Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
To address the futility of human existence, the philosopher Albert Camus turned to the Greek myth of Sisyphus, whose afterlife consisted entirely of rolling a rock uphill and watching it roll down again. Camus might just as well have focused his attention on mowing the lawn.
Actually, to compare a lawnmowing homeowner to Sisyphus is somewhat unfair to Sisyphus. At least he had the satisfaction (in Camus' telling, anyway) of lucidity. The homeowner has only the pleasure of seeing the lawn subdued for the moment, trimmed in neat rows that will fade by Tuesday. And even that small measure of contentment is at risk in the face of evolving environmental values.
Manicured lawns waste water. They spread pollutants. They discourage pollinators. They squander time. The uniform monochrome of a neighborhood's lush lawns, once seen as an indicator of prosperity and class, is becoming a signal of environmental indifference in some areas of the country. It's not hard to foresee a time when grassy lawns will be about as welcome on the block as animal fur.
This summer's abnormally arid conditions have offered a sabbatical of sorts — a time to rest and reflect on this Sisyphean exercise of repetitive work. As grass went dry and dormant, the only people with anything much to mow were those who continued watering. Others, uncomfortable with dead lawns yet loath to waste water (or stymied by watering bans), pondered the effort and expense of remaking their yards with drought-resistant alternatives.
In Minnesota, a lucky thousand or so have secured assistance this year from the state's Lawns to Legumes program. Offered by the Board of Water and Soil Resources, it makes funds and other help available to encourage people to turn their yards into pollinator habitats.
Now that our region has gotten a bit of rain, color is again springing back into yards that had appeared hopeless. But we shouldn't forget our brief lesson in what it's like to live with water insecurity — a small taste of the scarcity now being felt in California, where officials say conditions have deteriorated to their worst point in 1,200 years. Even if our water supply lasts a long time, it might not last forever, especially in the face of demand from an influx of climate refugees.
So it only makes sense for homeowners to transition away from lawns that require frequent watering. Available options include rock gardens, rain gardens and native plants that can survive with irregular precipitation.
Does that sound like an invitation to let nature take its course? It isn't. In Minneapolis, a city ordinance specifies that weeds or grass must be kept to a maximum height of 8 inches "except as part of a managed natural landscape." If the term "managed natural" seems confusing, the ordinance helpfully clarifies: Such a landscape comprises "a planned, intentional and maintained planting of native or nonnative grasses, wildflowers, forbs, ferns, shrubs or trees, including but not limited to rain gardens, meadow vegetation, and ornamental plantings."
A key requirement is that the landscape not include "noxious weeds" as defined by Minnesota's secretary of agriculture. The state's list of such weeds is long and includes species that a layperson might mistake for innocent wildflowers, like purple loosestrife and wild parsnip. The level of expertise required may seem daunting.
One appealing alternative is to supplement or even supplant existing grass with white clover. It gets by with minimal watering and needs only infrequent mowing. It might not hold up under games of touch football, but it's pretty and provides suitable habitat for pollinators. Best of all, it requires no special expertise in distinguishing one plant from another.
Keeping a yard beautiful is about more than grass. As Camus observed in his essay on Sisyphus, the struggle toward the heights is enough to fill a person's heart.