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The severest form of peer pressure here in the ‘burbs is to reach Sunday afternoon and be the last on the street with an unmowed lawn.

I’ve always marveled at the amount of biomass that a simple small yard can produce. It doesn’t help that my neighborhood was reclaimed from a marsh (the irony…). I’m already the neighborhood lawn care scofflaw, so save your stink-eye. I have a preternatural tolerance for long grass and biodiversity. Weeds aren’t weeds, they’re players in dramas of microclimate, competition, and plucky natives’ battles against the monocultural hegemony of settler bluegrass.

By the end of May, I expect my lawn will be nearly knee deep. I look forward to the lightning bugs in July.

Carol asked me one time if I wanted to buy (or rent) an “edger” to “edge” the edge where the sidewalk meets the lawn. I laughed. As if I wanted my unruly lawn to look fussed-over like a first grader with a back-to-school haircut. Heck, if it’s a battle between plants and concrete, I know whom I’m rooting for.

Still, I feel it. The enforcement mechanism is what eco-economists call “status anxiety.” It’s the fear that my neighbors will think less of me for bucking the trend. It’s the mechanism corporations use to rope you into economic systems that prioritize profit and wealth accumulation over human flourishing and climate justice. They aggressively work to convince you that your car isn’t right, your house isn’t good enough, and you’re hopelessly out of fashion unless you buy the hot new styles (fortunately I have this last one licked). It’s one thing to laugh off the over-the-top Super Bowl commercials, quite another to contemplate suburban territoriality and an exquisitely manicured border forming your neighbor’s property line – and lawn care companies happily manipulate your insecurities. I often find their hang-tags when I’m picking up trash.

Turns out sloth and stubbornness are earthkeeping virtues here. Leaves I didn’t rake last fall are homes for invertebrates that will feed migrant songbirds who are returning. Dandelions will feed the first wave of pollinators. Even invasive creeping-Charlie at least produces flowers that feed pollinators and smells way better than the fog of two-cycle mower smoke and sickly fabric softener sweetness that gives suburbia its baseline weekend smell. That bare spot under the tree is a dust bath for the birds.

I’ll go ahead and call myself an “early adopter.” I was virtuously neglecting my lawn before “No-mow May” campaigns ramped up in places like Appleton, Rochester, and Kansas City. Debra Rienstra mentioned it in her newsletter this week (sign up here), as an earthkeeping step that many of us and our churches can take by strategically doing nothing at all. It’s a wonderful opportunity to create a countercultural refugia of sorts.

In my village of Waunakee, we’ve adopted a stylized prairie motif as something of a brand. It’s right there on the water tower. How ironic that the little two-acre, industrial-park footprint where the water tower sits is manicured lawn. We celebrate our prairies in the abstract and forego the opportunity to cultivate them in our public spaces. Why is that?

A colleague of mine researched how the chemical inputs to lawns are used. He found that “… that those who use pesticides on their lawns tend to be more educated, have higher incomes and are more likely than non-pesticide users to recognize the environmental damage of their actions.”

Associations with education and income no doubt reflect more disposable income and free time to devote to lawn care. The association with recognizing “… the environmental damage of their actions” is perverse and likely testifies that the strength of status anxiety increases with wealth. All this, against the backdrop of a climate crisis and ecological breakdown — largely driven by the consumption of wealthy people and wealthy countries like ours.

The chemicals we use are broadly toxic to plant and animal life, including human life. Indeed, “use of lawn chemicals accounts for the majority of wildlife poisonings reported to the (US) Environmental Protection Agency.”

Imagine the earthkeeping witness if churches and Christians let their lawns go natural and let that be a start to conversations about the carbon footprint of lawncare and the pollution potential and careless consumerism.

All we need is the courage to do nothing.

I’m not pouring any chemicals into my aquifer and I am not sending any fertilizer nutrients into my waterway (where they cause algal blooms to stink up Lake Mendota in August). The village may compel me to mow in June, but I’ll be doing it under protest.

“Overgrown” isn’t a pejorative, it’s a blessing from your wild and semi-wild neighbors.

Friends, spring is on us. Join the resistance!

Tim Van Deelen

Tim Van Deelen is Professor of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He grew up in Hudsonville, Michigan, and graduated from Calvin College. From there he went on to the University of Montana and Michigan State University. He now studies large mammal population dynamics, sails on Lake Mendota, enjoys a good plate of whitefish, and gains hope for the future from terrific graduate students. 


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I’m in. We are watching all kinds of little flowers and grasses raise their heads and spread their seeds. And the township does not have any mowing ordnance, so we are free there. My very kindly neighbour has started his mowing already but also guaranteed his indulgence of the unsightly green riot at his border. Of course I know that we are aiding and abetting many invasives, but so be it. And the other problem is that the long grass harbours deer-ticks (and Lyme disease), which are a great threat to my little grandchildren. Which means I will probably have to mow in June. My neighbour down the street said, “You’re going to have hay in June!” And I said, “I need the exercise.”

  • Steve Van't Hof says:

    This was good.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    Small steps—last fall I scrapped my red gas-powered mower for a green (literally and symbolically) battery-powered mower. I never did embrace using the lawn tractor given by my kids on a milestone birthday, as mowing is one of my workouts; that implement will soon vacate the shed.
    Our Illinois village does have a mowing ordinance, but we also have lots of trees and bushes for our cardinals and finches, and perennial beds, including daffodils, day-lilies, and other plants such as columbine and milkweed for the monarch butterflies. Every summer we manage to claim just a bit more yard to expand those beds. Minimal use of chemicals on the lawn, and we don’t water it, at all.

  • Mark Kornelis says:

    Couldn’t help but notice the confluence of your excellent piece with the “Daily Dharma” email that arrived this morning, which offered the following quote from Kimberly Brown:
    “Practicing not-doing means the causes and conditions that create many problems and struggles vanish. No solution needs to be found, no cure discovered, and no help is even necessary. That’s why the Buddhist tradition is grounded in not-doing—because so much of the suffering in the world could be entirely alleviated if we simply didn’t cause it.”
    Many thanks for your contributions to this blog.

  • Mike says:

    This just seems like pedantic garbage to me. You want to create habitat for wildlife and prevent pollution, etc, etc…throw money at non-profits that focus on educating and helping folks in developing countries. Don’t mow your lawn if you don’t want to. Makes no difference to me or anyone else. But please get off your high horse and stop pretending you are doing it to cure climate change.

    • Sheryl Mulder says:

      You are trolling and being disrespectful. You can disagree with the point of view but thinking you can know the motivations of another person are not yours to make. Also, it is interesting that you are the only one on this post unwilling to post your full name. That is what trolls do. Make nasty posts but stay hidden in the shadows and frankly, I am tired of it.

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