Saturday 24 August 2019

Sarah Carey: 'Cut to the chase - rewilding could offer growth for us all'

Palette of colour: Wild flowers returning to a lawn will bring your garden to life
Palette of colour: Wild flowers returning to a lawn will bring your garden to life

Sarah Carey

Marriages can die of boredom and it's important couples find interesting ways to break the tedium. So you can imagine my excitement when my husband and I found something new to argue about. We'd worn out the dishwasher row (our loading styles differ) so we stopped bothering to have it at all. He's accepted I'll never wear a cycling helmet and while I hate the way he drives, I've moderated my critique to occasional sighs and sharp intakes of breath. Just when we'd abandoned all hope of finding a new topic on which to disagree, along came 'rewilding' to put a spark back into our relationship.

Rewilding is a garden strategy to tackle the biodiversity crisis facing the world. However, as with other green policies, it's one of those practises that's all very well in theory, but comes at a price.

Sometimes the cost is monetary, like carbon taxes or water rates. Or physical effort and inconvenience; for example recycling. It might require learning a new habit, such as reusing shopping bags. In the case of rewilding, we are obliged to reframe our concept of an aesthetic, which is altogether more challenging.

Beauty is a socialised standard that changes with the times. We know this from fashion. For example, take the tan. Two generations ago tans were considered common, as they showed women were outside working. Aristocrats took care to avoid the sun and pale skin was considered highly desirable. This is the still the case in developing countries such as India where "colourism" is so prevalent women buy bleaching products to lighten their skin. In Ireland, where a tan still denotes wealth and ironically, health, most women have a can of fake tan in the bathroom and alas, some apply it with a trowel. Since we know the sun causes ageing - a process in itself considered shaming - it's a mystery why the look is so aggressively pursued.

So it is with gardens, where astroturf is the desirable aesthetic. The concept of a lawn was inherited from English estates. Maintaining one became a symbol of wealth, and as it extended to the middle classes, proof of good character.

I'm sure many people spent last weekend mowing grass rather than relaxing. It's a laborious exercise. Buying and maintaining lawnmowers is expensive and disposing of cuttings increasingly cumbersome. To top it all off, a manicured lawn is environmentally unfriendly. In times of drought authorities ban watering them. But in Ireland, the chief crime is that zealous mowing contributes to the apocalyptic extinction of insects.

In truth, there is nothing good about a mown lawn other than custom. It's perverse so much effort is put into growing a crop - grass - designed never to be eaten by human or animal. Trees and flowers sustain bird and insect life, but lawns perform no function other than providing evidence its owner is a good member of society. Indeed, as society becomes increasingly liberal, it often amuses me to see what rules remain rigidly enforced.

The shearing of women's body hair and lawns are two conventions so entrenched that failing to do either could be considered a sign of mental illness or callous disregard for oneself and in the case of grass, one's community.

But advocates of biodiversity correctly argue that allowing grass to grow allows wild flowers to grow too. Several weeks ago when our lawn went unmowed by accident, I saw all sorts of tiny flowers come through. Dainty little white and pink petals dotted the garden. White and purple clovers sprang up beside buttercups and all kinds of bees darted from one to the other. I was elated.

My husband had been away for a week, which was why a scheduled cut had been missed. On his return I issued instructions regarding the new environmentally friendly policy, fully expecting that liberation from this time-consuming chore would be gratefully received. Alas, my joyful declaration of no-more-mowing elicited a more nuanced response. There was wounded pride that so many hours and years of hard labour was being undermined, and it appeared that not everyone is willing to let go of the tidy-lawn look.

The issue was debated over dinner with another couple where it became a little awkward. The husband was excited by the prospect of having his mowing duties reduced, but the wife was appalled.

In recognition of the social challenge, advocates have proposed compromises such as cutting edges, swirls and paths to demonstrate the effect is the result of design rather than neglect. Himself and myself have come to this form of accommodation by gradually reducing the mowed area so everyone can adjust. It'll be interesting to see if rewilding is a fad like flares, that dies out in a few seasons or like the mini-skirt goes mainstream.

Like the tan, it may have to be adopted by our social betters to take off. We've shown ourselves capable of making major cultural shifts in Ireland. It'll be interesting to see if the lawn joins the list of mad things we used to think were normal.

Irish Independent

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