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  Sierra Magazine
  September/October 2006
Table of Contents
Shanghai by Bike
Two-Time Losers
Fall Fashion
My Low-Carbon Diet
Interview: Al Gore
Ways & Means
One Small Step
Lay of the Land
Good Going
The Green Life
Hey Mr. Green
Sierra Club Bulletin
Sierra Archives
About Sierra
Internships at Sierra
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hey mr. green
Mr. Green's September 1, 2006, Mailbag

Rants, raves, and righteous ideas from our readers

Mr. Green loves hearing from his readers, whether they think he's a green guru or an eco-idiot. Periodically, he'll post some of his favorite exchanges online. To join an ongoing debate--or start a new one--e-mail

The Best Way to Drink Beer

Hey Mr. Green,
A six-pack of canned beer costs the same as a six-pack of bottled beer. Both can be recycled. Which is the environmentally better purchase? --"Thirsty" in San Diego, California

Finally, somebody's gone beyond the "paper or plastic" quandary to a meaningful new dilemma! As with that old standby, it's a tough call. Even the Container Recycling Institute, the major advocate and resource for beverage-container recycling, has not taken a position on this one. I could suggest that you purchase your suds in returnable kegs, but this might be frowned upon by those readers who look to Mr. Green as an apostle of moderation.

Next to kegs, Mr. Green would personally opt for bottles because they usually contain better varieties of beer--and because manufacturing glass creates less pollution and requires less energy than making aluminum. Since glass is a much heavier material, however, the additional fuel used to ship bottles outweighs some of the environmental benefit of making them. Aluminum also has a leg up on the recycling end: Nearly 44 percent of beer and soda cans get recycled, as opposed to some 20 percent of glass beverage containers. Both percentages could be greatly improved if more states implemented bottle-deposit laws, a fine, practical idea beverage industries are doing their damnedest to fight.

In an ideal world, we'd all get our brews in returnable bottles that are washed and reused. Although these little wonders are still used in some Scandinavian countries, they were largely obliterated in the United States by the introduction of throwaway containers in the 1950s. Sold to the public on the ease of "no deposit, no return," the wasteful newcomers helped big breweries obliterate smaller ones that couldn't afford the new technology.

If this sad story of pointless consumer convenience and intractable industry greed drives you to drink, find out more about recycling resources and campaigns by visiting Or just start brewing your own beer.

Lawns, Life, and Death

After his May/June column, Mr. Green feared he would find himself enmeshed in the culture wars--not those tedious skirmishes about family values, flags, and courthouse Decalogues, but an equally pitched battle over American lawns. My advice on environmentally sound lawn care began with a simple recommendation to tear out these bland stretches of grass and replace them with more interesting or useful flora. Since lawns are so widely tended, with almost religious dedication, by so many folks across the sociopolitical spectrum, this advice might seem unpatriotic, blasphemous, patronizing, even cruel. Lawns are us. Even in a country notable for its piety, more families tend lawns than attend church services.

When I first wrote about lawns 25 years ago, they comprised about 20 million acres of the U.S. landscape. Today they cover 30 million acres of our fruited plains, or almost 47,000 square miles--an area the size of Pennsylvania. When something gets bigger than Rhode Island, that favorite and rather arbitrary benchmark oft cited by environmentalists, you know it's big.

Considering all this, I expected some savage e-mails and letters. I imagined an army of thousands of lawnmowers gathered at the far end of a vast cemetery, roaring toward me in a mega-horsepower frenzy, crying out for retribution. In this terrifying vision, leaf blowers flew in the skies above, offering aerial combat support and bending trees with the collective force of the wind blasted from their bazooka-like black tubes. But my fears turned out to be baseless. Instead of hate mail, I received sympathetic messages from fellow critics, and from householders who happily maintain their lawns without the use of chemical poisons. Readers also offered some interesting suggestions to augment my advice.

