One December night my family and my girlfriend both visited me in the small Missouri town where I went to college. As large flakes of snow fell, we walked to the school auditorium, where student jazz combos were giving a concert with a special guest. It’s thrilling to watch student performances, because there’s no guarantee it won’t be a complete disaster. In this case, it was far from that: the bands played perfect covers of “Dear Old Stockholm” and “Caravan.” The horn players launched into deeply felt, unpredictable solos—you could sense both the rigor of years of endless scales in the practice room and the need to prove they could do much more, the desire to surprise.
Then the special guest came on—Ray Anderson, a famous trombonist from Chicago. He played a couple of his tunes with the band, coaxing odd burps and bleats from the trombone with a toilet-plunger mute, before suddenly unleashing it for a blazing hot solo. Then he set down his horn and picked up a mic.
“Don’t mow your lawn,” he sang, the band echoing him in chorus. “What you need is to go to seed—and make some wine from that dandeline.” A prose account of the time he kept a well ordered lawn dissolved into a scat about needing the jazz of an untamed lawn. “Gotta have the, gotta have the, gotta have that funk.”
Anderson has been making the case against mowing from jazz for years. In 1989, Michael Pollan described his own disillusionment with mowing in the New York Times, mainly as a way to promote the comparative virtues of gardening. But clearly neither of these luminaries did enough to convince the masses to abandon the S.S. John Deere, because the Sea of Fescue still stretches from Sacramento to Jersey. In 2015, lawn became the primary crop grown in the U.S., despite its utter worthlessness. Even if you don’t start gardening, there is a case to be made for spiking the mower and just letting it grow. Here’s the argument from science, as well as an attempt to demonstrate that mowing—and all such efforts to preserve unnecessary order—is deadly poison to the human heart.
No lawn or park wants to be a short-cropped fescue farm. Depending on the region, it wants to be a mixed-grass prairie, an open woodland or temperate rainforest. In the Southwest, it just wants to dry up, stop wasting resources, and return to desert or scrubland. Given time, a process called ecological succession takes over. What we call weeds are often the first wave of succession: hardy native plants like ragweed and goldenrod that reclaim the soil and allow for the next wave of larger shrubs and trees to start rebuilding the forest, or for prairie grasses to put down their twelve-foot roots.
I saw this firsthand in my yard in St. Louis growing up. On the edges of the grass empire sprang up wildflower rebellions: asters, violets, and thistles much loved by goldfinches. Later I found mulberry shrubs with red and purple berries. While sometimes ordered to uproot these weeds, I also rooted for them, willing them to spread their range faster than they could be cut down.
When the mower comes through, it may seem like tidying up from a human perspective. But in ecological terms, mowing is a disturbance. It’s setting back the clock of succession toward the mature community, returning the ecosystem to its damaged state. The consequences on the animal community became clear when biologists began surveying along a rural to urban gradient in the 1990s. Disturbances like mowing became more intense near the city center. The bird community shifted from a variety of native species to a select few “urban exploiters:” invasive birds like the European house sparrow and rock dove. The birds at the top of the food web indicated what was happening below: only the most adaptable, feed-me-anything species could handle the mowed areas. Native species lost out.
And the solution is so simple: don’t mow your lawn. Besides what’s needed for the sake of security and removing plants that you’re extremely allergic to—just don’t do it. (I’m allergic to ragweed, but find that the sneezes were a fine price to pay for what they give back to their habitat.) Not to keep this a strictly suburban discussion—I’m talking to you, too, city parks departments. Yes, you can keep the soccer fields. If you have to, plant some native grasses that stay at a reasonable height without ever needing a mower. Buffalo grass, for instance, only reaches 8-10 inches, survives without a sprinkler as fescue never could, and has handsome, curling blades. It doesn’t thirst pathetically for a subtropical climate in Wisconsin like the traditional lawn grass fescue does. Instead of weekly mowing, maintenance would consist of a monthly pruning of invasive weeds. We’d all have to think more about the ecology of their green spaces, about which species should and shouldn’t be there.
