Archive | July, 2013

Fresh Green Breast Of the New World, Real (Im) Plants Of Beverly Hills, A Force That Through The Green Fuse Drives

14 Jul

IMG_0336 I went away for a while, Dear Reader, but I’m back to Paradise (Mostly.) My  apartment. My front door! And postage stamp front yard–to which I tend not a wit. Here in Paradise, there are hired hands for that.The men are here twice a week, watering, clipping, making jokes in Spanish. As it is Beverly Hills, they are also probably providing tweezing, waxing, and laser, if not full-on surgery. As an outsider, I  haven’t yet deciphered who and what is having who and what done, exactly. (But I can tell you that the dogs who don’t get regular pedicures are nasty.)  The fauna and flora in SOCAL are so healthy and luxurious that it takes a team to keep things even half-way under control.

Having grown up in Central Illinois, I know the importance of a well-tended front yard: the sign of one’s moral worth and good citizenship, the mark of an ordered life. In Champaign Urbana, during the late 1960’s and 70’s one’s lawn demonstrated that one was happy and successful and, more importantly, that one was contributing to the connective tissue of the neighborhood patriotic godliness. Or not. (My family.)

In case you were wondering, lawns became lawns in our fair nation at the end of the nineteenth century, in imitation of European royalty.  “Land of the free and home of the brave”– yes, but American property aesthetics were (are) about land-holding aristocracy. Think of the lawns in East and West Egg in The Great Gatsby. Tom and Daisy have a yard for playing polo. And Gatsby’s entire property is an imitation of European style. When Daisy finally comes to visit, Gatsby has Nick’s neighboring lawn mowed to perfection,  an act of love (desperation.)

As the decades proceeded and suburbia reigned supreme the lawn became a key feature of American identity, not to mention economy. Would you believe that Americans spend three billion hours a year pushing or riding gas-powered lawn equipment? Nowhere in the world are lawns as prized as in America (Thank you, Michael Pollan–who stopped mowing).

Living in Beverly Hills, I am struck by a lawn paradigm different than the one with which I grew up. It’s…uh, wacko paradise. Anarchy of the transplanted and bursting in air.


But before I get to that, a quick tale of my own anarchic lawn heritage: after my parents divorced, my mom was on her own with the lawn. She mowed,  occasionally used weedkiller, but there were always mounds of dandelions growing like little communist manifestos, and brown patches bristling–not-quite-under-the-radar-atheist-gatherings that  proclaimed our subversive slovenliness.

It wasn’t that Mom didn’t like growing things: our back yard was a rambling garden with snap peas, mint, peonies, ferns, basil, tomatoes, snapdragons. . .pillow-talking plants mumbling together through hot humid afternoons and evenings lit with fireflies, the sound of the sprinkler whisking back and forth, filling the air with that sweet wet tang. (Yes, my new rap lyrics.  Help out Dear Reader, and send me phrases describing your childhood summer night smells ?)

Our neighbors the Bickers (I swear) offered to help Mom out with mowing techniques and pesticides. Their lawn was picture-perfect: consistent in color,  clipped to perfection, every blade standing tall and stiff as if singing the star-spangled banner at dawn. The Bickers had a flag, of course–waving more rigidly than gently–and a few geraniums in planters, which Mrs. Bickers watered every other evening at 5:32.  I knew this because I had a new wristwatch. It was 1969, and I bounced up and down our driveway, on one of those red rubber balls with the round handle–the “it” toy of the era for pre-adolescent girls.  Boing, boing, boing.  5:30 and counting. There she was,  Mrs. Bickers filling her watering can from the hose. Mom was on the porch, sipping her martini, watching me boing and Mrs. Bickers water the geraniums. To each his own. . .or so we thought. BUT WE were the neighborhood communist atheists.

If I had one of those balls now, I’d definitely be boing-ing it around my Beverly Hills hood where, strangely enough, people are friendlier and less judgmental  than anywhere I’ve ever lived. Way friendlier than the small upstate New York academic town. On my BH block the sidewalk hosts elderly people with walkers, boys throwing water balloons and screaming “Cheater!!!,” leggy androgynous models, awkward teenagers, frumpy middle-agers, hipsters, no age whipper-snappers, bald agents, hairy writers;  every day, walking to Star Bucks  I hear Spanish, Farsi, Hebrew, German, French, and some English.  White, black, brown, yellow, wealthy and not, gay and not, happy and not– that’s the demographic, and almost everybody smiles and says hello and comments on your dog. If you don’t have one, the neighbors allow you the imaginary pup wagging his tale at your imaginary life. That’s where I live.

And these are the lawns that accompany my home-away-from home, my Died-And-Drove Away City of Angels hamlet:

This is across the street:IMG_0473

A “lawn” that says Take Me, Before I Take YOU.  No mowing, no Brow-Beating-About-The-Bush.

Down the block:

artichokeGawky spiky artichoke, just growing away like that in the front yard. And this:

IMG_0494(1)is around the corner, humid and spooky in there. Yeah, I just opened the gate and walked in.

IMG_0487This thing lives in the yard next door:

IMG_0313(1)So, you get the picture. The natural world is on crack here:

IMG_0472Therefore: the ethos of the lawn, the front yard is governed by the surreal fauna of Beverly Hills. When you have this kind of thing growing right outside your window

banana palm

you realize this is Wonderland, and Fitzgerald’s notion of “the fresh green breast of the new world” that the old Dutch Sailors saw is about as quaint as a Real Beverly Hills Housewife cleaning  house.  The front yard is no longer about lawn.


IMG_0492Dylan Thomas’ line about the blazing beautiful and destructive  “force that through the green fuse drives the flower” is on fire in the City of Angels and Lost Souls. One can tame it, I suppose.  IMG_0299

But the beast just keeps growing new limbs (and there’s a subtle roar to be heard in that alley.) Five months into my visit, I am thrilled by the many configurations that this beast of a city reveals to me. I am dizzy, Dear Reader, with the real and unreal gardens  growing here.

IMG_0359(1)A great ride, though I’ve not a clue what it means. I do know that a front yard here is not what a  front yard was in the Midwest, or in my Upstate New York town where for years I mowed and weeded. Badly. (Fortunately the growing season there was three and a half weeks.) Here, a Juice Store grows a  lawn on the wall facing the street–because it can. (Yes, I am the water-er of those wall-growing succulents.)

IMG_0743Here, things grow that I couldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams. Including myself. I am growing.

My son Noah might have something to say that growth–that I’m dressing as if I were a teenage girl. “Mom. Really? Those shorts?” Inappropriate, but that’s part of my growth, SEE?  And my bloodline, we recall, is that of  Lawn Care Boasting Atheistic Communism.

After a few summers of Mrs. Bickers’ dirty looks over the hedge, and Mr. Bickers’ pesticide aid and dirty looks at my mom’s legs, one day she made a decision. She got her hands on a book about Southwestern landscape architecture. She called a garden store. The next day, hundreds of pounds of small white rocks were dumped and spread over our yard. She stopped mowing– in the name of art. And rebellion. And moral rectitude. She didn’t need a perfect  lawn to know she was a good person. And she brought a little Wonderland to our street.

Now, that I live in a land of wonder, AND am about to turn an age I couldn’t imagine becoming, I will dress like Alice if I want to. At my party, I will cry if I want to.  Rap if I want to (send me lyrics!). I am in paradise. Lost. And laughing. Not mowing.