I've been walking the dog every morning for more than forty years. The dogs have changed, the routes have changed, the roads and neighborhoods and towns have changed; but every day – except days affected by weather, sickness, vacations, injuries, or ennui – I've headed out with an animal or two, or three, and walked the streets of the neighborhood where I live. This is, of course, to provide exercise for the dog and for me; but it's also been a source of daily pleasure, watching the wild animals in the trees and shrubs around us, the waxing and waning of vegetation, the weather, the seasons, the clouds, and the real estate market.
I've been walking in my current neighborhood for almost ten years, and in recent months some of the fun has gone out of these walks. It's not just because of the death of My Longtime Companion – the human one who walked with the dogs and me – although that's part of it. But a lot of the reason the walks are less fun is because of that last pleasure I listed – the real estate market. Or, rather, its effects on what I have come to consider My Neighborhood.
This spring, four houses on nearby streets have changed hands, and in each of them the new neighbor has moved in and suddenly stripped the front yard of its existing vegetation. One yard retains a tree, but the others have ripped out everything. And each has put in a lawn of bright, featureless grass.
I do not understand the logic behind this. I realize that Americans of a certain socio-economic stratum have long been accustomed to believing that smooth green lawns are beautiful. But most of the new neighbors are retirees, or people who plan to come here on weekends to relax, and go sailing, and put their feet up as they swill gins and tonic. Why do they plant lawns that need mowing, edging, fertilizing, pesticiding, herbiciding, fungiciding, and then insert little flags warning that dogs and children will be poisoned if they set foot on them? Of course, they pay people to do these things, and to rake the nasty fallen leaves off the lawns n the fall; but think of how much easier it would be just to have trees and low-bush blueberries.
As a child I spent many hours playing on a lawn; one of my favorite pastimes was ripping out clumps of grass by the roots to make little tunnels and living rooms for my toy animals. I suspect the landlord did not much like these little dwellings, but I was never told not to do it.
But that was Indiana. When we came to visit my grandparents on the Cape, in Bass River, part of the joy of visiting was walking barefoot in a yard that was au naturel. Instead of Kentucky bluegrass, the back yard was littered with little tufts of grass, interspersed in a plain of dark soil frosted with sand. Parts of the yard were covered with pine needles; the car was parked on a carpet of broken quahog shells, built up over decades of clamming. And the walk down to the pond with my grandmother was a process of jumping from sand patch to sand patch in the mosaic of sand and lichens and needles and sedges.
All of the new neighbors have installed automatic sprinkler systems in their lawns, and rain or shine, fine mini-Cape Cod fogs are spewing out in the morning when we walk by. Pippin used to race from sprinkler head to sprinkler head, attacking each one with a growl; but even he's grown weary of combating the silly things.
One of the newly-seeded and sprinkler-headed yards is having a hard time: when the bayberries and blueberry bushes and pitch pines and oaks were suddenly ripped out of the old yard, a dip in the land became visible. For many years a happy tangle of inundation-friendly shrubs and trees and perennials stood there, soaking up the rain. Now it's just a sad, soggy swale where little grass seeds go to drown.
Fortunately, the four new lawns are on only one of the routes we take for the morning walk. In the other direction, the Orleans Conservation Trust is in the process of raising money to buy several undeveloped lots to add to their lawn-free acreage. And a long-time resident whose family has lived in the area for a century or so is planning to pass along much of her property to the trust when she heads out. So the tangles of trees and shrubs and flowering plants and sandy trails and marsh and vernal poools will be there for a while yet.
There are a few lawns along that road, but I'll try to avert my eyes, and enjoy the walk.