:44 pm

    Thank you for the uplifting essay bigtwin!

  9. with all their attendant rules, my wife and I transformed our little lot (50′ by 100′) into a ‘jungle’.  (She is the horticulturalist/botanist/green-thumb and, by comparison, I’m just manual labor).

    Perennial plants, shrubs and ornamental trees, hardy for our area, were planted everywhere.  Lawn gave way to multiple planting beds interspersed with winding paths covered in bark/wood chips.

    After a couple of years of this our “yarden” began blooming in very early spring (late Feb/early March here) with snowdrops and crocuses pushing up through the snow and continuing, with first one group of plants and then another taking center stage, until late November and on into December when finally winter kale and witch hazel took their turns at ‘blooming’ against a backdrop of snow.

    The tiny bits of lawn we still had left I could mow with a (non-motorized) push-mower in about 15 minutes.  Critters of all kinds were attracted to our place and we saw many more individuals of common species and many more types of species than ever before.  All of this was accomplished without chemicals of any kind (except for a bit of dish soap to clobber the damn aphids).

    Sometimes people walking down our street would detour off the sidewalk (usually the young or the elderly) and, with huge smiles on their faces, meander along/around our trails through our front/”public” yarden, enjoying the riotous displays of blooms.

    Workers at one of the local nurseries dubbed my wife “the lily lady”.  Among our many types, varieties, sizes and colors of lilies, we had a couple of large specimens that grew over 6 feet tall each year with several huge white blooms open at once.  Each bloom, completely open, was as large as an adult’s face and they perfumed the whole neighborhood for several houses in each direction.

    To get the full effect, complete with pollen on the nose, one had to stick one’s face right up to/into the lily’s bloom(s) and inhale deeply.  No problem for me, I’m tall.  My wife, however, is ‘vertically challenged’ so we left a step-stool near the lilies all season long.  Many is the time we’d look out the window to see yet another stranger in our yarden, standing on their tiptoes up on our step-stool with their eyes shut and a huge grin cracking their face as they inhaled the intoxicating scent of those lilies.

    Some of our yarden visitors left notes, poems and other odd little ‘gifts’.  Sometimes those things were obviously for us, thanking us for the visitor’s experience in/of our yarden.  Sometimes they were meaningful only to the giver. (One was a heart-wrenching letter to a deceased loved one.  We left that one where we found it.)  Sometimes I think they were left for Ma Nature herself or perhaps for the yarden fairies.

  10. I have about 20 acres of former pasture that I’ve let run wild for the past 20+ years.  You would not believe how lovely the wild flowers and herbs are.  They change each day with early ones falling back and new ones growing in.  Right now we’re in daisies, american milkweed, birds foot treefoil, yarrow, red clover, crown vetech.  Earlier we had dame’s rocket.  Soon we’ll have a profusion of viper’s bluegloss and then ragweed and sneezewort.  IMO it would be simply wonderful if folks just left their lawns alone all spring and summer and cut them down in late fall.  Yes, they’d have some snakes and rabbits and voles and mice, and the animals would make trails through them, but we’d have a vibrant, less mechanistic aesthetic.  We’d have what folks here call “natural vetch.”

    There’s a passage in a book I read long ago (not sure if it’s Sand Creek Almanac) about plants that used to grow on roadsides in Wisconsin that are now apparently extinct because of mowing.  What a loss.  Their habitat was mowed down for largely aesthetic reasons, so we lost all of these lovely native species.  I wonder.  If we just let stuff grow, on roadsides, in yards, in fields, on highway medians, would some of those species reappear?

    1. are, too often, snakes in the grass themselves.

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