Thoughts on Yard Care and the Modern World
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As I mentioned in my last post, we decided to move, but we don’t have a new house picked out yet. The advice we got was that, in this market, you have to sell the old house first so that you have a pile of cash to use when negotiating for the next house. Or in any case that was the advice as of four weeks ago when we made the decision. Now that interest rates are rising precipitously the housing market is changing pretty fast, so I’m not sure it’s quite as important, but it’s what we decided to do nonetheless.
You may be wondering why we decided to move with interest rates going up and prices (particularly in Salt Lake) super high. Well a little over a year ago my wife told me that it was time for her mother to move in with us. At the same time it appeared that we would shortly be empty nesters, so this seemed to be an ideal time to remodel the house and put in an addition. So I secured the services of a general contractor and then waited, and waited, and waited some more. I could never get him to start the process. I couldn’t even get him to give me a bid. There was always one thing or the other that had to be done first, but he’d promise that next week he’d come out, and then he wouldn’t.
Eventually after a year of this I decided it wasn’t going to happen and that while it was a terrible time to get the attention of general contractors it was a great time to sell old houses. So we pivoted to that. I never thought I’d sell our house (but I had dreamed of remodeling it for a very long time). As I mentioned in my last post, I have too much stuff. (I’m not a hoarder, but I may be on the spectrum.) But somehow that’s what we ended up deciding to do, and getting that old house full of 22 years of stuff ready to sell has been crazy, but as of posting, my house is under contract, and it was only on the market for four days so it looks like we pulled it off. Of course doing so required a lot of work, which is why this post, despite being short, took forever to put together, but I told you this might happen.
In any case, the point I’m trying to get at is that most of my efforts so far have been geared around selling our old house, the process of looking for a new house has barely begun. As part of that process we’ve obviously come up with some criteria. The two big ones are, my wife wants to have no more than a 15 minute commute to her job, and I don’t want a yard.
It’s not that I mind a yard per se. In my current house I’ve xeriscaped the front yard, and, particularly in the spring, which is right now of course, it looks amazing—if it’s been weeded. See it’s not the yard I mind, it's all the work I have to do in order to keep it looking nice. Over the decades I’ve lived in the house I’ve tried various things to make that job easier. And while reducing water usage in a desert is nice, lower maintenance was the primary point of xeriscaping. You would think that putting down a weed barrier and then covering it with rocks would reduce that effort. You would be wrong. Somehow life finds a way, and I have spent considerable time weeding my xeriscaped front yard.
I find this whole business of yard care to be kind of strange. When I’m out hiking I can stop at literally any point on that hike, look to the right or left, pick any spot, and without fail I would be happy if my yard looked like that. I assume most people would feel similarly if they conducted the same exercise, that I am not an outlier. And of course the punchline is, no one spends even a second of work to make that patch of ground look that way, that’s just how it is in a state of nature, in the complete absence of human intervention. Based on this I have long wondered why that isn’t an option for me. Why can’t I just sit back, do nothing, let nature take its course, and end up with a beautiful yard?
Perhaps you’re thinking, “Well that’s up in the mountains, where you go hiking. Sure that’s pretty, with wildflowers and trees, but would you really want the natural look of the dry desert valley with sagebrush and tumbleweed?” And honestly, I’d be fine with that as well, mostly because my primary goal is not how it looks, but how much work it requires, but even so I think that it would look good. And more importantly it would be natural.
Of course if I sit back and do nothing I don’t end up with a beautiful mountain slope, or a rugged and austere desert landscape, and believe me I’ve tried it. A couple times I’ve been in the middle of starting a business and consequently had no time, and even more frequently I’ve just been lazy. During those times I invariably got a lot of annoying, ugly weeds. I don’t get any beautiful native plants, I got thistles and morning glory, and other crap like that. Of course everyone is familiar with this phenomenon, my experience is not unique, you may have tried it yourself or passed by houses where such an experiment was being conducted, but it is worth asking why does it play out this way?
I witnessed a large-scale example of this phenomenon a few years ago. Near where I live there was an old high school. Since the area where I live was aging the school district decided it didn’t need that school any longer and they closed it down. There were a bunch of different ideas for what to do with it. The city wanted to make it into a community center, but that was voted down (by two votes, something I talked about in a previous post). Then supposedly they were going to turn it into a movie set for those times when filming a high school was required, but that also fell through. At some point it wasn’t clear what was going to happen and they stopped taking care of the property all together. This went on for several years. And the end result was not native vegetation, or yellow grass with scattered weeds, but rather a forest of milkweeds that were all about chest high. (If you're curious they did eventually build a bunch of houses on the land along with a new county library.)
How many years would it have taken for that land to return to the way it looked 200 years ago, before the Mormon Pioneers arrived? And yes I know that they weren’t the first humans in the valley but at the time this area was a “buffer zone between the Shoshone and Ute peoples” so it was about as untouched as you could get. Would it have happened in 10 years? 20 years? Never? I suspect because of invasive species and other changes to soil composition from fertilization and cultivation that it’s the latter. It would never go back, but how long would it take for it to not look awful?
Of course the high schools’ original lawn didn’t look awful, which is kind of the whole point of lawns, they look nice, and apparently they’re also great for games like golf and as the name suggests, lawn bowling. But they also require a significant amount of work. Lawns have to be watered and cut and fertilized, with weed killer thrown in there as well, year in and year out, and if that ever stops… Boom! A forest of milkweeds, or something equally awful.
