One question that confronts many of those who become concerned about the long-term sustainability of our planet is: But what can I do?
The answer most often lies just beyond one’s living room window — it’s the typical American lawn.
If you are to glance about your typical residential neighborhood or suburb today, it may be difficult to realize that when settlement of the North American continent began in earnest in the 17th Century, much of the eastern third of the land mass of the current United States was blanketed in virtually uninterrupted forest, as far as the eye could see. Whatever wasn’t forested was most often occupied by rushing streams or rocky outcrops, swamps or prairie grass.
It was only through many successive decades of tree clearing and crop planting, fencing and home building that great swaths of the American East and Midwest took on the distinctively checkerboarded pastoral character they now display. And the average American lawn of today is but a miniature replica of the town squares and commons favored as public spaces by the Western European pioneers and settlers from whom we descend.
So, back to our initial question: What can one do to nurture a sustainable planet Earth?
First and foremost, consider abandoning the typical American lawn, for it is an artificial and alien construct. It is often graded and planed and drained in contrast and conflict with the surrounding topography. Its grass species are often not indigenous, nor diverse, but limited to only a few alien transplants or blends that require constant water, food and tending to survive and thrive. It is an environment not particularly conducive to birds, bees, butterflies, or small mammals, and which often exacerbates decreasing diversity of fauna throughout a region. Its flatness, low profile, and increased exposure to wind and sun can alter the hydrology of its vicinity in unexpected and detrimental ways. And the massive quantities of chemicals we lard upon our lawns are increasingly fouling our limited fresh water supplies.
Certain regions of the country, such as the American Southwest, have either never taken up the typical American lawn, or have abandoned it outright, as both foreign to the natural environmental and climatic character, and wasteful of precious resources (most notably, water).
Homeowners across the nation can take a page from the Arizona and New Mexico playbooks, by creating residential yards that evoke the natural character of their own particular region. Dense stands of birch, maple, oak and pine can populate much of a yard, casting shade, providing privacy and mitigating the vicissitudes of storms or cold winter winds. Shrubs, grasses and ground covers of all variety can shimmer with rich variations of seasonal color while offering refuge to diverse creatures. Rockscapes can add striking visual character to a yard while also reducing the land area that must be tended. Stretches of wildflowers and perennial indigenous grasses can line drainage swales and rain gardens to minimize sheet drainage to municipal systems or stormwater flow off-site. Porous pavings can further ease the strain on local storm sewers while offering distinctive design options to architects and builders alike. By employing a bit of creativity and ingenuity, every homeowner across the land can improve the sustainability of the planet, while also improving the quality of their daily home life.