It may seem like hyperbole to compare growing a lawn with smoking (not combining the two, as in smoking grass), but when weighing the environmental and health effects of both rather useless activities, they may not be all that dissimilar. A lawn is purely ornamental and serves no practical purpose when it is not used as pasture for grazing animals. Deer may come out of the woods to clip parts of a suburban lawn, but for the most part keeping a lawn within the height limits deemed proper by neighbors is left up to the homeowner. Anything higher than about six inches meets with disapproval from neighbors and, in the case of a homeowners association rules, may merit a written slap on the wrist.
There was a time not long ago when most people smoked, and smoked everywhere. Movies of contemporary stories from the 1940s and 1950s showed actors portraying their characters as human chimneys. Few people thought much of it up until 1964, when the Surgeon General issued a report on the dangers of smoking. Even then, it took another generation for the momentum of social disapproval of smoking to build to a tipping point, largely because of the obstructive practices of the tobacco industry. In the matter of lawn growing, the balance is now tipped in favor of the people who dump fertilizers and broad leaf herbicides on their lawns to achieve an ideal of carpeted green perfection, and then burn up fossil fuels in order to keep that exuberant growth clipped to a manicured standard.
Sheep, goats, and a shepherd near Lake Vistonida in Thrace, Greece. Photo by Ggia.
Given the information available about the toxic effects of fertilizer and herbicide runoff, and the deleterious effects on the climate of continued burning of fossil fuels, it seems insane to idealize the perfect lawn and what it can take to achieve perfection. Yet as things stand now, the people with model lawns are the ones who look down on everyone else and appoint themselves as standard bearers. Perhaps if more people understood the destructive effects to their own health and to the environment of all their fussing over lawns, then the balance would start to tip the other way toward saner practices.
When homeowners apply fertilizers and herbicides to their lawns, there is no obvious puff of smoke to notify everyone else of the activity. It is not as obvious then as smoking, and therefore general social disapproval will take a long time to build, and may never build to a tipping point the way it did with smoking. Education will probably be the main factor in changing people’s behavior. There are state laws which require commercial herbicide or pesticide applicators to post signs on lawns they have treated. Those are the 4 inch cards on sticks stuck into lawns, and to the extent that most passersby and neighbors give them any attention, they can easily mistake them as advertisements for the lawn care company.
The opening scene of Blue Velvet, a darkly satirical 1986 film directed by David Lynch. Besides demanding large amounts of fertilizers and herbicides to look their best, lawns gulp huge amounts of water in order to stay green throughout the warmest months.
Most people are away at work when lawn care companies do their treatments, and so they aren’t around to catch a whiff of the cabbage smell of the typical broad leaf herbicide as it drifts around the neighborhood. And of course, the homeowner who does his or her own applications, usually on the weekends when neighbors are also home, does not bother with any formal notifications at all. A neighbor might ask such a homeowner “What’s that smell?” To which the enterprising amateur lawn care enthusiast might reply, without apparent knowledge of or concern about the collateral damage of his or her efforts, “That’s the smell of the green, green grass of home!”
Viewers of American television shows from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s might have noticed that the families on shows of that era seemed to have lamb chops for dinner rather often, or certainly more frequently than most Americans eat lamb or mutton now. This doesn’t approach anything like a scientific proof of declining consumption of lamb and mutton since the mid-twentieth century, and at that it would only prove a decline among the demographic of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who were the main representatives of Americans on television then, but there it is nonetheless. On old shows like Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver, the characters were eating lamb chops regularly, but after the 1970s hardly anyone ate lamb chops anymore.
A British shepherd with a lamb and his Border Collie in the 1890s. Photo from the National Media Museum of the United Kingdom.
Ham has always been more popular in Middle America than lamb, and Easter dinner was no different. It was in immigrant communities in the cities of the east and west coasts that lamb was popular, at Easter or anytime. Nevertheless, through the middle years of the twentieth century lamb and mutton were widely available throughout the country and competitively priced with other meats at supermarkets and butcher shops. Much has been made of the learned distaste for canned mutton among service members returning from overseas duty in World War II for the eventual decline in popularity of sheep meat in America, but statistics and anecdotal evidence of the popular culture as represented on television programs discount the impact of that one factor.
The increased use of synthetic fabrics over wool contributed to the drop in sheep herding, but that also is overemphasized, considering that synthetic fabrics gained ground in other countries as well, places like Australia and New Zealand where sheep herding remains a large part of the agricultural economy. What separates American sheep raising culture most from the rest of animal husbandry is the difficulty of conforming it to the needs of large scale agribusiness. In the generations after World War II, when family farms were swallowed up in large numbers by agribusiness concerns which consolidated the raising of chickens, beef cattle, and pigs into factory farms, the raising of sheep, and particularly lambs, resisted conforming to factory farm standards. As a result, American lamb and mutton became more expensive than comparable weights of chicken, beef, or pork.
