October 21, 2014

ELIOT | Green Lawns and the Death of Divergent Thinking

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It was the illustrious Christopher George Latore Wallace — better known by his stage name, the Notorious B.I.G. — who once said “I never thought it could happen, this rapping stuff / I was too used to packing gats and stuff / Now honies play me close like butter played toast / From the Mississippi down to the East Coast.” This lyric epitomizes just one of the many parallels between my life and Biggie’s; I too, of course, never thought my rapping career had much potential. It obviously didn’t, but I, like Biggie, “never thought it could happen.”

Although I would love to (and definitely can) talk about how closely my life trajectory mirrors that of Big’s, it is the line “Now honeys play me close like butter play toast / From the Mississippi down to the East Coast” that I would like to focus on. Maybe he was not his school’s sixth grade Geography Bee champ like yours truly (… ladies), so I will excuse the fact that the space between the Mississippi River and the East Coast comprises just roughly a quarter of the United States’ landmass. Both west and east of the Mississippi, however, you will find some things truly ubiquitous in American culture. Some of these things are great: dogs being funny, free Wi-Fi in McDonald’s and forcing out an imminent sneeze by looking at the sun. Others, however, are bad for our health and stifle our creativity: obesity, McDonald’s Monopoly (though I debated making this a positive keystone of American culture) and our obsession with green lawns.

Environmental historian Ted Steinberg wrote a book called American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn. I personally did not read it but I did read The Christian Science Monitor’s and The New York Times’ reviews. … So yeah, I am an expert. According to Steinberg, America’s fixation with perfectly manicured green lawns came about as a result of mandating a 40-hour work week in 1939. Before that, people typically worked half-days on Saturdays and were therefore too busy to groom the patch of earth on front of their homes. The passage of this legislation — combined with the post-World War II housing boom — made controlled green spaces more and more commonplace. As the Cold War and McCarthyism permeated its way into American culture, upstanding capitalists needed to fit in with each other, turning the American lawn into a weapon of homogeneity. How could you tell if your neighbor was a communist radical? Well he or she probably spent their Saturdays at a radical communist riot rather than mowing their lawn. An unkempt lawn meant only one thing: Red nonconformity.

Although the cultural history related to the green lawn may be a little far-fetched and hard to believe, Steinberg does make the argument that our obsession with perfectly manicured green lawns stems from our general fear of communism. I am not sure if I buy that particular theory, but the fact remains:

I never thought it would happen, this grass and stuff

My frontyard had just a “Welcome” mat and stuff

Now lawns are clipped close like Patrick Swayze played Ghost

From the East Hamptons down to the West Coast

Suburban houses with unkempt lawns become neighborhood pariahs simply because they refuse to conform. Who else refused to conform? Well for starters, archaeologist Indiana Jones threw the commonly held belief that college professors should only wear tweed, lecture and hold office hours out the window, and George Lucas put him in movies because of it.

Horticulturally speaking, maintaining green lawns sexually repress your grass and forces it to build an unnatural web of underground shoots resulting in the thick bed of green grass we have all come to know. We pour chemical fertilizer and pesticides all over our lawns in an effort to maintain that green carpet. We spend money on lawn mowers, water and sprinkling systems. We hide the natural beauty of our landscape under an unnatural turf carpet. And perhaps worst of all, it is the only option we present anyone as a possibility for a front yard.

In the 1960s, George Land performed a longitudinal study of 1,600 children between ages three and five, eight and 10 and, lastly, 13 and 15 in order to characterize the effects aging has on one’s ability to be creative or to think divergently. Divergent thinking is a creative way of approaching problems by considering many possibilities as a solution for a given problem. The classic divergent thinking test is to ask a participant to list as many uses for a paperclip as they can imagine. A divergent genius can come up with dozens of uses in a matter of minutes. Perhaps not surprisingly, divergent geniuses in Land’s study were decidedly concentrated in the three to five year-old age group. In fact, 98 percent of the youngest participants were classified as divergent geniuses. By the age of 15, only one-tenth of the student population could claim the same.

The death of divergent thinking can be attributed to a number of factors: children becoming jaded with age, the failure of the education system and its focus on rote learning and memorization and general commitment to the status quo in the world around us. I have no authority and am not going to use this column to offer any sweeping scholastic or corporate solutions for the decline in creativity that comes with age. But, when a child’s only exposure to a landscape other than a green carpet of grass comes in the form of an occasional trip to the zoo or, if they a lucky, a State or National Park, how can we expect them to stay creative? Our obsession with green lawns is presenting everyone with only one solution to the question “What do I do with my front yard?” Joseph McCarthy’s communist witch hunt is over; I encourage you to consider letting your grass grow long, letting your grass flower or turning your lawn into a 8-foot high maze of neon purple astro-turf. No longer should the front yard be a weapon of homogeneity. Contemplate all possibilities as landscaping solutions. Think divergently and honies will, I promise, play you close like butter played toast.