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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Green Brown Lawn

Air Date: Week of

Writer Pat Priest

Writer Pat Priest of Athens, Georgia isn't interested in keeping up with the Joneses. In fact, while her neighbor is busy tending to his sodded lawn, Priest has been undoing her grass, and putting down layers of recycled paper and mulch.


YOUNG: As they say the grass is always greener on the other side, but commentator Pat Priest of Athens Georgia prefers what’s on her side of the fence.

PRIEST: My name was drawn at a raffle recently, and I learned I'd won a free month of tanning! As a teenager I would have been thrilled, but . . . now . . . in my fifties? I know better! I felt awkward turning it down, but then other people passed on it, too! We've learned to just say no to a cigarette, veal . . . and tanning.

The green grass of Pat Priest's driveway before it was overturned.

But meanwhile, day after day, I watched a neighbor lay out about a half acre of new sod . . . sod! It looks pretty if you weed out thoughts of the water necessary to sustain it. Turf guzzles so much water that the city of Cary, North Carolina is among a growing number of places offering buy-back programs to homeowners who will rip it out.

A half-acre needs tens of thousands of gallons of water yearly. But the problems are more deeply rooted than simply conserving water. Perfect grass really is much like the perfect tan, which may look like a sign of robust health but more often is evidence of damaging practices.

The green, green grass of home is usually the result of pesticides and herbicides that kill creatures in nearby streams when storm water flushes out the toxins.

Fertilizers also damage aquatic environments and the mining of phosphate rock for fertilizer has poisoned the water in places as far flung as Idaho and Florida.

And what would ancient cultures think and those in the future for that matter, to see us walking around in circles mowing grass?

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that lawn mowers use 800 million gallons of gas each year. And the emissions cause five percent of the air pollution in the US.

The brown, mulched lawn requires no water or chemicals.

So this year I decided to cover over my grass. A friend helped me lay down recycled paper lawn bags.

We covered the paper with mulch made from invasive species such as privet and Russian olive. These layers will improve our hard clay soil. When it’s cooler, I’ll put in lots of native plants. They’re like a big “Welcome” sign for pollinators and other species whose habitat is disappearing.

To undo my lawn yard by yard was as labor intensive initially as my neighbor's sod laying. But I don’t need to mow or use chemicals now that I'm finished. My yard doesn’t look like a golf course, but it’s a safe haven for my family, dogs, and wildlife.

By undoing my lawn, I’m overturning convention and commonly held aesthetics to stave off the unraveling of the irreplaceable web of life on Earth.

[MUSIC: Robyn Hitchcock “Chinese Water Python” from Eye (Yep Roc Records 2007)]

YOUNG: Writer Pat Priest tends her brown lawn in Athens Georgia.



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