Emily Hourican on suburban gardens: One man’s vision imposed, a patch of green at a time: “I am man, see me mow”

On Saturday, a party in a Georgian house in town. Out in the back garden, alongside an elegant oblong pond with fat red carp, where a neat lawn used to be, a patch of mixed tall grasses, wildflowers, stubby weeds and seed heads waved gently in the evening air.

“Do you walk through it or around it…?” a woman murmured.

“I’ll bring over a lawn mower,” one guest said helpfully.

“If you do I’ll kill you,” the host responded genially.

The helpful guest was honestly confused, and so ensued a conversation about lawns, conservation and rewilding, in which it became apparent to me that there is a certain type of man for whom the concept of the rewilded lawn strikes deeply – and unpleasantly – at the heart of everything he believes of himself. Every value he holds dear and wishes to display.

For this kind of man (yes, of course there are women too, but honestly, I only know men in this mould), a well-mown, well-weeded and well-watered lawn – a patch of green as smooth and close-cropped as a golf course – is both calling card and a mirror. A flag waved that shows his essential masculinity; a place to look and see his essential investment in civilisation; order brought to chaos, encroaching nature subdued and harnessed, one man’s vision imposed, a patch of green at a time: “I am man, see me mow.”

My guess is this fulfils many functions. That bit of land front and back of house is all that’s left to the average urban man of a once-great-and-sprawling battle with the forces of nature. No longer obliged to wrestle a living from it, he still has a need to cut and prune and dig. It’s the way dogs who were bred to hunt for survival can be soothed by chasing after rubber mice.

Not to mention that the rhythmic up-and-down of a lawn mower is a pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon – and a chance to dodge other, less enjoyable domestic chores: ‘I did the lawn, you tidy the attic.’

Where I live in the suburbs of south Dublin, there are many such Lawn Men. And they don’t always mix well with the newer crop of rewilders.

“It’s basically Astroturf,” a friend said furiously about the patch of emerald velvet in front of a neighbour’s house. “An ecological desert. Sterile and useless to wildlife and plantlife alike. I even suspect him of using weed killer…” Subtext: This man is ruthless, selfish, short-sighted.

You can be pretty sure Lawn Man has his own views on the abundance of dandelion seed-heads and half-blown poppies taking over her front garden. One man’s meadow is another man’s eyesore. And the truth is, it is a very fine line between eco-friendly and just plain lazy. In that intersection is where my own enthusiasm sits.

​For years, when the kids were small, there was very little mowing to be done. They played football on the front lawn and the effect was like a flock of grazing sheep. The grass never got beyond ankle height. Now they’re older and play less, the growth is pleasingly abundant. And so we left it. And left it.

It got so long the foxes who live out the front were tunnelling through it. It was beautiful, full of weeds – which as my daughter (who grows dandelions in pots, and is jubilant at how successful she is) pointed out, are just flowers that grow where we didn’t ask them to – and a rich source of life for small and winged creatures.

The thing is, for those who do not look and see a glorious patch of nature let run loose to the benefit of all, there is the distinct possibility that everything about that lawn says ‘careless, lazy, good-for-nothing; probably a crack den’.

So my daughter made a sign for the gate. ‘Meadowing,’ it read, with cheery passive-aggression; ‘Bring back the bees.’ Alongside were cute colour pictures of smiling pollinators. It was my way of virtue signalling: ‘See? NOT feckless drug dealers… sound, eco-minded Good People’.

Actually, I’m thinking of turning it into a business. There could be a range of these signs, covering all the stuff we can’t be bothered to do or replace anymore, switched-up to look like sustainably-minded choices.

Ten days before the end of No Mow May, though, we finally gave in and took a lawn mower to the front. The grass had reached waist-height and my fear was that we’d soon have to go at it with scythes.

Over the chugging sound of the mower, I distinctly heard a collective sigh of relief on the road.

​On Thursday evening a message landed in one of my many WhatsApp groups. A school for children on the autism spectrum was looking for donations of scooters, because the kids like to play with them at yard time, and they get wrecked, and there is no budget left to buy more this year. As it happened, only the day before I had looked at my daughter’s scooter in the shed, and wondered what to do with it now she is too big for it, and her cousins too.

“I’ve got a scooter to donate,” I replied to the group. Someone said they would come and collect. Which made me think – “I bet more people round here also have spare scooters. Why pick up one when you can pick up many?” And so, I sent a few WhatsApp messages of my own. By the evening, I had gathered seven scooters, with the promise of more, and offers of further donations.

On Sunday, someone came to pick them all up. “Do you want any more?” I asked. “I’m sure I can keep gathering? And what about other wheeled things? There’s the offer of something called a Green Machine…?”

“Actually, we’ve been overwhelmed,” she said. “I mean, it’s great, but now we’re drowning in scooters.”

I remembered the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and a message that hit neighbourhood and school WhatsApp groups: “I’m driving a truck to Ukraine with basic supplies. Anyone who has spare blankets, warm clothes or toiletries and wants to donate, please drop to…’

That message was followed a day later by a frantic “Please stop donating. We cannot handle any more deliveries”.

Someone, somewhere should bottle this, I think. Better again, someone somewhere should find a way to channel it for the effective improvement of society. All that goodwill, all that energy, all those spare items, all that group-chat potential – there must be a way to join it up and make it work that isn’t amateur, isolated, haphazard?

Suggestions via WhatsApp please.

Get ahead of the day with the morning headlines at 7.30am and Fionnán Sheahan’s exclusive take on the day’s news every afternoon, with our free daily newsletter.

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