Thursday, July 10, 2014

Journey to the centre of the turf

Not couch grass - grass couch: Emilia on her turf seat
I've an essay in the new Australian Garden History journal, 'Journey to the centre of the turf'. (The puns. They burn.)

I'm investigating grass in general, and 'fake grass' in particular: synthetic turf. What is so special about lawn? And is artificial turf just a simulation, or can it be its own real thing? A sample:
Grass is primal. In Genesis, as soon as there is dry land, the Lord says: “Let the earth bring forth grass,” alongside herbs and fruit trees. Socrates, in Plato’s Phaedrus, delivers a rare paean to the Athenian countryside, including “grass, thick enough on a gentle slope to rest your head most comfortably.” This is a common celebration: of the sacred grove outside the city, with spring, scented flowers, shading canopies, and lush grass underfoot.  
In the gospels, Jesus feeds thousands of followers with bread and fish – they all “sit down by companies,” reads Mark 6, “upon the green grass.” Grass decorated Roman villas and medieval seats: the so-called “turf bench”, often graced by virginal maidens.  
This was not a lawn, of course: vistas of cut grass were for fields, not gardens. Christopher Thacker, in The Genius of Gardening, reports that thirteenth century estates “could have open grassy spaces only by laying new turf, cut from downland pasture, and beating it down firmly with mallets.” Theologian Albertus Magnus, a student of Thomas Aquinas, wrote of the “green cloth” of hammered grass, including seats so that “men may sit down there to take their repose pleasurably when their senses need refreshment.” This tedious job continued for some five centuries.  
Then technology and mobility intervened: by the end of the nineteenth century, after the invention of the mechanical mower, lawn become common – but not vulgar. Grass retained its suggestion of idyllic comfort. It can be wild but benign, fecund but not smothering – part of a vision of what Bloomsbury author and publisher Leonard Woolf, with some irony, calls “snakeless meadows…wildflowers, and the song of larks.”  
There is labour, of course. But this is all part of the charm: turf is necessity constrained by artful freedom. This is the luxury of the Touchett estate in Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, with its “delightful” afternoon tea: “the flood of summer light had began to ebb, the air had grown mellow, the shadows were long upon the smooth, dense turf.” Smooth and dense: this rhizome is thick with fertility, yet firmly lopped and cropped by the staff. For over two thousand years, grass has accompanied civilisation as an intimation of divine blessing or proudly tamed wilderness. 
And good news: you can now download the whole glossy, thought-packed issue of Australian Garden History (Vol. 26, No. 1) here.

(Illustration: 'Arcita and Palemone admire Emelia in her Garden', c.1460, from an illuminated manuscript of Boccaccio's Teseida, courtesy Austrian National Library.)

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