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Cut the lawn – and the engine

Green-minded suburbanites overlook the harm done by lawn care.

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At 8 o'clock on a beautiful Summer morning, I'm walking to the train station in my quiet neighborhood of big trees and elegant houses. Suddenly, an ear-splitting screech pierces the peaceful setting.

My shoulders and neck tense, and I speed up to pass the source of the noise. It's the neighbors' lawn service powering up its artillery of lawn mowers, weed whackers, hedge trimmers, and leaf blowers, preparing to overtake any stray blades of grass that may have encroached on the sidewalk or any tiny, cowering patches of clover that have dared to sprout in the corners of the yard.

This isn't the only town I've lived in where affluent, highly educated professors, lawyers, and other professionals who bicycle to work, drive Priuses and buy organic food nevertheless subject themselves, their neighbors, and the environment to this weekly offensive aimed at taming nature.

"Affluent" is, I believe, a key term here. At some point in the past 10 or 15 years, suburban denizens who could afford it chose to outsource their lawn care, and new standards for "the perfect lawn" were set.

This raised the pressure for the poor schlub trying to fit a quick mow into his or her Sunday afternoon. And if a bush isn't trimmed in a perfectly straight line or a dandelion or two is allowed to appear, well, that can only lead to a slippery slope of tall weeds, falling property values, and children whose admission to Harvard could be in question. A perfect lawn, however, means all is right in the world.

I am mystified by this pursuit of plantly perfection, even at a cost to health and the environment. Friends to whom I have mentioned my puzzlement have hypothesized that, when it comes to lawn care, even people who consider themselves environmentally progressive "just have a blind spot."

There is an unquestionable psychological significance attached to the state of one's lawn. As Michael Pollan put it in his 1990 essay, "Why Mow? The Case Against Lawns," an "unmistakable odor of virtue" hovers over a scrupulously maintained lawn.

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