It’s that time again: the latest round of the anti-weed, lawn-spraying wars. In our town, this plays out not only in individual lawns but on the campus of our college, which routinely comes under fire from lots in the community and some on the faculty for its annual spraying (usually around Memorial Day.) I am not unsympathetic to the desire for a lawn free of creeping Charlie and dandelions (the two big weeds in this part of the world) because my own lawn gets more taken over by them every year, and my little reel mower takes more and more passes to keep them under some semblance of control. As a little girl, I once earned a dime per plant for weeding an entire horse pasture full of dog fennel, an obnoxious, straggly deep-South weed, tossing them one by one into my red wagon trundling behind me. My mom still points proudly to the fact that nary a dog-fennel plant has ever reared its head in that pasture again.
I am just enough of a Virgo neat-freak to dream of the green velvet sward, or at least of clearing enough time in my schedule to dig out every single dandelion by hand. They say you can eat dandelion leaves as a good spring green. I’m sure that’s true but I prefer a different treatment for my enemies: trucked in a spare trash bin off to the yard waste site, off the property, out of my life for good. (You can compost them, but they have a sneaky tendency to turn to seed even after being cut, and then your compost becomes parasitized.) In moments of weakness I am tempted to call the lawn-spraying company and let them have at it. But I like to walk on my lawn in bare feet, and so do my cats. I like to eat what comes out of my garden knowing it is chemical-free and safe. I know that chemical-company promises of “safety” — like just about every other corporate promise I can think of — are illusions designed to angle for our wallets and scratch the little consumerist itches we tuck out of sight, behind all our good intentions. If you’ve ever had a family member with cancer — as more and more of us have — you know this danger is real. Our bodies are the living end results of processing all that’s in the world around us. And I don’t want to pay for poison in my own dear yard, in the soil that — since I am a homeowner — is mine, just as I wouldn’t pay for poison in my body or brain.
But whether to spray on a corporate or college campus is not always the decision of idealists like me who work there. It’s an issue connected to our big task these days in higher education: discerning and maintaining our values in the face of market pressures which can be more antithetical to those values than we like to think. As deposited-student numbers (like everyone’s) come under scrutiny and administrators get nervous (like everywhere), one of the first places we look is to appearances — we show off the climbing wall, the renovated dorms, the beautiful river winding through our valley, the restored and well-maintained prairie with its cross-country running trails, all of which speak well to the values of student health in and engagement with a lovely and particular place. As a college, too, we ask students to examine and challenge their existing values and ideas in order to grow, as any good college does. But lawn-spraying is a persistent blind spot, squatting like a big hairy-rooted dandelion smack in the middle of what is otherwise a generally sensible and sustainable conversation about how to maintain our campus’s good looks and appeal to prospective students and beauty as a place we live and work every day. Our focus on spotless, undulating waves of green betrays the same lurking golf-course, pseudo-nature aesthetic that is wrecking terrain and depleting groundwater all over the country — and the costs of which California, just to name one, is discovering a little too late. Colleges have to be leaders in facing, and thinking about ways to handle, reality. And blindly following the same shopping-mall-“pretty,” green-and-weedless-at-any-cost aesthetic that’s poisoning and/or depleting water tables in a world where water is about to be more precious than ever is a failure of leadership. It’s a failure, period.
A couple of years ago, I wrote to a then-high-up-administrator to urge that spraying be stopped. In addition to the known, ongoing dangers of lawn chemicals on grass where our students play (and in the groundwater they drink), there is usually an embarrassing casualty of “drift” — last year, a young tree planted in memory of a student. The administrator was responsive to my concerns but told me the spraying would continue so that the campus would present the best impression to prospective students and parents. The annual cost, some $4500 at the time, was, he said, in the scheme of things, not that big a deal. I suggested — in line with other sustainability and marketing initiatives, and with the general cost-cutting pressures every department on campus is feeling in areas from copying to art supplies to student travel to conferences — that we save that $4500 and stop poisoning the air and ground by setting up friendly signs bearing some marketing-approved version of “If you see a dandelion, be happy, not scared — this college controls ‘weeds’ by cutting, not spraying, because we care about our students’ endocrinal and cellular health!”
I still think we should give this a try. Maybe someday we will. The day of the spray, at least in our area, is coming to a close as more and more people make the same decisions about their lawns that I am making. In the meantime, that woman out there in the bare feet, pushing the whishing, clackety reel mower, rooting out the baby buckeye trees from last year’s squirrel-buried nuts (and sprinkling cayenne pepper against future squirrels), and calling to the cats as they nose around in the grass – that’ll be me.