Monday, July 28, 2014

The American Dream

A couple of weekends ago, I journeyed to Columbus, Ohio, to Cultivate’14 An AmericanHort Experience! This conference is Disney World for landscapers and nursery folk. It’s part trade-show, part lecture-series, and part networking-palooza.

Highlights: I won a lethal-looking weeding tool from the Garden Writer’s Association raffle, met a handsome Swedish man peddling AIKEA-esq, industrial greenhouse lighting (I was intimidated. Think Eric from “True Blood,” but bursting with agricultural and electrical prowess), and decided that I need a zombie gnome for my garden. Oh, and I got a tattoo of a chlorophyll molecule (but that’s probably a topic for another post).

 The conference was amazing, and honestly, I wasn't expecting to learn something new about the American Dream. Charlie and Art Parkerson, a father and son team from Suffolk, Virginia gave a talk called “The New Normal.” Now see, Charlie and Art are the Michael and Kirk Douglas of the greenhouse and nursery industry. Their lecture explained one of the biggest transitions that the plant industry must accommodate: a changing American Dream.

Landscapers and garden centers had a very specific function in the American Dream for the casserole generation, the Parkerson’s explained. The American Dream meant a certain kind of suburban home, with a certain kind of family. The home of the American Dream had a sumptuous, emerald green, manicured lawn . Probably a hedge of arborvitaes marking the property, proud rose bushes around the front of the house, cheery tulips around the mailbox, and perhaps a left-over victory garden. Michael Pollan gives a good history of the American lawn in Second Nature: A Gardener's Education. Read it, it's awesome.

I’ve been obsessed with the American Dream for a while. I wrote my master’s thesis on it. Specifically, globalization and the loss of the American dream through the lens of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby. The basic idea was that those two books illustrate the dissonance that results from the rapidly shifting construct of the American Dream.

According to Charlie and Art, the “New American Dream” doesn’t have that perfect lawn anymore. The new American Dream has to accommodate “greenies”; those that have a fair amount of “environmental guilt,” and social consciousness (i.e., those of us that could care less if our lawn goes brown during a drought). Their take on the New American Dream is much more urban and “unrooted.” People are much more mobile and slower to settle down in a house (if we do at all). Moreover, the jello-salad mentality has been replaced with “connoisseurs,” “gourmets and geeks,” that prefer local craft beer to an all-American Budweiser. Sounds like a fair assessment to me.

 Lawns weren’t on my radar when I wrote my MA thesis. I wrote it after wandering Europe in a very intense international relations and economics summer abroad program. I wrote all 50 pages of it, longhand, between visits to the Moet Chandon Corporate Chateau, the Prada Factory, a Parisian think-tank, the EU, UN, WTO, and other acronyms as well. I was thinking about the American Dream in terms of global politics and economics—not in terms of the literal back yard. I think that was 2007, before I cultivated a sense of good back-up hygiene. After I typed it and sent it I mostly forgot about it. Years of being in a PhD program made that stepping-stone of writing largely irrelevant. It did get turned into a 7 page conference talk, but I’ve lost all the minutiae and close-reading. Who knows where that file went. Now I’m really pissed that I can’t find a copy of it, because now I am thinking about lawns. I’m wondering if I paid attention to Thompson or Palahniuk’s lawns at all. Probably not.

Landscapers and garden centers, the Parkerson’s explained, have a responsibility to help people achieve their New American Dream. We have to “step up.” We shouldn’t even imagine an updated American Dream that doesn’t have a spot for urban gardening, rain gardens, green roofs, composting and a revamped victory garden.

Back in the day, landscapers and garden centers made certain implicit promises. We promised to provide a living, green dream. That’s a promise we should still honor. Garden centers won’t have a “buy 2.5 kids get a free chicken/tofurky for every pot” special anytime soon. But we do have a social responsibility to provide the education and resources for people to live as green as they want.

 To Learn More about Cultivate’14:

Charlie and Art Parkerson’s book, That Ain’t No Deal. A book filled with “dirt-simple wisdom and advice”:

Michael Pollan's Second Nature: A Gardener's Education:

And here's my happy puppy, on a lawn:


  1. Those interested in additional reading might also look at Timothy Morton's essay "Wordsworth Digs the Lawn" (re: W's poem "This Lawn, a carpet all alive") -- as well as his discussion of lawns in "Ecology without Nature" via W as well as Jefferson's lawns at Monticello and UVA. (The footnotes for this section of EwN have an extensive lawn-focused bibliography as well.)

  2. Joshua, I would say you certainly have more expertise than anyone I know on lawns and how they figure into the foundation of the American imagination. "Ecology without Nature" has been on on my list for a while, now I definitely have to read it. Thank you for sharing the sources!