As summer fades into fall, the vast fields of corn surrounding Madison turn from brilliant emerald green to dead raspy brown, and the great Oaks that shade Bascom Hill slowly cede their orange leaves back to the soil.
At the edges of the corn fields, and under the carefully collected oak leaves, grows a plant that does not fade so quickly in September, is the focus of a multi-billion dollar per-year industry, and is the fondest pet of all American homeowners: lawn grass.
In fall, the death or dormancy of so many plants that surround lawns leaves the observer a clear view of what a lawn alone is: a huge decorative monoculture field that is obsessively attended to by its owner to achieve the perfect weed-free expanse of small green plants.
The questions that arise upon making this observation are simply: Why is it done, and is it worth it? Why does the American nation, from Florida to Alaska, spend so much money and time on making lawns grow greenly and densely? It seems to matter little whether one owns a mansion or a trailer house. It must be situated on a well trimmed lawn. Are the side effects of this activity worth the benefits received from it?
The lawn, like so many American cultural phenomena, is a British export. Before the mechanical lawn mower was invented, naturally occurring grasses in British lawns were maintained with hand tools or animal grazing, and were popular among wealthy landowners.
Once Americans gained enough wealth and dominance over the natural world on the west side of the Atlantic to invent a mechanical mower, they began putting serious efforts into perfecting the art of lawn growing, and the popularity of the British-style lawn grew wildly.
The USDA even got involved in America's growing obsession with lawn grasses in the early 20th century, and did extensive research and testing on grasses with the goal of finding one that would grow better in the harsh and varying American climate.
Today the lawn and garden or \outdoor home improvement"" industry accounts for $17 billion of the annual American economy, and this number is expected to continue growing rapidly.
Perhaps Americans are obsessed with lawns because the single strip of uninterrupted color that is a lawn is so unusual in nature. Some ecologists and historians argue that the appeal of lawns is tied to the nation's history of violent conflicts with wild frontier nature.
The lawn has, in some ways, become a symbol declaring that despite the unfathomably huge prairies, impenetrable forests and endless deserts of America, the people have won. They have beaten nature back and now only allow it to exist in orderly squares of green that can that depend entirely on humans for their existence.
The fact that this domination impulse exists regardless of the suitability of the environment in which the lawn is grown is further evidence that the lawn represents something fundamental and primary in the American psyche.
Endless green lawns are grown in Nevada just as proudly as in Louisiana, even though Louisiana averages fifteen times more precipitation annually, and a five square-foot piece of lawn requires three gallons of water daily in the summer.
Although there are certainly other reasons for the lawn-mania of America, the reasons become less important when one looks at the effects of lawns on other parts of the landscape.
Lake Mendota makes a perfect example. In spring the lake is almost instantly choked with dense, smelly algae. One of the principal causes of this is fertilizer runoff from the lawns of Madison.
In places like Arizona, Nevada and California, the effects are not so visibly present, but under the earth's surface water table levels are dropping at alarming rates.
Some observers project that Tucson, which has no surface water source, will soon tap out its underground water, and will have to take desperate measures to keep the city supplied. Although Tucson lies in a desert, it is surrounded by huge green golf courses and filled with hundreds well-watered lawns.
As the lawns of Wisconsin are exposed beneath the dying leaves this fall, why not stop and observe the true oddity of the American lawn? It is a polluting, resource-wasting symbol of the inborn insecurities Americans have about nature, which they spend wildly to maintain. Lawns are truly ridiculous.