For almost 300 years, a meticulously tended grass lawn stood imperviously, sloping gently from the gothic spires of King’s College Chapel toward the normally peaceful waters of the Cam. Older than even the oldest modern republic, older than industrial capitalism itself, this particular institution has finally come to an end. The lawn disappeared not because of a lack of funding, a change in building codes, or a revolution in regal aesthetics. It vanished because of apocalypse itself. As populations of pollinators face cataclysmic devastation, the Fellows, Provost, and Gardening Committee at King’s College voted to rewild the otherwise useless lawn. Where a monocrop of grass once stood as a symbol of power and status—of the capacity to keep cultured land undisturbed by the lowly habits of production—, today rises a field of harebells, buttercups, poppies, and cornflowers, a living reminder that our unused resources may be enjoyed by others for the survival of the whole. Each poppy growing in the field, each cornflower projecting into the sun, is a revolutionary statement of what matters and must be defended into the future.
In practice, a single field will do little to stop the catastrophic collapse of pollinator populations in the United Kingdom and across the world. A sensible approach, particularly regarding a piece of land as iconic as King’s lawn, could have equally implied reducing the amount of glyphosate and insecticides used in maintaining the College’s grounds. Install, perhaps, a few planters with plentiful flowers here and there to provide respite to wayward bees. Hand out to students and visitors some commemorative seed packages celebrating the region’s faux biodiversity. An informational plaque here and there should suffice, promoting a culture of nature’s protection in theory rather than concrete changes in practice. The lawn could remain, altered perhaps, but not fundamentally so.
For the past fifteen years, I have been part of a vibrant community of social scientists who study lawns. Unlike the previous scholarship, ours has emphasized attention to the black boxes that make lawns operate seamlessly over time. From agronomic theories of soil and devices that allow mixing and commensurating different types of seeds, to the physical arrangement of gardens and the wireless humidity detection systems that automate their care, we have sought to analyze the mundane practices that collectively constitute the complicated, encroaching objects that are lawns. We study them not as a historical representation of power structures in society, consequences of political logics that explain all of modern history, or longstanding forms of domination of humans over nature, but as collections of practices and devices that, while ultimately political, are less about contestation and hierarchies than about alignment, sensemaking, and coordination. The work through which groundskeepers and gardeners maintain these most cultured patches of the English landscape, through which they control the chaos of growth, death, decay, and renewal, is far removed from the lawn as a signifier of class, empire, and the aesthetics of authority. They are simply doing their jobs, carrying into the future an established institution through the everyday tasks of reading into measurements, thinking about their small parcels of the world, and resolving surprises as they emerge.
Now and then, our wealth of knowledge suggests possibilities of change. Now and then, we declare the scope for transforming how lawns are kept and cared for. Having explored the many ecologies of lawns throughout a number of prominent and peripheral examples, we have discovered diversity in monoculture, a variation that is informative precisely because it indicates that maybe, just maybe, some lawns are better than others. Some groundskeepers, for example, facilitate more reflexive forms of work among their teams, leading to a more sustainable and less risky production of grass. In some nurseries, where the grass that will replenish established lawns is grown at tremendous speeds, teams are more attentive than others to testing the water and nutrients, leading to less exposures to the sudden browning of the leaves so prominently covered in gardening publications over the last decade. In others, gardeners share cultures centered on the impact of their work and seek to reduce, as much as possible, reliance on chemicals that are harmful to pollinators. Maybe, just maybe, better lawns are possible. Maybe, just maybe, we can save these institutions for the future. Maybe, just maybe, the bees don’t really matter, and there is simply nothing we can do to save them.
These sporadic dreams of reform, these calls to save lawns for their own sake, are convenient. But so are glyphosates. Studying gardeners, groundskeepers, and their lawns is not problematic in and of itself—-it is, quite the contrary, important and necessary for understanding how lawns grow through assemblages that are ultimately political, distributed, complex. The problem, rather, comes from calls of reform that assume preserving most of the forms, structures, and effects of these grassy patches of land. Lawns may be handy, even pretty, modern institutions, providing leisurely facilities that would otherwise require difficult social choices. Yet lawns are unequal, they are unfair, and they are unavoidably connected to the ills and problems of ours and future generations. Reform at the edges – in the varieties of seeds or frequency of watering – will not change the nature of what they are: private spaces they will remain, ones where accumulated wealth is enjoyed by the few and inequalities suffered by the many.
So let us study lawns in all their intricacy, but not with a view to changing the cultures and practices of their gardeners or the afforances of their devices. Let us study the mundane in these spaces to altogether eliminate them. Let us question each blade of grass not only as a sociotechnical achievement, but also as a living monument to our collective failures to organize society. Let lawns disappear, for nothing short of their complete uprooting and the rewilding of their soil will save us from catastrophe.