A little too green: Turf grass lawns at Williams

Henry Newell

There’s an odd sort of creature living at Williams. It doesn’t do much but take up space, and it needs a good bit of work and money to keep itself fed and presentable. Yet, we let it hang around, feed it and manicure it, year in and year out. This lazy guest of ours is lawn grass, and you can find it hanging around all over campus.

There many reasons turf grass lawns are bad. The underlying problem is that they’re nothing like natural ecosystems. They’re intentionally made up of just one or two species, and forced to stay below an absurdly short height. Things just aren’t supposed to grow like that — in large, uniform monocultures. As a result, it takes a great deal of effort to keep lawns going. They need fossil fuels to power the mowers keeping them short. Often the lawns receive treatment with environmentally hazardous synthetic pesticides and fertilizers to make up for their poor ecological health. They may also require significant amounts of water, especially in drier regions. For these reasons, turf grass lawns contribute to global CO2 emissions, poisoning of ecosystems with agricultural chemicals and water shortages.

Lawns are also nearly useless from an ecological standpoint. Since traditional lawns are kept so short, they provide little habitat for animal species. Frequent mowing prevents grass from producing flowers or seeds, making less useful as a food source as well. Turf grasses are often non-native spe-cies, which means they’re less likely to provide resources for native animals. Plant monocultures limit biodiversity at all levels of the food chain, leading to negative consequences for ecosystem stability

To be clear, I recognize that lawns are sometimes necessary. I’m not trying to turn anyone’s sports fields into forests (though I’d be down to see more forest- like plantings elsewhere on campus). Plus, lawns do provide some benefits by absorbing rainwater and atmospheric carbon, and controlling soil erosion. I’d rather have them than concrete or AstroTurf. But there are much better alternatives out there, and I’d like them used more.

The simplest alternative to traditional lawns is just to not mow them all the time. This doesn’t deal with problems of non-nativity or monoculture, but it can reduce carbon emissions from mowing and increase the grass’s ecological usefulness. It’s a cheap and easy way to make the lawn a little more environmentally friendly. Turf grass can also be re- placed with polycultures of naturally low-growing plants, both grasses and others. This maintains the walkability of the lawn while eliminating the need to mow and the ecological problems associated with monoculture. If walkability is not needed, then naturalistic polycultures of tall meadow plants, shrubs or even trees can be planted (check out the meadow by the Envi Center for an example — it looks super pretty when it’s not winter). Such plantings can be designed to provide habitat and food for a range of wildlife. Narrow strips of grass or wood chips can be used as walking paths when needed. The field of sustainable lawn alternatives is growing rapidly, with ever more exciting options available.

Outside of sports fields, the lawn is mostly an aesthetic object. We’ve been raised to identify it as the “default option” for human-made greenery, so that we rarely question its dominance. But the aesthetic of the lawn places human wants and comforts over ecological good sense and environmental sustainability. It came to be through the European gentry’s desire to display their wealth and dominance of the natural world, and it continues to drain resources and deny natural ecosystems to the present day. As we grapple with the global environmental crisis, we need to adapt our aesthetic preferences towards more sustainable, ecologically sound systems.

As an institution of higher learning, the College has the ability and responsibility to pioneer sustainable solutions to the world’s environmental problems. We build energy-efficient buildings on campus and commission solar farms in Maine. We work to reduce our waste stream, and to compost what we can. Now, it’s time for us to work our way towards more sustainable landscaping. It’s time to take on our turf grass.

Henry Newell 21 is an envi- ronmental studies major from Brooklyn, N.Y.