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California is naturally brown and beautiful. Why are our yards green?

Californians' sense of aesthetics worsens the drought impact

A few years ago, my wife and I decided to replace the mangy bit of lawn in front of our house with drought-tolerant dymondia, which was supposed to spread into an interconnected ground cover. Less water, no mowing, I thought. Easy call. But the dymondia struggled, and seemed to ebb in the hot summer and flow in the cooler, wetter winter. So a few months ago we replaced the top six inches of dirt with a more desert-like sand mixture and installed a garden of large rocks and mixed succulents (and replaced the 1974 hand-cranked sprinkler system).

We like the way it looks. Neighbors say they do, too. And we appreciate that it takes even less watering than the dymondia. Granted, the impact on our collective California need to reduce water consumption is negligible, but it’s a start. Where it really matters, though, is in the changed aesthetics.

We live in Irvine, master-planned suburbia. And our front yard is no longer a mat of green.

Which raises a fundamental question: Why does our communal aesthetic approach to yards revolve around lush greens, when we live in a semi-desert climate and a natural landscape of subtle but striking beauty?

Journalists Martin J. Smith (a former Los Angeles Times Magazine editor) and Patrick J. Kiger blame Ohio-born landscape architect Frank Jesup Scott, who in the years after the end of the Civil War became an influential arbiter of suburban landscaping tastes. And Southern California is nothing if not suburbia.

Smith and Kiger devoted a chapter of their “Poplorica: A Popular History of the Fads, Mavericks, Inventions, and Lore That Shaped Modern America” to Scott and his legacy.

"Perhaps Scott’s most significant contribution — one which continues to thrive in American lawn culture — is the sense that each lawn should be a patch in a great green quilt that united a community and ultimately becomes part of the collective national landscape," Smith and Kiger wrote. "In ways both subtle and mildly threatening, Scott argued that proper lawn care is less a matter of individual pride than of civic duty. Do your part, he urged, or your fellow Americans will hate you. The word ‘slattern’ appears prominently in Scott’s book, and he reserved it for those with a casual approach to lawn care."

Variations of lawns have a long history, and were traditionally associated with palaces and homes of the wealthy and powerful. In England, where gardening became an art, a large manicured lawn became a status symbol, a sign to others that the owner had so much wealth he could afford to leave land unplanted, and had the hired help to keep it scythed.

In late 19th century America, when the burgeoning tourism industry sent middle class Americans to visit England, and as overstuffed cities began sprouting suburbs, Scott popularized the aesthetic that green lawns make the (then-) modern home. He saw the lawn as a cheaper, more manageable way of beautifying a yard than expensive and labor-intensive gardens.

“A smooth, closely shaven surface of green is by far the most essential element of beauty on the grounds of a suburban home,” Scott advised in his 1870 book, “The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds of Small Extent.” He envisioned an idyllic home for a weary businessman, with all the gender blinders that marked that era – and with an eye on the wallet.

“The man who must leave his home after an early breakfast to attend to his office or store business, and who returns only to dinner and tea, must not be beguiled into paying for the floral and arboricultural rarities that professional florists and tree-growers grow enthusiastic over, unless the home members of his family are appreciative amateurs in such things. Tired with town labor, his home must be to him a haven of repose. Gardeners’ bills are no pleasanter to pay than butchers’ and tailors’ bills, and the satisfaction of paying either depends on the amount of pleasure received, or hoped to be received, from the things paid for. A velvety lawn, flecked with sunlight and the shadows of common trees, is a very inexpensive, and may be a very elegant refreshment, for the business-wearied eye; and the manner in which it is kept will affect the mind in the same way as the ill or well-ordered house-keeping of the wife… A freshly mown meadow is always beautiful, and a well-kept lawn alone produces that kind of beauty.”

And so here we are, 145 years later, surrounded in our sprawling suburban West Coast neighborhoods with an East Coast aesthetic born of class and emulation of the British aristocracy. It’s past time to slip the Scott book back on its shelf and pull out “Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs,” in which Wallace Stegner writes about the natural beauty of the West, and human eye.

“Scale is the first and the easiest of the West’s lessons. Colors and forms are harder. Easterners are constantly being surprised and somehow offended that California’s summer hills are gold, not green. We are creatures shaped by our experiences; we like what we know, more often than we know what we like. To eyes trained on chlorophyll, gold or brown hills may look repulsive. Sage brush is an acquired taste, as are raw earth and alkali flats. The erosional forms of the dry country strike the attention without ringing the bells of appreciation. It is almost pathetic to read the journals of people who came west up the Platte Valley in the 1840s and 1860s and tried to find words for Chimney Rock and Scotts Bluff, and found and cling for dear life to the clichés of castles and silent sentinels.”

We need, Stegner urged, to start appreciating beauty in shades other than green.

“You have to get over the color green; you have to quit associating beauty with gardens and lawns; you have to get used to an inhuman scale; you have to understand geological time.”

And you have to recognize that water’s primacy to life and industry is more important to the vitality of California than is a lawn. So plow it up.

Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle.

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