We have a woodsy yard. It’s next to a ravine; it’s more of a forest floor than a proper lawn. We take care of it well enough, but we don’t manicure the thing–because manicuring a forest is absurd, if not downright sinful. The other day, we got a notice on our door, from the city, telling us that if we didn’t trim the branches next to our sidewalk, they’d fine us. The yard looked the same as it always did; there were some overarching branches that could touch you if you were seven feet tall and if you were carrying a child on your shoulders. But sure. We called the city to find out exactly what they wanted us to do. The Yard Poobah was very reasonable. He said that city code required that we keep our branches at least eight feet off the ground. But he also said that he wouldn’t even have bothered us, except that a neighbor had complained. This made us mad. I hate tattletales. I almost got a piece of chalk and wrote, “All you had to do was ask” on the pavement–but James had the better sense to point me at something large to lop off and cuss at. He gave me a cold can of Diet Coke. He told me our hostas looked pretty.
Fine. We have a next-door neighbor who inherited her house from her parents when they died. She lives alone. She has to work six days a week to even keep the house–and she has a double lot. In the summer, she’s out with a lawnmower and a flashlight, mowing her lawn until ten o’clock. She’s in her late fifties. She doesn’t mow every week. Yesterday, she got a visit from the Yard Poobah. Someone had complained about her lilacs. The bush sits by the sidewalk. True enough, most of the branches aren’t eight feet off the ground. But lilacs? What are they going to do? Hold you down and remind you of your grandma?
She was out there after sunset, with her ladder and her clippers, while the bats flew around. She wouldn’t accept any help. But she did point to the part of the city notice that said if they have to talk to us again, they could levy fines. Like a citation. Our trees could get a ticket.
Now: I want to protest a lot of things at once. I want to protest the fact that this neighborhood tattletale doesn’t have the cojones to knock on our doors and make a simple request for us to do some very specific things to take care of a situation that doesn’t bother the general population. If somebody had asked us to trim our branches because he, um, likes to rollerblade while balancing his mother’s urn on his head, we would have done the neighborly thing and trimmed our branches. In fact, if somebody had talked to us, we might have a better idea about what so offends them. Because truth be told, trees grow. And I don’t want to get fined for not measuring mine compulsively enough to satisfy a neighborhood tyrant’s attachment to a city code that might date back to the days of horse-riding–a code, in fact, that receives little enforcement unless somebody makes a stink. I also want to protest that by complying with the tyrant, we are only encouraging the tyrant. Clearly he got what he wanted with us; it’s not a coincidence that he moved on to our neighbor. And it’s not improbable that he’ll continue his crusade.
I agree that a yard should look healthy. It’s a living thing; it should be cared for and nurtured. But you know where the modern lawn came from? The modern lawn dates back to the nobility in Europe, who close cut the foliage around their keeps so they could get a clear shot at intruders. At its heart, a lawn isn’t a pretty thing. It’s an artificial thing–and it’s a hostile thing. One might even say it’s a classist thing. And maybe that’s the real point. I don’t really consider myself a hippie, but I’m more of that sort than I am a yuppie. And I happen to believe that loving both nature and neighbor involves not harassing either one until they give up and live somewhere else.
(Originally posted August 2, 2013)