It’s Not Just About Water and Drought – by Red Slider
Last year, when the Sacramento City Council amended city codes to permit alternative front yard garden options (trees, vegetables and other “landscape” choices), I silently noted that this single change was one of the most far-reaching and far-sighted actions our city government has ever taken. Interestingly, there were two Council members who had some reservations about the matter. The first, by Robbie Waters, about “enforcement problems” was understandable. He comes from a background of law-enforcement and would naturally view matters as potentials for conflict (though I wondered what trouble the amended code might visit upon us – Compost hoarding? Tomato thieves in the night? ).
The second reservation was more interesting. Laura Hammond made mention of the need for education and neatness. I believe, she said, “people will need to be educated,” and spoke of tidy yards. At this, my ears perked up. “Yes, indeed,” I thought, “and first among them, the City Council will need to be educated about just how radical a change they have made with such a small concession to home gardeners and what ‘neatness’, in that context, may actually mean.
“Drought” and “Water-wasting” are the buzz-words for today. But in fact, the matter is far larger in scope than the recent ‘brown-lawn flap’ reported on the Bee’s front-pages. What the City Council did that day was, in fact, to begin the process of overturning centuries of practice and policy that have equated neatness and tidiness with uniformity and, in general, have attempted by fact and symbol to keep nature tamed and at bay. From the first century, when the Roman’s first introduced the ‘garden idea’ in Britain, to the Victorian period when gardens became the apex of demonstrating that civilization was to be equated with the affectation of controlling nature, the home and public garden has been one long progress to demonstrate that human life was to be set beside, apart and above its natural surroundings. Everything, from the public aesthetic to property values was distorted to this single-purpose. Even the term “landscaping” carries the tone of our dedication to the ‘conquest of nature’ philosophy. Of course, most of us are unaware of this history or where our tastes originated. We just say, “this is neat, that is messy,” and let it go at that.
In the early eighteen hundreds, Giacomo Leopardi wrote about gardens and landscapes:
“Now in these things, a large part of what we call natural, is not; it is even quite artificial: that is to say, the tilled fields, the trees and other domesticated plants that are placed in order, the rivers kept within bounds and directed toward a certain course, and such, lack both the state and the appearance that they would have in nature.”
And we all are becoming rapidly aware of what a disaster that philosophy has visited upon us and our children. Everything from global-warming to building in flood plains, is an off-shoot of that central idea. Front (and back-) yards aren’t just about water. They’re about how we regard nature and whether we choose to live with it, or in some determined battle to bend it entirely to our purposes. I don’t think Laura Hammond was aware of that history when she coupled the idea of widening the scope of front-yard land-use with the need for education. However, my first thought was that it would be the City Council that would need to be educated about what this very small change might require of them. First and foremost will be entirely new ideas of what ‘neat’ and ‘maintained’ mean in an environmentally conscious city. For one, it does not mean uniformity and conformity. By its very nature, such changes are rooted in the idea of diversity, invention and creative energy. To a conventional urban planner (or code enforcer) multi-purpose and natural gardens may appear wild and unruly; some form of “blight.” But, natural gardens – the kind that grow food and herbs and harmonize with the land – are, by definition, ever changing environments. If done thoughtfully, they are indeed planned; to attract good bugs and discourage harmful ones, to replenish natural soil nutrients, to take advantage of seasonal and climate variations, local variations in sun, wind and water and, yes to change color – from greens to browns to riots of color – as the seasons and cycles change. However, above all, they are living environments which are in states of constant motion, change and experiment. They do not sit still in some “proper place” like good statues or well-tended lawns.
In the last half-century, perhaps the most important lesson we haven’t learned is that nature is the tidiest example of how things ought to look and work. As long as we ignore those lessons and the new aesthetics that must accompany them, New Orleans (and our own periodic floods, here), melting polar ice, ozone-holes, bee-depopulation, dead rivers and a thousand other tragic ‘adjustments’ will be exactly what we can expect as nature attempts to tidy up the messes we make with our anti-natural aesthetics. That’s just nature’s way of making things neat and responding to complaints with its own form of code enforcement.
In the final analysis, this city is off to a good start. It wants to be an ecologically friendly, environmentally green and conscious place. The day after the ‘brown-lawn’ story broke, the Sacramento Bee not only reported the outrage of residents at the city’s unwitting attempt to punish someone for good environmental practices; but the city’s instant back-peddling to broaden their own desire to reformulate old unnatural practices into new and sounder ones. To do that take more than some fast back-peddling and ad hoc re-interpretation of our codes. It will take a good deal of education and a clear understanding that this isn’t just about water or droughts or what “looks good” (and to whom?). It’s about soil quality and air and sunshine and energy. Its about quality food and fresh air and micro-economics and community pride. It’s about what kind of ‘green city’ we want to become and whether our greening even needs to be dominated by a slew of arcane rules.
In this, our Council might begin with inviting the Master-Gardener Program based at U.C. Davis, to spend a few sessions educating them on what diversity and good environmental practice might look like in our own front-yards and communities. Not your mother’s idea of picket-fences (a waste of wood) and tidy beds of non-edible flowers. There’s room for that, too; but, oh, there’s so much more. Blight may have nothing to do with whether your lawn is brown, and much to do with whether you leave damp trash to collect and populate your neighbors vegetable gardens with earwigs. ‘Neat’ may include last seasons’ leaves and plant cuttings left to mulch next season’s zucchini, or a collection of weird cacti doing well on a few drops of water; and the ‘messy maze’ of criss-crossing drip-lines may be every bit as tidy as the most obsessively manicured lawn. Such changes will not come easy. There are decades and centuries of habit to overcome, as well as the antiquated notions of a real-estate industry about “what sells.” But, if we’re really serious about becoming a ‘green city’ then it will not simply be a matter of ‘platinum-green’ office buildings, but what goes on in our own front-yards and what promotes rather than discourages good natural practice at that level. Nor, will it be a single department or city code that will need to be re-educated. Not least, it will be the residents, through their own education, choices and sharing of information which will have the greatest impact on whether we are a community ‘blindly following old-world rules’, or engaged people creating a healthier and more sustaining environment for ourselves and our children.
The economic and social, not to mention natural benefits will be there, if we’re really willing to think things through. Yes, start with ‘it’s ok to have a brown lawn’. But, keep in mind, it’s not just about water; not just about drought. We need to begin to reeducate ourselves and, for that greening, the City Council would be a very good place to start.
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