That idea remains, and it means that, even today, the failure to maintain a “smiling lawn” can have decidedly unhappy consequences. Section 119-3 of the county code of Fairfax County, Virginia—a section representative of similar ones on the books in jurisdictions across the country—stipulates that “it is unlawful for any owner of any occupied residential lot or parcel which is less than one-half acre (21,780 square feet) to permit the growth of any grass or lawn area to reach more than twelve (12) inches in height/length.” And while Fairfax County sensibly advises that matters of grass length are best adjudicated among neighbors, it adds, rather sternly, that if the property in question “is vacant or the resident doesn’t seem to care, you can report the property to the county.”
Such reporting can result in much more than fines. In 2008, Joe Prudente—a retiree in Florida whose lawn, despite several re-soddings and waterings and weedings, contained some unsightly brown patches—was jailed for “failing to properly maintain his lawn to community standards.” Earlier this year, Rick Yoes, a resident of Grand Prairie, Texas, also spent time behind bars—for the crime, in this case, of the ownership of an overgrown yard. Gerry Suttle, a woman in her mid-70s, recently had a warrant issued for her arrest—she had failed to mow the grass on a lot she owned across the street from her house—until four boys living in her Texas neighborhood heard of her plight in a news report, came over, and mowed the thing themselves.
That kind of lawn-based rogue-going is, apparently, quite common. The environmental science professor Paul Robbins’s book, Lawn People: How Grasses, Weeds, and Chemicals Make Us Who We Are, is full of stories of people asking their neighbors, with concern ranging from the fully earnest to the fully passive-aggressive, whether a broken mower might account for an overgrown yard, and of others surreptitiously mowing other people’s lawns when they’re away on vacation. The Great Gatsby’s titular character exhibits a similar case of what we might call FOMOW: So troubled is Jay by Nick’s failure to maintain his lawn—a lawn that abuts Gatsby’s—that he ends up sending his own gardener to do the shearing, thereby restoring order to their shared pastoral space.
The existence, in the world beyond West Egg, of apps like DroughtShame—which promises to help its users “capture geotagged photo proof of disregard for California’s water restrictions”—is an extension of that ethos. Lawns are private tracts that are, sometimes by law and always by social fiat, shared. Their proper maintenance is part of the compact we make with each other, the logic goes, not just in the name of “order and culture,” but in the name, in some sense, of civilization itself. And in the name, too, of that fuzzy, fizzy ideal that we shorthand as “the American dream.” Land—“This Land,” your land, my land—transcends, at its most ideal and idyllic, anthropological divisions of race and class. It is “too important to our identity as Americans,” Michael Pollan put it, “to simply allow everyone to have his own way with it. And once we decide that the land should serve as a vehicle of consensus, rather than an arena of self-expression, the American lawn—collective, national, ritualized, and plain—begins to look inevitable.”