Turf War – Americans can



Extracts from a book review by Elizabeth Kolbert published on July 21, 2008 in the The New Yorker Magazine


In 1841, Andrew Jackson Downing published the first landscape-gardening book aimed at an American audience. According to Elizabeth Kolbert, Downing was dismayed by what he saw as the general slovenliness of rural America. His “Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening” urged readers to improve themselves by improving their front yards. “In the landscape garden we appeal to that sense of the Beautiful and the Perfect, which is one of the highest attributes of our nature,” it declared.

New yorker magazine - turf warElizabeth Kolbert writes that Downing’s practical ideas about how to achieve the Beautiful included grouping trees in clusters, importing shrubbery of “the finest foreign sorts,” and mixing forms and colors with enough variety to “keep alive the interest of a spectator, and awaken further curiosity.” Essential to any Perfect garden, he held, was an expanse of “grass mown into a softness like velvet.”

Elizabeth Kolbert poses this rhetorical question in her review: If Downing came back today, what would he think of our lawns? Presumably, the neatness of our pigless yards would impress him. She writes that  it is hard not to feel that he would, at least, be ambivalent. Downing was passionate about landscape gardening, she says, and even more so about its edifying possibilities. According to Kolbert, he urged his readers to improve their yards not just for the sake of their own uplift and enjoyment but in the interest of the greater good; through the “principle of imitation,” they would become models for their neighbors, and in this way a single example of refinement could transform a “graceless village.”

In her review, Elizabeth Kolbert concludes that we now have lawns smoother and more velvety than Downing could have imagined. And yet, she observes,  our relationship to the Beautiful remains vexed. As the anti-lawnists correctly observe, the American lawn now represents a serious civic problem. That the space devoted to it continues to grow—and that more and more water and chemicals and fertilizer are devoted to its upkeep—doesn’t prove that we care so much as that we are careless.

To read the complete review, click on this link to Turf War – Americans can’t live without their lawns—but how long can they live with them?


Posted July 2008