We all know the general rule, “the right tool for the right job,” but rarely do we acknowledge the agency of our tools: that their potential enables us to accomplish what may have not been possible before, that their limitations may prevent us from considering other options, and that their operation contain its own formal logic. When technology “makes our lives easier,” it implies that an action delivers the same result for less labor. This labor savings is still present however, embedded within the machine: in its design, manufacture, sales and operation. With each task’s automation, technology therefore has the ability to determine form because its labor value is far greater than its operator’s.
One particular example I stumbled upon at Forest Hills Cemetery is the primacy of a 3-ton John Deere Backhoe Loader, which since its purchase, now dictates the load capacity of all grave stones and walks (the wider ones crack under its weight), as well as the aisle width and overall, rational layout of the cemetery. One wonders what alternative spatial organization may have existed had the tracked steam shovel remained the predominate tool.
More ubiquitous, is the 5′ riding lawn mower buffer which determines the design of innumerable public landscapes. Ignoring this spatial requirement necessitates a substitution of tools during maintenance (usually to a weed eater), causing alternative formal logics to control these zones. This may affect the mowing height and materially manifest itself through the presence of favored plant species; the ephemeral, linear track of the mower may no longer be present, replaced by an uneven, roughly radial pattern; the edge conditions may differ, depending on the “reach” of the tool; or most commonly, the area may simply be neglected.
It’s often said that “the lawn mower created the lawn” and while the statement is a gross generalization of history, we can read the development of the lawn technologically and etymologically. This landscape typology – forbs and herbs cut short to walk on as an outdoor carpet – can be traced to the classical Roman pleasure garden where chamomile was the favored material due to its low height and fragrance. This space became known as a mead in the pleasure garden’s medieval form, a scythe produced lawn equivalent etymologically differentiated from a feld in being untilled, non-sporting, and principally cut instead of grazed. As mead faded into meadow, it has acquired the connotation of a natural (or geophysical) maintenance regime in North America, even though this typology can be produced through a variety of instruments and is frequently created through human action.
The word laune, like geard (the origin of both yard and garden), is closely associated with enclosure, and originally described a “glade, or open space between woods,” as well as “thin linen or cotton cloth.” As such, it’s easy to understand the translation of the glade and the mead to the French tapis vert, literally “green carpet;” a bounded plane of grass and figurative great-grandfather of the modern lawn. As the English landscape garden replaces the classical garden à la française we see the lawn “jump the garden fence,” unleashed to the scale of its cousin, the meadow.
The invention of Edwin Budding Mower brought this landscape to the new bourgeoisie of Victorian England, cutting out the mob of destitute gardeners that the landscape garden had previously required. Along with hybrid tea roses, annual beds, and glasshouses we witness the explosion of a middle class natural style that would make us feel right at home, produced by a series of (techno)horticultural developments that enabled the landscape garden to eventually become a landscape of gardens linked by the velvet carpet of turf (“surface of grass”).
The most drastic revolution however, may be the advent of broadleaf herbicide and the subsequent removal of clover (and other herbaceous species) previously seen as beneficial companion in turf mixes. Originally invented during World War II to increase agricultural production, 2, 4-D has become a ubiquitous and essential component of what we understand as a lawn, most commonly applied in the form of “Weed n Feed” but also infamously combined with the now outlawed 2,4,5-T in the form of “Agent Orange.” It goes without saying that since this development, countless other chemicals have since spun off to attack the invaders of an increasingly specific culture of alien grasses (my primary plant palette at middle field).
During the same period, we see the leaf blower emerge, a cousin of the crop duster and a grandchild of the bellows with which Japanese gardeners used to polish their moss. As mentioned before, the leaf blower not only allows a level of cleanliness unachievable through rake and broom, it also broadened the extents of our clean up and increased the standard of what we expect. The total removal of vegetative matter has become an aesthetic requirement even if not of botanical necessity, suggesting maintenance has become an end to itself. The lawn is reaching its idyll.
The modernization of lawn maintenance– or more specifically, the multiplication of events that compose a carpet of grass — has produced a drastically different physical condition only possible in pre-modern dreams. This landscape is taken as a given, but it is actually a constantly shifting ideal based on the agency of the technology at hand and reflected in its linguistic evolution. Landscape instruments are integral to landscape identity, suggesting that not only can we create different landscapes by simply exchanging instruments, but that landscape typologies evolve with the modernization of our tools.