Once I had this realization I thought about it a lot as I was putting forth my own efforts to keep my yard looking nice, but my ruminations were limited to the context of the work I was doing at that moment. Only recently did it occur to me that my landscaping epiphany is also a cautionary tale about the efforts and works of man in general.
Obviously having a nice green lawn was not human’s first attempt to change the natural world in artificial ways, making it conform to their needs and desires rather than leaving it unmolested. These efforts have been going on for millenia. Even groups that have traditionally been viewed as living in harmony with nature altered the world to make it better conform to their needs. The Plains Indians didn’t merely live on the Great Plains, they helped make them into plains and keep them that way by setting large fires. They wanted to create as much habitat as possible for the bison they relied on.
But as much as this has been going on for thousands and thousands of years, more recently it has accelerated, and the difficulty at this point is trying to find some area where it’s not happening.
When one considers changes we’ve made to the natural world the mind is drawn to the big changes, the massive cities with their skyscrapers, the millions of acres of farmland, or the billions of tons of carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere. And it’s understandable that people are focused on those changes, because they’re so huge, but it’s also interesting to look at it from the other side, at what happens when we make even very tiny changes.
I mentioned hiking in the wilderness, and even the disturbance caused by a narrow trail can bring in weeds and other invasive species. I took this from a forest service document:
Most noxious weeds are early successional species that prefer highly disturbed sites such as areas along rivers and streams, trails, trailheads, roadsides, building sites, wildlife bedding grounds, overgrazed areas, and campgrounds… In Glacier National Park, exotic plant species showed a continuous distribution along road and trail corridors… Managing knapweed required preventing roadside infestations from spreading.
Road construction and maintenance activities mix soil layers, increasing soil microbial activity. Weeds exploit these newly available nutrients efficiently. This may be one reason that the density of weedy plants increases as intensity of disturbance increases.
In other words, the minute we change something we alter the natural balance, bringing in short term opportunistic species rather than the long term sustainable stuff we prefer. So the sad truth is that my house couldn’t have the landscaping I see while I’m out hiking because the mere fact of building the house and living in it would make such a yard impossible.
One could imagine that if I waited long enough, and if I was careful enough I could get pretty close, but generally that’s not what we do. Our solution to the problems caused by the initial intervention is to follow it up with still more interventions. If our activities create a fertile breeding ground for weeds we don’t wait for the natural species to claw their way back in, we introduce different plants we like better. We then water and fertilize the plants we prefer, while pulling or poisoning all the plants we don’t. Any “natural” plants that might still be hanging around are soon forgotten.
My point is not that this is bad, (though it very well might be) it’s that once we have started down this path there’s no easy off-ramp. The requirement to intervene becomes perpetual, and more often than not the amount of intervention that’s required just keeps increasing. And if for some reason we stop these interventions, or even if we just slacken our efforts somewhat because we’re distracted, or if we have to divert resources elsewhere, things don’t end up reverting to some harmonious natural state, rather we end up in the hellish situation where we have something that’s neither natural nor intentional. A forest of chest-high milkweeds.
Even if we never lose focus, and we always have the resources available to intervene as much or as little as we want, it’s not like intervention is an exact science, where we’re always able to get exactly the results we want. Sometimes we misjudge things and we push too much, sometimes we don’t push enough. Other times nature pushes back.
The difficulties of intervention are legion, but here are just a few:
To start with there’s what I just talked about, nature pushing back. The best example of this is antibiotic resistance, but even closer to my analogy, weeds also develop herbicide resistance.
Determining the right level of intervention for a yard might be fairly straightforward, but what about more complex systems? Even hardcore government stimulus advocates agree that we pumped too much money into the economy as part of the pandemic response, and now we’re scrambling to undo the inflation that resulted. (Of course other things contributed to the problem as well, but that’s precisely my point.)
At the moment the Western US is suffering from a severe drought, which takes us to the next problem: At some point the resources being used for intervention will end up being insufficient, leaving people in the difficult position of deciding which interventions to continue and which to forgo. Do we use the limited water for hydroelectric power or irrigation?
Perhaps the most difficult part of all about intervening is the way in which interventions have unintended effects. In a manner similar to thinking that it would be nice to have green lawns, we also thought it would be nice to have cheap and abundant power. And it is very nice, unfortunately in the process we released billions of tons of CO2 into the air. This is another place where it would be nice to intervene, but the scope of the intervention exceeds our capabilities.
This last point is an important one. I fear that as the level of intervention required to solve our problems continues to scale up, both in size and in complexity, that more and more we lack the resources and the wisdom necessary to continue to intervene successfully. That eventually we won’t be able to maintain (some would say “prop up”) all of the various interventions which go into creating the modern world. And in those areas that we have been intervening it won’t smoothly revert to however it was before, but rather just like the lawn of that old high school, it will fail in ugly and unexpected ways.
As a final thought I find this idea that noxious weeds are the first on the scene when the natural order is disturbed to be a fascinating one. I haven’t had the time to fully process it because I just came across this idea as I was writing this post, but it does seem like new industries, changes in regulations, and even technological innovations have a tendency to attract the “noxious weeds”. But more importantly, beyond a discussion of any particular industry, as the pace of disruption increases, could we end up in a situation where so much of the long term order has been recently disturbed that the entire landscape is opportunistic weeds? Is it possible that this is already the state we find ourselves in?
Lots of tangential stuff at the beginning there, and then lots of wild speculation at the end. With nothing concrete in between, if you think paying for these nothing sandwiches is worth it consider donating.