Once again, the Sunday New York Times brings home a stark reminder of the gulf between us and Thoroughly Modern Homeowners. According to this metro story ("For Some, Grass is Greener Where There Isn't Any"), many New York homeowners are paving over their front and back yards, not always to their neighbors' joy. Ah, yes, pave-overs--we know them well!
We have several right on our block of once-leafy, once-verdant 50 x 100 lots (that's a nice bit of acreage by urban standards). Several have involved lopping down huge old trees. Most have been done by homeowner/contractors whose panel vans cheerfully advertise their readiness to perform "all types cement work." Some consist of cracked, hastily slathered concrete; others are stark masterpieces of interlocking pavers. Every last one serves the prime directive of the pave-over: making more room for cars. Or SUVs. Or panel trucks. Some of these contractors were born and raised in Southeast Asian lands lush with vegetation--does it not break their hearts?
Not as badly as parking tickets or garage rentals, apparently. I have been asked repeatedly why we do not pave over our back yard--usually by someone eager for yet more vehicular storage and willing to rent some from me. "Hm, let's see--14 different rosebushes, one of which is named Cardinal Richelieu and has reddish-purple velvety blossoms? My tiny lawn, where praying mantises scramble up the shafts of grass each summer? The herb garden, which includes three different types of thyme? The compost heap, where every scrap of fruit, vegetable, and leaf waste gets turned into fragrant black soil? ..." Oh, never mind. None of it equals a parking space.
But in reading the Times account of pave-overs and their unashamed advocates, I have discovered an even more compelling argument for cement than mere utility. In the minds of some enlightened homeowners, the whole lawn-and-border thing is worse than a waste of space--it's a toxic threat. One Jack Casaro, aptly employed as a "technology systems executive," has recently turned his modest Whitestone house into a "brick fortress," reports the Times, and now he proposes to spend another $25,000 to pave the property in brick. Grass, he says, is "too much maintenance." (I assure you that a fortress on a 40 x 100 lot does not leave much room for burdensome greenswards.) But it was the comments of his mother, Angela, that really opened my eyes. That lawn? That compost heap? A sinister hotbed of contagion! Or, as Angela proclaimed, "Lawns have ticks and disease and worms and stuff. This way, it's safe and sterile. It's a cleaner area for the children to play. I love nature and I love grass, but I don't want my family exposed to disease."
Angela, you earth mother you--I'll just bet you love grass! About as much as my poor inner-city children, back when I gave tours of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, who (after a lifetime kept pent up in the projects) would recoil in horror from the rolling lawns, shrieking in genuine alarm, "That's nasty!" And to think I have been exposing the poor CrazyStable Child, all these years, to those dreaded worm-borne diseases! To think of the countless occasions on which she has (shudder) actually touched a worm!
All this has simply fueled my resolve to tear out much of our remaining old cement pad--in the now-truncated piece of driveway destined to become a medieval cloistered garden, or "garth"--preferably with my bare hands. I've already got several big chunks pried up. (Then there's the substrate of sand and gravel to excavate--although if I put down enough compost I can simply start a "lasagna garden" of fertile layers.) It must be my old Catholic fervor for "reparations"--making up for the sins of others. Every backache and broken fingernail will help expunge the karmic (and environmental) insult of Angela's Asphalt.
The city itself lives on its own myth. Instead of waking up and silently existing, the city people prefer a stubborn and fabricated dream; they do not care to be a part of the night, or to be merely of the world. They have constructed a world outside the world, against the world, a world of mechanical fictions which condemn nature and seek only to use it up, thus preventing it from renewing itself and man.
--Thomas Merton, from Raids on the Unspeakable (1964)