cover image The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession

The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession

Virginia Scott Jenkins. Smithsonian Books, $18.95 (246pp) ISBN 978-1-56098-406-1

In the 18th-century English landscape, a folly was an extravagant building or ruin. In the 20th-century American landscape, the folly had to be the lawn. Jenkins's account gets off to a slightly slow start as she follows the lawn from its earliest beginnings as a simplified version of English romantic parks in the 19th century to the smooth fairway aesthetic fostered by the U.S. Golf Association (USGA) in the early 20th. But from then on, The Lawn is a quirky, thoroughly enjoyable look at man vs. nature, man vs. woman, and man vs. the Joneses. Despite the millions spent by both the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) and USGA to develop hardy disease- and pest-resistant turf for any climate, it did not obviate the need for tons of toxic herbicides and pesticides, gallons of water (even in the arid Southwest) and, as a 1952 article in Life said, the basics--``bamboo rake, grass shears, hand sprayer . . . wave sprinkler, a hoe, wheelbarrow, roller, iron rake, lawn mower and spade, an aerator, a weed knife.'' It was an arsenal, and Jenkins makes a convincing argument that the military metaphors used by advertisers and lawn-care experts alike were part of a male viewpoint that saw nature as something to be ``controlled and mastered.'' It wasn't long before that controlled lawn, once a sign of affluence, became the strictly enforced norm of good citizenship and general moral rectitude. This summer could be much more fun if readers ignore their own lawns and stick to Jenkins's. (May)