American sheep herdingdeclined to a cottage industry, which had the ironic effect of insulating it further from the factory farming practices which had taken over other areas of animal husbandry by the end of the twentieth century. The mutton and lamb available in Middle American supermarkets in the same period was likely as not imported from Australia or New Zealand. The imported meat was cheaper than American raised mutton and lamb despite the long shipping distances because of the economies of scale in those countries, where sheep were still raised in the tens of millions. Americans generally did not favor the imported meat over beef, chicken, and pork, however, because of the “gaminess” they noted in it, a product of the types of sheep raised in Australia and New Zealand and the pasture they were raised on. Americans had gotten so used to the blandness of meat produced by grain diets for factory farmed animals that they started rejecting anything stronger.
From The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show of the 1950s, the two performers reenact one of their vaudeville routines for announcer Harry Von Zell. As Americans begin to reject factory farming out of both the inhumane nature of it and the unhealthy food it produces, prospects for sheep herders in this country are improving. Considering the practices most, but certainly not all, of them have adhered to over the last half century through some bad times, it’s not that they ever went anywhere, but that the rest of us did and are now drifting back to them in dribs and drabs. If it weren’t for the support of the immigrant population and their preference for American lamb and mutton, the sheep herders here would not likely have survived the lean times in sufficient numbers to crank up operations again with the promise of supplying more Easter dinners. Of the lambs the best that can be said is that unlike many of their unfortunate cousins on the factory farms their lives, however brief, may be more natural and even peaceful.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
― Luke 2:10-11, from the King James Version of the New Testament.
Just in time for Christmas, the Congress passed its giveaway to the rich known as the Republican tax reform package, and the Thief-in-Chief signed it into the law of the land. Afterward much merriment was enjoyed by them and their kind on the South Lawn of the White House, where boot licking was the order of the day. The corruption and depravity oozing from the swamp of Washington, D.C. is too disheartening to dwell upon at this festive season of the year.
Moving on from the fairy tale that the Republican tax plan does anything at all for anyone but the wealthy, there is the fairy tale that has taken hold in some quarters that the Nativity of Jesus Christ was devoid of political ramifications at the time or in today’s world, and that therefore Christmas should be devoid of politics. A straightforward reading of the Gospels should dispel those ideas. Herod the Great apparently had no illusions about the threat posed by the birth of Jesus to the political future of himself and his progeny. Even taking the Gospels at face value, the Nativity story is loaded with politics.
Saddled Donkey, a painting of the Nativity by Finnish artist Aleksander Lauréus (1783-1823). Donkeys were the mount of the lower classes when they could afford them, while the upper classes rode horses. In addition to providing transportation for the Holy Family to Bethlehem and then to a temporary exile in Egypt, a donkey would be the mount of choice for Jesus when he entered Jerusalem to complete His mission.
The dramatic tension of the story derives from the methods that the adult Jesus would teach to change people’s lives, with eventual political change as a by product, as opposed to the immediate political change some of His followers hoped for and most of His opponents feared. And it starts in the Nativity when individuals on both sides refer to Him as a King, though they mean different things by that term. Herod the Great was correct to see the birth of Jesus as a threat to his world, however he may have perceived that threat.
The relation of the Nativity as an innocuous story about a baby and some shepherds is alright for small children who cannot grasp the larger political and humanitarian dimensions of the birth of Jesus, but for adults to ignore the story’s radical aspects and still profess an understanding of it borders on cognitive dissonance. The events set in motion by the birth of Jesus and the principles he taught in His later ministry were a radical departure from the politics of His time. Blessed are the meek? The rich have no chance at salvation until they give away all they have? Those were not standard beliefs then, nor are they now, despite what many people profess.
There is no “War on Christmas”, at least not in the way some conservatives formulate it. That is nonsense made up by people who, if they were confronted by the real Jesus today, rather than their Jesus of fable, would be horrified and demand that He be hauled away to prison. Based on what He is quoted as saying in the Gospels, He certainly would not have been there last week on the South Lawn of the White House ghoulishly celebrating the passage of a tax bill that steals from the poor to give to the rich. He would not have sided with evangelical voters who deem the election of any Republican, no matter how cretinous, better than the election of a Democrat. Who are these people to make war on Christmas by celebrating the birth of a baby who preaches war, hate, and intolerance rather than peace, love, and understanding? That story feeds the needs of empire and is on the side of the Romans. That’s not the true Christmas story, and there’s nothing funny about it.