A professional landscaper from Camarillo, California, recommended Carex pansa (a native Carex that requires no mowing), Festuca ovina glauca, wooly thyme, and yarrow as ground covers to replace lawns in dry areas like where she lives. (Wooly thyme is by far the best alternative for sunny, dry areas.) Before offering these tips, she launched into a fine tirade (always appreciated by Mr. Green), declaring that people should "get rid of their damn lawns":

"As a landscape designer, I all too often have to design a yard with a huge lawn--here in the dry land of Southern California. I don't know the statistics, but lawns must be some of the worst energy guzzlers on planet Earth: The excess water--most people water them too often anyway; the electricity to pump all that water 500 miles from the Owens Valley; the lawnmowers--pollution machines; the string weeders for edging--and creating more pollution; the lawn clippings and plastic bags filling our dumps; the fertilizers--made from fossil fuels and chemicals; the weed and bug killers that poison the soil microorganisms, birds, and fish; the runoff--ever seen sprinklers that don't also water the sidewalk and street? The only ones that don't are in backyards, where they water the patios and fences.

And think of all the energy and water used to grow grass. We live near two large sod farms. Think what people could grow in that space that wouldn't need much water and would require no poisons--native plants, interesting succulents, butterfly and hummingbird gardens, fruit trees to feed their kids. I really hate lawns! I have the only yard for miles around that doesn't have a lawn. Lawns belong in places where it rains during the summer."

Amen, sister. However, I do take issue with her final sentence. After some recent touring of landscapes in the Midwest, England, France, and Italy, I'm not convinced that lawns--at least lawns of the gigantic American scale--have a place even where it rains during the summer. Lawns have grown so huge in the rural Midwest that they actually make the landscape look bleak, like a cemetery without tombstones. These monoculture tracts bear neither the pleasant surprises of nature's variety nor the artful, caring touch of human cultivation.

Lawns have expanded so much since my childhood in that part of the country that, while driving around in the summer, you're more likely to see a farmer on a lawnmower than on a tractor. Some people have to be literally pried from their machines, like a cousin of mine who became a local legend when he was cited for drunk driving of a lawnmower. Yards around a farmhouse often exceed two acres--an amount of land peasants throughout history have fought revolutions to obtain for their survival.

In the Midwest countryside, the power of the lawn becomes even stranger than in the suburbs. Unlike in suburban neighborhoods, where even the maximum acceptable height of the grass is prescribed by local ordinance, no such rules exist for farmland. There are no lawn-cult leaders, no Jimmy Swaggarts or Pat Robertsons crying out for followers to "convert thy green pastures into lawns" and "mow today or perish eternally." No one can explain exactly why Midwesterners maintain such large tracts. Mowing is simply a sacred duty, compelled perhaps by powerful images imprinted on our rural brains by countless TV images and advertisements--dreamed up in urban office towers--in which the good life equals the good lawn.

But for rural America, the "good life," on these terms, is a kind of death. It's an emptiness in an empty landscape, and riding that mower back and forth is a way not just of controlling the land, but of being done with it, of sealing it off, cemetery style, of purging and ritually cleansing it while canceling out and forgetting the natural events and human handiwork that once enlivened it.

As we passed by the place that was farmed by four generations of my family before being sold to a neighbor, this feeling cut through me like--like--what? Like a lawnmower blade flung loose from the shaft of a 40-horsepower engine. (At least it was bought by a neighbor and not the local land baron, who has acquired thousands of acres.) Where there was once an acre or so of orchard and garden, there is now nothing but lawn, all the way from the house to the gravel road that runs along the north side of the property.

One generation removed from French and Luxemburger peasantry, my grandparents were close enough to the ways of subsistence farmers to grow their own food--and in those days, many city people also grew a substantial amount. They seemed to enjoy gardening and canning too, and I remember the talk about these activities, about how different vegetables were doing, which rooster was the orneriest, which cow had an attitude. It certainly made for more lively conversation than musing on the gas mileage of a mower.