My call is all the more strongly delivered because it’s that of a convert. For I am not a prophet out of the wilderness eating of locusts, but a Roman soldier with sword in hand, come to repent: I have cut them down, friends, I have cut them down.
I was a remorseless mower—an enthusiast. It was my chore growing up, but I rejoiced in it. Pushing the red-painted mower in row after row, I felt like Count Levin in Anna Karenina, joining his peasants in harvesting wheat, ecstatically absorbed in the simple rhythm of growth, death, and hearty drink when the work’s done. I published a haiku in praise of rotary-bladed destruction in my high school’s monthly magazine:
Moths flutter fairest
the moment before the unflinching
mower engulfs them.
Ray Anderson went through this phase, too, according to his song. “Everything was laid out in neat, geometric shapes,” he said in the tone of a villain. “The square was perfectly square. There was nothing in that lawn that I didn’t put there.”
The desire for order is a fundamental human impulse. All music, jazz included, shows our love of form, for imposing order on chaos. Even the freest of free improv asserts the musician’s will over the universe’s indifferent hum.
There is such a thing as a healthy amount of order. I love jazz, and I also love Mozart’s string quartets, apparently a triumph of classical structure. But on top of that structure Mozart layered graceful runs and phrases with much more art and introspective feeling than what the basic form required—far more. He was a master improviser, too: some musicologists think we only have what he happened to write down.
I approach human-dominated green spaces in a similar way. There is a certain structure we need—clear lines of sight, some nice bushes under the window, no trees that would let a thief scale into a second-story window. But when we go beyond that and exert control over ecosystems that can largely handle themselves, are we suppressing the music that nature wants to play so badly?
My conversion began when I found pickerel frogs in a wet corner of our yard. It’s a palm-sized amphibian with handsome leopard spots and trim lines down its back. I was excited to have a healthy population of wild animals cavorting in my backyard.
But I still had to mow. My weekly allowance was at stake. Before I went over that corner of the yard, I would go by and brush the ground, trying to scare up the frogs, saying “Come on, get out, get out.” They’d be able to come back easily enough afterwards.
The problem was this didn’t always work. In a few cases, the consequences were gruesome. I have sacrificed frogs, fish, rats, and various other creatures in the name of science, but I hate killing any animal—even a malignant squirrel—without good reason. The pickerel frogs sometimes tried to shelter under the grass when the mower came. I couldn’t see them and couldn’t avoid them. Once, two of them were cut right in half. I was so upset I ate dinner in silence and couldn’t bring myself to talk about it.
Another time, inspecting for casualties, I found a frog that seemed just slightly injured—maybe struck on the head by part of the mower. It was still moving slowly. I moved it under a treed area where we didn’t mow, willing it to get better. Returning after an hour, I found the mortal wound on its belly.
It wasn’t just the death of the frogs that bothered me. I’m not trying to overstate the morality of accidental frog-slaughter. Instead, I was realizing that I was caught up in a cycle of violence against ecosystems, for the sake of an aesthetic that no longer interested me. Against my deeper desires, I was helping to carry out a system of petty brutality—not to mention using up a lot of gas. While it might seem trivial on the scale of a quarter-acre, if you zoom out and look at the 63,000 square miles of mowed grass across the country, the scale of the harm becomes clear. We’re suppressing our backyard ecosystems for the sake of gratuitous order.
Having said all those things, there’s a caveat to make. I haven’t been able to practice my new philosophy, as I’ve lived in apartments for the past few years. However, I am happy to report that vacuuming has the same therapeutic qualities, the same sense of order restored as mowing: it acts as a sort of nicotine patch.
Even half of us retiring from the mower throughout the country would bring forth a surge of life we can hardly imagine. Yards would exhale with the minty, many-note aroma of wildflowers. Native beetles and butterflies would return in their multitudes. Birds unseen for decades would settle in to nest.
And we could use that part of our week for more interesting things. As Anderson put it, “I’ve got sticks, I’ve got ticks, I’ve got time.” Why settle for less?