We Asked Michael Pollan: How Should California Look When the Drought Ends?

Nearly 30 years after the journalist called for the end of the lawn, Western states are digging them up in earnest.

A drought-resistant garden in Los Angeles. (Photo: Al Seib/Getty Images)

Jul 30, 2015· 7 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Before Los Angeles was devoting nearly 100 billion gallons of water to outdoor uses every year, much of it going to watering landscaping, the city was wetting down its roadways rather than lawns. Before freeways, before pavement, before expansive amounts of sod took root in the city, L.A. was crisscrossed with dusty tracks that passed for roads—byways that turned into mud pits in the winter and potential dust storms in the dry summers. So the city provided a much-needed public service: sprinkling water on the roads to keep them from drying up and blowing away.

Looking back at photos of Sunset Boulevard from this era—the early 1900s—when the fabled road was not only unpaved but ran through a town that had yet to become the center of the film industry, it’s clear just how much Los Angeles has changed in the last century. In 1900, the entire state was home to just 2 million people; by 1950, the population had boomed to 10 million, with nearly 2 million living in Los Angeles alone. And somewhere along the way, green, manicured lawns began to overtake much of the dust and native grasslands that stretched across the basin. After the Los Angeles Aqueduct began draining the Owens Valley in 1914—cursing it with a century of dust storms—the booming city that was so recently a semiarid wilderness could suddenly irrigate its way toward being a suburban American paradise. The lawn, which journalist Michael Pollan called America’s “one important contribution to world garden design,” had arrived in Southern California.

“Neither flinty soil nor obdurate climate will impede the lawn’s march to the Pacific,” Pollan once wrote in The New York Times. “It vaults the Rockies and, abetted by a monumental irrigation network, proceeds to green great stretches of western desert.”

A century later, with a four-year drought crippling the state, many are questioning why climate and geography weren’t allowed to halt the the march before the spot, somewhere around the Continental Divide, where “the annual average rainfall drops below 20 inches,” as historian Bernard Devoto once described the line where the West begins. A movement is now afoot, in California and other arid states, to dig up the acres of lawn that have been rolled out across our yards.

The question is, what will replace it?

Few writers are more fit to put the question to than Pollan, who has been professionally anti-lawn since at least 1989, when his piece “Why Mow? The Case Against Lawns,” quoted above, appeared in the Times. But his stance is rooted not only in reporting—grass, he noted, is treated with more pesticides and other chemicals than any other crop—but also the lazy mowing habits of his father, “a lawn dissident” who let the grass go long in the front of Pollan’s childhood home on Long Island.

Similar lawn dissidence is now state policy in California, where, thanks to a bill signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in July, new construction will soon be required to limit grass to no more than 25 percent of outside space. Nonresidential buildings for commercial, industrial, and institutional uses won’t be able to include lawns in their landscaping at all. Similarly, the governor has revoked municipalities’ power to fine residents for not keeping up with the Joneses, so to speak, and letting their lawns go brown. In Southern California alone, $350 million in Metropolitan Water District funds have been earmarked to remove between 150 million and 170 million square feet of lawn in the past year.

The absence of that grass is proving to be something of a troubling social void in its own right—because what’s replacing it is, in many instances, frustrating Californians of all stripes.

Just look at the op-ed pages of the Los Angeles Times: In May, political columnist George Skelton complained that “California’s political elite is trying to make one of civilization’s soothing pleasures—the green lawn—the evil culprit in our historic drought,” dismissing the shrubs many are replacing grass with as “good vegetation for snakes to hide in.” And then in June, a trio of landscape architects—including Mia Lehrer, who designed one of the city’s best native plant gardens along the edges of one its most expansive public lawns, the Silver Lake Meadow—implored residents: “Don’t gravelscape L.A.”

“Will exchanging a living, breathing yard for a bleak gravelscape save water?” they wrote. “Some. But is it the only way? Is it the right way?” In short, their answer is no.

“One of the attractions of the lawn is that you don’t have to make all of these decisions. So as soon as you take it out, you are faced with a set of complicated choices,” Pollan told me over the phone recently. Will you plant a vegetable garden? Flowers? Native Californian plants? Exotics from the Mediterranean, Australia, and South Africa? Or simply roll out a carpet of artificial turf or dump on a truckload of gravel and be done with it?

“It’s like wearing suits—men used to wear suits and were free of thinking about fashion or appropriateness,” Pollan said. “They were like a uniform. In many ways, the lawn is the uniform of the American landscape.” A uniform, that, in light of the drought, which is now affecting nearly a third of the country, is going out of style.