Of course, there is the danger of romanticizing, but I can still see my grandmother bringing a pot full of peas from the garden and smiling while the popcorn she grew herself rattled in the kettle and some prankster pulled off the lid to let the kernels fly almost to the ceiling. Kids on a farm today are more likely to hear the muffled protest of microwaved kernels than to actually see them pop. Farmers are more likely to drive 20 miles to a Wal-Mart to buy their food than to raise it themselves. Some probably spend as much time driving as their ancestors spent growing vegetables, especially if you factor in the extra hours they have to work to pay for running their cars. But let's leave the calculation of this loss to the agricultural economists.

Looking at these unbounded lawns, I wonder if the oft-mourned decline of the family farm has as much to do with the loss of old rural ways as it does with the government's admittedly stupid agricultural policies and the failure of the market to yield a decent price for farm commodities, a price that even meets the cost of production. As Wendell Berry, Gene Logsdon, and other American farm prophets have lamented, the culture has gone out of agriculture. Its replacement by a suburban lifestyle, with all its expensive toys, cars, amusements, modern houses--and lawns--may have cost farmers as dearly as unscrupulous grain-trader monopolies, political hacks, and U.S. Department of Agriculture bureaucrats extolling the virtues of industrialized farming. As an alternative, Logsdon writes lovingly of his small "garden farm," with its variety of crops and animals. He once celebrated Christmas by going out to the barn, sitting on his cow, and coming to an understanding of how and why divinity could "descend" to a barn. His point is that you don't have to believe literally in Genesis to understand how tending a garden and taking care of the creatures in it can be a blessed state. There are no lawnmowers inside the gates of Eden.

The oversize lawn, aspiring to cemetery dimensions, is not only physically empty but also ecologically bereft. Where there were gardens, orchards, birds, underbrush, trees, and critters, there are now blank spaces. Where there were lilacs and gladiolas, walnut trees, peonies, and hydrangeas, with bobolinks and meadowlarks commenting from the pastures, there is now not even a fence for a bird to perch on because the pastures are gone and the livestock locked up in feedlots and "facilities." Instead of working in and with nature, the lawn and its mower separate us from it. How different being isolated on that machine is from, say, cutting some long, slender branches from a brush or tree, sticking them in the ground, and letting the pole beans twine around them and the tomatoes climb in their own--your own--little jungle.

The contrast with rural areas in Europe is instructive. Right up to the edge of the old farmhouse or road, you'll still find vegetable gardens, small orchards, grapevines, and dive groves. Hedges too and little, left-alone woodsy spots instead of lawns. In the suburbs and cities, the landscape is at once more beautiful and more economical, both because of the human touch and the refrain from human touch. How long this will last is difficult to say, given the rapid advance of industrialized farming and the promotion of American-style eating habits, creature comforts, and the greatest banality of all: convenience.

But U.S. landscapes may still slowly change back to something better. Some farmers are returning to traditional pastures, and some are even sacrificing at least part of their lawns to prairie restoration. Members of a group called Pheasants Forever are planting native grasses to attract their favorite bird, and if farmers shoot a few in their backyards for the table, it's a far better environmental and social arrangement than buying chickens shipped from Tyson's factory farm and slaughterhouse in Arkansas. We're also seeing an increase in urban and suburban gardening, and both the culture and environment will be the better for it. In fact, it's a safe bet that if suburbanites replace lawns with real gardens, farmers will follow suit, just as they do when mimicking the worst, most antiseptic suburban landscaping.

Where were we? Oh yes, the mailbag.

Another reader, Frances in New York, suggested scattering corn gluten on the grass to deter weeds, a solution I didn't mention for reasons of space. I'm not sure how effective it is in all locations, but it's certainly worth experimenting with. (Remember that while we hear a lot of optimistic predictions about the glorious promise of genetically engineered food, most advances in agriculture have been made by farmers themselves; the entire world of farming, from the Yucatan to sub-Saharan Africa to the alpine pastures of Europe, has been a vast laboratory for up to 10,000 years.)

Frances also chided me for making organic lawn care sound too tedious, though what I really had in mind was redeeming lawn care by making it a form of yoga combined with aerobic exercise.

