Start by asking why: lawns

Understanding how the world came to be, from the seemingly frivolous things, to broader values and systems that we take for granted is insightful, and can be fun (if that’s the sort of thing you’re into). Imagining alternatives that could have developed instead of the reality we know today, could be a great exercise for the mind, and also makes for fun convos.

One great example of this is written by Yuval Noah Harrari. In his words, the best reason to learn history is “not in order to predict the future, but to free yourself of the past and imagine alternative destinies”.

Why a lawn?

A young couple building a new home for themselves may ask the architect for a nice lawn in the front yard. Why a lawn?  ‘Because lawns are beautiful,’ the couple might explain. But why do they think so? 

It has a history behind it.

Stone Age hunter-gatherers did not cultivate grass at the entrance to their caves. No green meadow welcomed the visitors to the Athenian Acropolis, the Roman Capitol, the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem or the Forbidden City in Beijing. 

The idea of nurturing a lawn at the entrance to private residences and public buildings was born in the castles of French and English aristocrats in the late Middle Ages. In the early modern age this habit struck deep roots, and became the trademark of nobility.

Well kept lawns demanded land and a lot of work, particularly in the days before lawnmowers and automatic water sprinklers. 

In exchange, they produce nothing of value. 

You can’t even graze animals on them, because they would eat and trample the grass. Poor peasants could not afford wasting precious land or time on lawns. The neat turf at the entrance to chateaux was accordingly a status symbol nobody could fake. 

It boldly proclaimed to every passerby: ‘I am so rich and powerful, and I have so many acres and serfs, that I can afford this green extravaganza.’ The bigger and neater the lawn, the more powerful the dynasty. If you came to visit a duke and saw that his lawn was in bad shape, you knew he was in trouble.

The precious lawn was often the setting for important celebrations and social events, and at all other times was strictly off-limits. To this day, in countless palaces, government buildings and public venues a stern sign commands people to ‘Keep off the grass’. In my former Oxford college the entire quad was formed of a large, attractive lawn, on which we were allowed to walk or sit on only one day a year. On any other day, woe to the poor student whose foot desecrated the holy turf.

Royal palaces and ducal chateaux turned the lawn into a symbol of authority. When in the late modern period kings were toppled and dukes were guillotined, the new presidents and prime ministers kept the lawns. Parliaments, supreme courts, presidential residences and other public buildings increasingly proclaimed their power in row upon row of neat green blades.

Humans thereby came to identify lawns with political power, social status and economic wealth. 

No wonder that in the nineteenth century the rising bourgeoisie enthusiastically adopted the lawn. 

At first only bankers, lawyers and industrialists could afford such luxuries at their private residences. 

Yet when the Industrial Revolution broadened the middle class and gave rise to the lawnmower and then the automatic sprinkler, millions of families could suddenly afford a home turf. 

In American suburbia a spick-and-span lawn switched from being a rich person’s luxury into a middle-class necessity.

As Harrari writes, “You are of course still free to do it but you are also free to shake off the cultural cargo bequeathed to you by European dukes, capitalist moguls and the Simpsons and imagine for yourself a Japanese rock garden, or some altogether new creation”.

Thinking twice about having a lawn in the front yard yet? Or the countless hours spent perfecting the lawn. Not a weed in sight.

What do you spend your time on when you don’t know why you’re doing it in the first place? What do you do without really knowing why? And what are consumers doing without knowing why?