But since that time I've had enough experiences with homeowners and landscapers to convince me that very few are listening and even fewer are interested in changing their ways voluntarily. A yard is an extension of a homeowner's personality, so that asking them to change their approach to yardcare is akin to asking them to change their view of themselves and of nature, and that stuff is pretty hardwired. People take their cues from their past, their neighbors, and what the town will let them get away with. That's a lot for a brochure to compete with.
This photo speaks volumes about the dominant culture and the future of the world. First, there is a reduction of land to mere ornament--nature reduced to the role of a visual support for the house, stepped upon only by the mowing crew. One of the characters in my climate change theater is a lawn who plays the trophy wife, trapped in a co-dependent relationship with the narcissistic House. On a larger scale, nature plays the sacrificial, supporting role to meet the needs of the self-centered, extractive economy.
In this lawn and in nearly every other yard and grounds you could think of, there's also the need to simplify nature, to reduce its baffling complexity down to something unintimidating and easily managed. We can't all have a deep knowledge of plants and plantcare, and most landscape companies are custodial operations. Though less extreme than in the photo, our yards reflect that.
In addition, it may seem counterproductive, self-defeating, to pile yardwaste in front of a tidied up front yard, but this juxtaposition is apparently jarring only for those of us who value public space. For some whose interest stops at the property line, this pile of grass clippings is as invisible as the fossil carbon emanating from our exhaust pipes and chimneys.
Passing by, I complimented the owner on his lovely tulips and weeping cherries, and then politely explained to him and his landscaper that the town doesn't collect grass clippings. Later, I double checked and found that the town website says:
"The leaf and brush pickup does not include grass clippings. It is recommended they be mulched back into your yard. Do not leave them out for pickup."
A week later, the pile grew larger.
Now, imagine the environmentalist's predicament. Believing in the benefits of sustainable landscaping, the environmentalist carefully crafts a brochure to convince homeowners to change their wasteful ways. But the simple, heedless act of piling grassclippings at the curb sends a more powerful message than any brochure ever could. Each passerby who sees the grassclippings is thinking, "Oh, maybe that's what I should do."
Meanwhile, the rains come and cars run over the pile, spreading its rapidly decaying, high nitrogen contents and washing nutrient pollution into the local waterway. The nutrients feed algal growth in the water, the subsequent decay of which depletes the oxygen available for fish to breathe. Such are the complex ways of nature, all taking place far from view until the fish go belly up in Carnegie Lake, not from this one pile of grassclippings but from the collective impacts of biological and chemical insult that we unthinkingly impose on the world around us.
And imagine the town's predicament. If it stays true to its claim not to collect grass clippings, they then just sit there for weeks, looking ugly and raising a stink if disturbed, given the anaerobic decomposition going on inside the dense pile.
If the town offered compost carts to residents to store yardwaste for weekly collection, this homeowner's needs could be accommodated. The clippings' high nitrogen content would be containerized rather than loose in the street, and could then help the town's windrows of yardwaste heat up out at the Lawrenceville compost center on Princeton Pike.
One comic aside: I was walking my dog by the man's house sometime later, when the dog, being a dog, decided to pee on the grass extension between the sidewalk and the curb. The man, who was cutting down his spent tulips, waved us away, as if I were supposed to give my dog the bum rush, lest the pee impact the pristinity of the lawn. It's as if the lawn becomes more carpet than something alive. The disconnect between private and public, yard and the natural world beyond, is deeply entrenched, and I don't see how any educational intervention, no matter how thoughtful, will ever change that on its own.
It's not right for environmentalists to be burdened with the task of changing behavior. In essence, we are being punished with extra work while the malefactors blithely keep doing what they've always done. When, through policy change and enforcement, and through better options like containerization of yardwaste in compost carts, people are both forced and encouraged to change their ways, that's when an informative brochure will come in handy for enough people to make a difference.