Thursday, June 2, 2011

Louis XIV, the Duke of Marlborough and My Lawn Mower

The English have always had an inferiority complex when it comes to their neighbors across the channel. The French aristocracy was already in command of a highly-developed feudal economy when the English were still living with their livestock in mud huts. Later, when the English society had advanced to the point of a smattering of affluence, France became the mecca it remains to this day for most Englishmen. From the late 16th century on, French was the second language for educated Britons. Travel to France was common, in fact required, of members of all but the most impoverished classes. Imports from France, such as wine and clothing, were so popular that punitive excise taxes were levied and responded to by rampant smuggling. English visitors to the continent were flabbergasted by the elaborate residences of the French aristocrats and their own increasingly wealthy lords patterned their new estates after them. See Blenheim Palace, Marlborough's home (and Winston Churchill's birthplace).

This didn't work the other way. The French have never cared much one way or the other about learning English, eating English food, dressing up like Englishmen or visiting London. Anyway, besides importing French architecture, the English nobility also felt compelled to adopt French landscaping. Long driveways lined with oaks, ponds, and most conspicously, lawns.

During the feudal era, large expanses of grass probably made some kind of sense. Horses and cattle could be pastured on them and there was no shortage of serfs to maintain a manicured appearance. The transplantation of the phenomenon to North America is more problematical, however. For centuries there was a labor shortage in the North American colonies and subsequent states. Workers had more important things to do than mow the lawn. Available grass, even in urban areas, was devoted to animal forage. Boston Common was a place where anyone could graze a horse or cow.

Somehow, unlike rugby football, kippers for breakfast and the NHS, obsessive lawn care has made the trip across the Atlantic to the US. You may note that countries in the western hemisphere with a Spanish heritage have no lawn fetish. Anyway, it seems odd that the descendants of practical, frugal Yankees would devote so much time and expense to an artificial plant ecosystem between their front steps and the street. Maybe it's symbolic of our wealth that we no longer require the produce of a vegetable garden or meat, milk and eggs of our own livestock to live happily. The areas around our homes, instead of being scenes of utilitarian enterprise are simply living carpets of a grass that grows naturally nowhere and is expensive and time-consuming to maintain, producing no real benefits except maybe an appearance of concern.

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