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Field & Street



Lately a lot of suburbs have been passing antimonotony ordinances. These are intended to prevent developers from filling up a subdivision with block after block of more or less identical houses.

You could argue that such ordinances are absurd because the search for monotony is exactly what draws people to the suburbs. If they wanted variety and excitement they would stay in the city. The goals of suburban living are safety, sure things, and spick-and-span surroundings. It's the closest you can come to living in Disney World.

The idea of neatness raised to the level of a principle is nicely encapsulated in laws that regulate landscaping. These are promonotony statutes. A woman I know who moved from Chicago to an unincorporated area in Cook County a few years ago recently called me. Her property had been annexed by Hoffman Estates, and the village was now demanding that she mow a piece of oak savanna on her land to display her support for civilization as we know it.

Landscaping laws vary from village to village, but they all are intended to promote the creation of a landscape dominated by closely cropped swards of mostly alien grasses. The occasional tree is all right, and you can have shrubs and flowers if they are kept carefully pruned and trimmed and confined to beds around the edges of the lawn. The favored look is a miniaturized version of the English country estate. This look was created at the end of the Middle Ages, when British landlords drove large numbers of peasants off their land. What had been cropland was turned into sheep pasture. Left to its own devices, a herd of sheep can produce a passable lawn all by itself. The sheep keep the grass closely cropped and even provide their own fertilizer. And sheep droppings are not the dinner-plate-size heaps produced by cows. They are tiny pellets, scarcely larger than rabbit dung.

Chicago also has an antiweed ordinance, but here the issue is not so much the promotion of monotony as it is the maintenance of control. So we have a statute that is one of those Chicago specialties: a law written so vaguely that it can be applied to almost anybody the precinct captain doesn't like. The law says you can't have weeds on your property above an average height of ten inches. It does not define "weeds." It does not say how "average" is to be defined. Is it average over a season? A plant that is 5 inches tall in June and 15 inches tall in August would have a seasonal average of 10 inches. Is that all right? Is it an average of all the "weeds" you have on your property? You could run into real problems here if you have a 20-foot ailanthus or a 15-foot mulberry growing along your back fence. You'd have to shave everything else off at ground level to make up the difference. If your property is part lawn and part "weeds," can you factor all those three-inch grass stems into your calculations?

Marie Wojciechowski, who lives on North Honore, has been fighting the city on the landscaping issue for several years. She planted her property with a large number of native prairie species, and since these are likely to grow two or three feet tall she ran afoul of the botany squad. An assortment of legal maneuvers have kept the case alive, and, in theory anyway, the city has been levying cumulative fines for all these years, fines that now total $125,000.

Wojciechowski's defense is based in part on the vagueness of the ordinance and in part on the fact that her natural landscape isn't doing anybody any harm. She has had her property inspected by a plant ecologist who was formerly with the Morton Arboretum and by two professors from UIC.

Patricia Armstrong, the plant ecologist who left the arboretum to found her own consulting business, inspected the place in 1990 and found 27 species of native plants. She looked at it again in 1992 and found 66 species, including 26 species that rated five or better on the one-to-ten scale developed by Gerould Wilhelm and Floyd Swink of the arboretum. This rating means that these plants "typify an advanced successional phase of some native community."

In their book Plants of the Chicago Region, Swink and Wilhelm describe the basis for the system and how to apply it. You can combine the ratings of all the native plants present in an area to produce an overall rating for the place as a natural area. If you do this with Wojciechowski's property, you get a Natural Area Rating Index of 32.5. An index above 35 would designate her land as, of "sufficient native character to be of rather profound environmental importance."

I should explain that I have nothing against lawns. They are great places to play croquet or volleyball. If you have toddlers you can let them lurch about the lawn without worrying about them tripping over something hidden in the grass. But I do think that. any child above the age of four would have more fun in a prairie than on a lawn.

I base this assertion on my own experience. I grew up in a subdivision that had been platted by a developer who went to jail before he got very far into the construction of houses. In my preteen years our neighborhood consisted of a few scattered houses--each with its island of lawn--separated by vacant lots. Most of these lots were full of alien species, but some native prairie survived in them.

For me and my friends, the lawns were mainly trouble, since we usually got stuck with the job of mowing them. The prairies were places where we could build forts. There were hiding places on prairies. We found large ugly spiders weaving delicately beautiful webs. Butterflies flew over our prairies. We found caterpillars earnestly chewing on leaves. In one of those vacant lots I watched a monarch caterpillar weave itself into a chrysalis, and some days later watched the adult butterfly emerge. Butterflies do not emerge on lawns. Any spider that dared build a web would be instantly squashed by the householder or poisoned by pesticides.

Nature abhors a monoculture, so maintaining the botanical purity of a lawn takes lots of energy. To keep the weeds out you need to spend endless hours on your hands and knees or--more commonly these days--to douse your property with noxious chemicals that will probably cause your grandchildren to mutate.

And, of course, you have to mow the miserable things. Even in my urban neighborhood we are the only people on the block with a hand mower. I've been in living rooms bigger than the lawns of my neighbors, but every Saturday morning in summer I awaken with the thought that during the night somebody moved my bed to the infield at the Indianapolis Speedway.

The extremely shallow root systems also make lawns little better than slabs of concrete at holding water. When a heavy rain hits, the water heads straight for the nearest sewer, where it can cause flooding.

The usual raps against natural landscapes are that they harbor weeds, bugs, and vermin, but none of these is close to true. Weeds love lawns, but they have a very hard time invading prairies. Prairies are dense communities of perennials with enormous root systems. In a healthy prairie there is just no room for dandelions to muscle their way in. And crabgrass wouldn't have the slightest chance. The weeds that appear in your lawn come from other lawns.

The same is true for bugs. Most pests--whether insects, nematodes, or viruses--are specialists. Anything that attacks your Merion bluegrass probably came from your neighbor's lawn. The insects that take up residence in a patch of prairie are mostly going to be desirable neighbors, like monarchs and tiger swallowtails.

I guess what really bothers me about our obsession with turf is that I see a connection between lawns and levees. Indigenous cultures tend to develop their economies by asking, What are the possibilities of this place? Asking that question enabled people to create very sophisticated, nondestructive methods of making a living from the land.

Our question is typically, How do we remake this land in a way that will allow us to do what we already know how to do? We know from lawns--and we would like to be rich and titled English lords--so we remake the prairie. We know from upland farming, so we build levees to turn floodplains into expensive artificial uplands.

Flexibility has been the secret of humanity's success. And we have means and knowledge far beyond those possessed by any indigenous culture. If we start asking the right questions, if we aren't too rigidly bound by traditional ways of doing things, we might survive.

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