Validating the previous month’s work, the Morven estate managers (Elton and Andy) approved my maintenance proposal, offering 5 acres of the farm for experimentation for the remainder of the academic year. The site is part of a 30-acre park landscape at the base of the property along the former main entrance to the estate, now rarely used but still “kept up” in case it’s needed again later on. The parcel was once a pine plantation, which John Kluge directed to be logged, regraded and planted. During its heyday, the entire ground was groomed weekly by riding lawnmowers, but now it is only occasionally bush-hogged when necessary, usually in late spring and summer.
The site is appropriately called “middle field,” which pleasantly hints at the application of this research to the “middle landscape” of the suburbs, where I hope to explore the area between previous maintenance regimes and unmanaged succession. During its creation it was seeded with a Rye-Fescue mix, a typical mix for quick coverage. Most grass mixes are composed of a narrow palette of select cultivars from a few global grass species, and a brief glance at the components of middle field reveals its affinity with the dominant old world grasses. While the grass has certainly diversified from its original homogeneous community, namely a few invasives from the tropics of Asia but also a smattering of warm season natives that can withstand the mow schedule, the allelopathic, perennial ryegrass (Lolium perenne) continues to dominate.
Looking to the origins of these grasses is to document the expansion of pastoral culture out of the fertile crescent with these species “native” habitat described in continental geography and generic biomes. Only Festuca rubra and Cyperus esculentus can hail the western hemisphere as its old stomping grounds, but as a global species their identity as natives is a little shady in my book. Ironically, two species commonly go by new world place names, Kentucky Bluegrass and Bermudagrass, indicating how swiftly they dominated their new landscapes, Bluegrass arriving in Kentucky ahead of European settlers as legend recalls.
The ubiquity of these species has profound ecological consequences of course, with the replacement of warm-season prairie by cool-season pasture even partially credited for the demise of the American Bison. But perhaps most striking is how these grasses are inextricably linked to human migration and settlement despite their everyday invisibility. Despite the reduction of these dynamic plant communities to the singular “grass,” the evolution of the field, with all its placeless, aggressive, naturalized and native species, may provide insight into the ecological flux of the invasive landscape — specifically how we might find a middle ground with far more terrifying intruders like Kudzu, Japanese Knotweed, the Burmese Python, or Emerald Ash Borer.
But beyond this ecological history and maintenance theory lies the formal ramifications of my proposal: how am I going to mow/weedeat/hedge/fertilize/weed/seed/etc… this place to accomplish such lofty goals. Now that the mower is about to hit the meadow, little details like turning radius greatly disrupted my past vision while paying attention to the more accurate measurements of AutoCAD, generating a vastly different tool path that what had previously been sketched and digitally diagrammed. Design development is far more dynamic that it seems from the conceptual fortress. With a little help from haytalk.com, I arrived at headrow/modified zamboni hybrid, leaving gaps between each pass to go over the following mowing, creating a microtopography of grass to mark the slop of the hillside. Islands within the mown zone will probably get covered with a weed eater, walk behind mower or left to grow– presuming the path holds up after its first run.
As I draw my toolpath using AutoCAD logic to best match the turning radius of my 48” riding lawn tractor, the agency of technology becomes increasingly apparent, returning me to an earlier hypothesis: that the change of tools also changes the condition we are attempting to maintain. This is fairly obvious when comparing the sheep to the scythe to the lawn mower, or the related specialization of terminology describing short grass (field, meadow, lawn), but it is easy to take for granted the consequences of the power hedger or the leaf blower, when, like many technological systems, they have become a ubiquitous component of our cultural maintenance activities.
The leaf blower is perhaps the most maligned of maintenance tools — and with good reason given the associated noise and air pollution. While this might be reduced to “the cost of doing business,” it is worth noting that this operation is vastly more efficient than it’s predecessors, both in quantity and quality. We all know that prior to the leaf blower was the humble rake — often romanticized when woken up on the weekend by a noisy crew of landscapers — but the origins of the leaf blower do not lie in the rake. Instead, the tool’s history can be traced to the manual bellows of Japanese gardeners in their pursuit of maintaining a clean blanket of moss, while its mechanization was translated from 1950’s chemical dusting technology. The expected cleanliness of the contemporary American yard is impossible without the innovations of the chemical revolution, which also delivered 2,4-D and the clover-free lawn. The rake and the hand trowel could never hope to compare. The quality has shifted.