"Your answer to the question about getting a healthy-looking lawn without environmentally damaging fertilizers and herbicides makes abandoning these pollutants sound very difficult. By talking about hand weeding, you conjure images of digging out crabgrass by hand, a job for the very patient with lots of time. It need not be, and is not, that difficult.

Homeowners who use commercial lawn services should know that many now use only organic products and methods. If doing it yourself, some new ideas really help. To deter crabgrass and other weeds, spread corn gluten in the spring. Amazingly, it works. And, yes, aerate and spread seed from grasses that can live without great amounts of water (i.e., xeriscaping). The grass crowds out the weeds. All of this is done to my lawn, and, sure, purists would note the clover that's mixed in with the grass, and some other weeds, but this spring, after some extra reseeding, my lawn is luxuriously growing and green. All without any chemicals. The point is that following the organic regimen is not more difficult than the shotgun polluting approach so heavily advertised by chemical manufacturers."

Well, yes, but I'm still not that fond of oversize lawns even if they're 100 percent organic. Maybe this bad attitude is rooted in traumatic childhood experiences with lawns. My father had a problem with them, being the epitome of the transitional generation of rural America, a generation that started farming with methods that hadn't changed much in a thousand years and ended with high technology. He began his career picking corn by hand and tossing it into a wagon pulled by horses or mules--35 acres in 19 days--and ended by picking that same acreage with a mechanical harvester in a day or so.

We had a lawn, but it was the very lowest of his priorities. He'd let the grass get so high that it was difficult to run a push or hand mower through it, so he hitched my brother and me to the mower and had us pull it like draft animals. It was amusing for a time but had dubious effect as a character builder. (The more we toiled, the lazier we became, until character was practically undetectable.) The grass itself wasn't your tender, sod-begotten, genteel variety of Kentucky bluegrass. Tough pasture grasses like bromegrass and weedy stuff like Johnsongrass and foxtail had invaded the turf, taking their scruffy stand against suburban values. Allowed to grow up to a foot or so, they became wiry enough to make hand mowing well-nigh impossible.

One summer's eve, the old man borrowed a power mower to attack these unruly species. He went rolling along smoothly, though noisily, until a loud crash was heard. He shut off the mower, and we noticed a gaping hole in its cast-aluminum housing. The whirling blade had picked up some object and flung it with such force that it shattered the metal and ripped right through. Looking around, he found the culprit, an old iron harrow tooth--about the size and shape of a railroad spike--that had probably been dislodged from the wooden cross members of a decaying farming implement. About six inches long and a half-inch thick, the harrow tooth was durable enough, and hurled with enough speed, to shatter even the hardest metal housing. Of course, my brother and I had been playing with the antique bit of metal and left it in the grass. We paid a price for that amusement with some harsh words and some serious swats (very unbecoming of an aspiring suburban family). Of the emerging sociological transformations from rural to suburban, the vicious clash between that harrow tooth and that power-mower housing spoke symbolic volumes. Of course not right then. The only lesson I extracted at that point was that mowing lawns is a source of terrible trouble.

My brother was obviously less traumatized by this metal-on-metal episode than I because he eventually took over the mowing chores we shared as we got older. Then one day, while cleaning the mower, he nearly cut off the tip of a finger and had to be rushed to the nearest doctor, about ten miles away, to get it stitched back together. Bloodshed on the blades brought the symbolism to a new level. (Around the same time, a good left-handed pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies lost a chunk of his left big toe in a lawnmowing accident, putting him on the disabled list for a spell.)

Had such things happened today, who knows, we might have gone into family therapy to process the experience and our feelings, and maybe, just maybe, with the help of medication, yours truly would have emerged at peace with himself and his lawn, riding that big mower to glory across the gated development and above and beyond.

Views expressed by readers may not reflect those of Mr. Green or Sierra magazine. Reader suggestions have not been researched or tested.

Read more advice from Mr. Green, including his Web-only mailbag, and submit your own environmental questions at

Mr. Green illustration by Melinda Beck; used with permission.

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