What’s true of grand social revolutions is equally true at the micro level of every day life. A young couple building a new home for themselves may ask the architect for a nice lawn in the front yard. Why a lawn? ‘Because lawns are beautiful,’ the couple might explain. But why do they think so? It has a history behind it.
Stone Age hunter-gatherers did not cultivate grass at the entrance to their caves. No green meadow welcomed the visitors to the Athenian Acropolis, the Roman Capitol, the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem or the Forbidden City in Beijing. The idea of nurturing a lawn at the entrance to private residences and public buildings was born in the castles of French and English aristocrats in the late Middle Ages. In the early modern age this habit struck deep roots, and became the trademark of nobility.
Well-kept lawns demanded land and a lot of work, particularly in the days before lawnmowers and automatic water sprinklers. In exchange, they produce nothing of value. You can’t even graze animals on them, because they would eat and trample the grass. Poor peasants could not afford wasting precious land or time on lawns. The neat turf at the entrance to chateaux was accordingly a status symbol nobody could fake. It boldly proclaimed to every passerby: ‘I am so rich and powerful, and I have so many acres and serfs, that I can afford this green extravaganza.’ The bigger and neater the lawn, the more powerful the dynasty. If you came to visit a duke and saw that his lawn was in bad shape, you knew he was in trouble.
The precious lawn was often the setting for important celebrations and social events, and at all other times was strictly off-limits. To this day, in countless palaces, government buildings and public venues a stern sign commands people to ‘Keep off the grass’. In my former Oxford college the entire quad was formed of a large, attractive lawn, on which we were allowed to walk or sit on only one day a year. On any other day, woe to the poor student whose foot desecrated the holy turf.
Royal palaces and ducal chateaux turned the lawn into a symbol of authority. When in the late modern period kings were toppled and dukes were guillotined, the new presidents and prime ministers kept the lawns. Parliaments, supreme courts, presidential residences and other public buildings increasingly proclaimed their power in row upon row of neat grean blades. Simultaneously, lawns conquered the world of sports. For thousands of years humans played on almost every conceivable kind of ground, from ice to desert. Yet in the last two centuries, the really important games – such as football and tennis – are played on lawns. Provided, of course, you have money. In the favelas of Rio de Janeiro the future generation of Brazilian football is kicking makeshift balls over sand and dirt. But in the wealthy suburbs, the sons of the rich are enjoying themselves over meticulously kept lawns.
Humans thereby came to identify lawns with political power, social status and economic wealth. No wonder that in the nineteenth century the rising bourgeoisie enthusiastically adopted the lawn. At first only bankers, lawyers and industrialists could afford such luxuries at their private residencies. Yet when the Industrial Revolution broadened the middle class and gave rise to the lawnmower and then the automatic sprinkler, millions of families could suddenly afford a home turf. In American suburbia a spick-and-span lawn switched from being a rich person’s luxury into a middle-class necessity.
This was when a new rite was added to the suburban liturgy. After Sunday morning service at church many people devotedly mowed their lawns. Walking alont the streets, you could quickly ascertain the wealth and position of every family by the size and quality of their turf. There is no surer sign that something is wrong at the Joneses’ than a neglected lawn in the front yard. Grass is nowadays the most widespread crop in the USA after maize and wheat, and the lawn industry (plants, manure, mowers, sprinklers, gardeners) accounts for billions of dollars every year.
The lawn did not remain solely a European or American craze. Even people who have never visited the Loire Valley see US presidents giving speeches on the White House lawn, important football games played out in green stadiums, and Homer and Bart Simpson quarrelling about whose turn it is to mow the grass. People all over the globe associate lawns with power, money and prestige. The lawn has therefore spread far and wide, and is now set to conquer even the heart of the Muslim world. Qatar’s newly built Museum of Islamic Art is flanked by magnificent lawns that hark back to Louis XIV’s Versailles much more than to Haroun al-Rashid’s Baghdad. They were designed and constructed by an American company, and their more than 100.000 square metres of grass – in the midst of the Arabian desert – require a stupendous amount of fresh water each day to stay green. Meanwhile, in the suburbs of Doha and Dubai, middle-class families pride themselves on their lawns. If it were not for the white robes and black hijabs, you could easily think you were in the Midwest rather than the Middle East.
Having read this short history of the lawn, when you now come to plan your dream house you might think twice about having a lawn in the front yard. You are of course still free to do it. But you are also free to shake off the cultural cargo bequeathed to you by European dukes, capitalist moguls and the Simpsons – and imagine for yourself a Japanese rock garden, or some altogether new creation. This is the best reason to learn history: not in order to predict the future, but to free yourself of the past and imagine alternative destinies. Of course this is not total freedom – we cannot avoid being shaped by the past. But some freedom is better than none.
Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari