Unreal Nature

May 30, 2015

The Front Yard

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:55 am

… We cannot possibly love the new, and we have ceased to love the old.

This is from the essay ‘Ghosts at the Door’ found in Landscape in Sight: Looking at America by John Brinckerhoff Jackson; edited by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz (1997):

… in front of the house on the side facing the road there is a small patch of ground surrounded by a fence and a hedge. Here grow a dozen or more small trees — Chinese elms, much whipped and tattered by the prevailing gale. Under them is a short expanse of bright-green lawn.

Trees, lawn, hedge, and flowers — these things, together with much care and a great expenditure of precious water, all go to make up what we call the front yard.

… They are so much part of what is called the American scene that you are not likely to wonder why they exist. Particularly when you see them in the East and Midwest; there they merge into the woodland landscape and into the tidy main street of a village as if they belonged together. But when you travel west you begin to mark the contrast between the yard and its surroundings. It occurs to you that the yard is sometimes a very artificial thing, the product of much work and thought and care. Whoever tends them so well out here in the lonely flats (you say to yourself) must think them very important.

… The true reason why every American house has to have a front yard is probably very simple; it exists to satisfy a love of beauty. Not every beauty, but beauty of a special, familiar kind; one that every American can recognize and enjoy, and even after a fashion recreate for himself.

The front yard, then, is an attempt to reproduce next to the house a certain familiar or traditional setting. In essence, the front yard is a landscape in miniature. It is not a garden; its value is by no means purely esthetic. It is an enclosed space which contains a garden among other things. The patch of grass and Chinese elms and privet stands for something far larger and richer and more beautiful. It is a much reduced version, as if seen through the wrong end of a pair of field glasses, of a spacious countryside of woods and hedgerows and meadow.

… how many of those traditions can be left among us who have denuded half a continent in less than six generations? The urge to cut down trees is stronger than ever. The slightest excuse is enough for us to strip an entire countryside. And yet — there is the front yard with its tenderly cared for Chinese elms, the picnic ground in the shadow of the pines, and a mass of poems and pictures and songs about trees.

… Just as the early forest determined our poetry and legend, that original pasture land, redeemed from the forest for the delectation of cows and sheep, has indirectly determined many of our social attitudes. Both are essential elements of the protolandscape. But in America the lawn is more than essential; it is the very heart and soul of the entire front yard. We may say what we like about the futility of these areas of bright green grass; we may lament the waste of labor and water they represent here in the semi-arid West. yet to condemn them or justify them on utilitarian or esthetic grounds is to miss the point entirely. The lawn, with its vague but nonetheless real social connotations, is precisely that landscape element which every American values most. Unconsciously, he identifies it with every group event in his life: childhood games, commencement and graduation with white flannels or cap and gown, wedding receptions, “having company,” the high school drill field and the big game of the season.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] Even the cemetery is now landscaped as a lawn to provide an appropriate background for the ultimate social event. How can a citizen be loyal to that tradition without creating and taking care of a lawn of his own? Whoever supposes that Americans are not willing to sacrifice time and money in order to keep a heritage alive regardless of its practical value had better count the number of sweating and panting men and women and children pushing lawnmowers on a summer’s day. It is quite possible that the lawn will go out of fashion. But if it does, it will not be because the toiling masses behind the lawnmower have rebelled. It will be because a younger generation has fewer convivial associations with it; has found other places for group functions and other places to play: the gymnasium, the school grounds, the swimming pool, or the ski run. It will be because the feeling of being hedged in by conventional standards of behavior has become objectionable.

… Like the landscape of the present, this new one will in time produce its own symbols and its own beauty. The six-lane highway, the aerial perspective, the clean and spacious countryside of great distances and no detail will in a matter of centuries be invested with magic and myth.

That landscape, however, is not yet here. In the early dawn where we are, we can perhaps discern its rough outlines, but we cannot have any real feeling for it. We cannot possibly love the new, and we have ceased to love the old.

My most recent previous post from Jackson’s book is here.




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