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The Baltimore Sun

The Well-Manicured Lawn: A Global Menace

Andrew McBee

It's spring. The lilacs are blooming and perfuming the air. The birds are singing. Here in Rodgers Forge, we hear them intermittently -- whenever there's a pause in the roar of lawn mowers, weed whackers and grass blowers. What a friend of mine calls "lawn assault weapons."

Indeed, when my neighbors fire them up, don goggles, and fill the air for hours with their deafening din and noxious fumes, I begin to think of grass as a greater threat to our collective happiness and security than terrorism.

Lawns may be preferable to pavement, but they are not exactly "green," as anyone with a middling interest in environmental issues can tell you. They consume nitrogen-rich fertilizers, which run off into local streams and eventually into the Chesapeake Bay. They also require a considerable amount of water, compromising our supply in times of drought. (According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 30 percent of the water consumed on the East Coast goes to saturating lawns.) And they provide little in the way of habitat for animals, birds or insects.

On the other hand, just about everybody in America knows that global warming is something we and our children will have to contend with in the coming decades.

Yet many people are unaware of the damage to the atmosphere caused by lawn care machines. They don't know that a lawn mower used for half an hour puts 10 times more hydrocarbons in the air than an automobile driven for the same length of time. A string trimmer is even worse, emitting 20 times more pollution than a car. But the worst are the blowers. Because their two-stroke engines burn a mixture of oil and gasoline, a grass or leaf blower puts 34 times more pollution in the air than the average car.

And to what purpose, all of this pollution? To blow small handfuls of cut grass off the sidewalk.

I grew up in Ruxton, a few miles from where I now live, and my family had a spacious lawn, which, when I was a teenager, I mowed. The lawn mower blew grass on the walkway and the driveway. And most often, I left it there. No one was hurt by this grass. No one was bothered. I believe that no one in my family even thought about the grass on the pavement. Eventually the grass dried up and blew away. Occasionally, if I was feeling particularly fastidious, I may have grabbed a broom and swept the pavement clean.

Climate change is real. It's happening. Our summers are longer and hotter every year. Other consequences may well be more dire. But we can change the way we live. For one thing, we can switch from gas to electric mowers -- or, even, better, we can stop mowing altogether and let nature take its course in our yards (the neighbors won't like it, but the planet will).

Getting rid of your lawn may seem a bit extreme, but other changes might entail simply returning to old habits that were environmentally benign: walking, riding a bike, planting a garden, sweeping the sidewalk.

Want a clean pavement? Do your children a favor: Grab a broom.

Andrew McBee teaches writing at Baltimore City College and volunteers for the Jones Falls Watershed Association. His e-mail is

Copyright © 2008, The Baltimore Sun

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