“The drought, it seems to me, should be the final nail in the coffin,” he continued. “Lawns aren’t just embarrassing anymore, but unethical.”

When he was writing about lawns nearly 30 years ago, Pollan was still a New Englander, and his opposition to sod was more philosophical than the practical considerations of water and landscaping in the West. Although you could have a green expanse of sod in Connecticut without a sprinkler system, Pollan said he sees having a lawn in a temperate place as a “dull and oppressive attitude toward the landscape.” Now, as a longtime Californian, his reasoning behind the landscaping of his Berkeley home is rooted in climate considerations too. The open, unplanted spaces are coated in decomposed granite, with three raised beds of vegetables at the center and a collection of dryland plants from around the world scattered around the perimeter. The vegetable garden gets six minutes with the sprinklers on three times a week, while the other, well-established plants require little to no irrigation.

“I don’t know if I am more or less efficient as a farmer growing the same food as me,” he said of using urban water for growing food when the agriculture industry is being so roundly criticized for using so much of the state’s supply. “But I would say that the benefits of growing your own food is about a lot of things—not just water or resources. So if it costs a bit of water on top of what’s going to grow the rest of what I eat, I guess I am OK with that.”

Vegetables or not, it’s a setup that uses less water than a traditional yard—trading turf grass for vegetables can reduce irrigation by as much as 50 percent—but it’s not going to satisfy those who want to see the lawn secede to a landscape that mimics California’s wild places. “It’s not a native garden by any means, but I am not afraid of my alien species,” Pollan said. “I think people have this image that if it’s an alien species, it’s going to take over.”

Indeed, some have, like the arundo grass that clogs many of California waterways or the ice plant that has blanketed dune habitats. But when it comes to the yard, Pollan believes in pluralism. And he has a decades-old rebuttal to anyone who wants to question such a democratic approach to gardening.

In a Times story from 1994 titled “Against Nativism,” he wrote of the rabid responses he received to a piece about attempting to plant a so-called natural garden. He was excoriated for, among other sins, cultivating wildflowers in straight rows. As it turns out, the German National Socialist Party was similarly fond of landscapes composed of native species that mimicked wild spaces. The aesthetic was intended “ ‘to give the German people its characteristic garden and to help guard it from unwholesome alien influences,’ including foreign plants and landscape formality,” Pollan wrote, quoting a literal landscape Nazi’s writing from 1939, “which they condemned as both anthropocentric and apt to weaken the ‘Nordic races.’ ”

“Am I implying that natural gardening in America is a crypto-Fascist movement?” Pollan continued. “I hope not.”

There are surely politicians in Sacramento who would love to label Brown’s scorched-earth campaign against grass as a neo-Nazi plot. While that is far from being the case, California itself has a history of eugenicists and plants. But plant breeder Luther Burbank and cigarette heir Abbot Kinney were by no means devoted to an ideologically pure, “blood-and-soil-rooted” Californian landscape. Kinney, who in addition to founding Venice Beach was the chairman of the California Board of Forestry in the late 1800s, played a major role in popularizing Australia’s eucalyptus trees in the state. Burbank—who was once described to me as being a “hybrid vigor” eugenicist, believing that breeding between races, much like plants, could produce stronger offspring—created numerous plant varieties based on California native species and was also responsible for unleashing the Himalayan blackberry, considered a “noxious weed” in many states, to North America.

But while Burbank’s boysenberry, a cross between a number of wild blackberry species (including California’s own) and the raspberry, has all but disappeared from commercial production, the eucalyptus is a dominant presence in California landscapes—and a troubling one in its own right. Because unlike the fire-adapted trees of California, such as the many oak species that grow here, the Australian trees don’t resist burning but rather rely on it. “Of the many eucalyptus species that evolved with fire, none is more incendiary than blue gum,” the most common variety in California, Ted Williams wrote in a piece titled America’s Largest Weed for Audubon in 2002.

‘Gasoline trees,’ firefighters call them. Fire doesn’t kill blue gums. Rather, they depend on fire to open their seedpods and clear out the competition. And they promote fire with their prolific combustible oil, copious litter, and long shreds of hanging bark designed to carry flames to the crowns. Blue gum eucalyptus doesn’t just burn, it explodes, sending firebrands and seeds shooting hundreds of feet in all directions. Living next to one of these trees is like living next to a fireworks factory staffed by chain-smokers.

Kinney championed the fast-growing trees because they could quickly turn the boggy wetlands that malarial mosquitoes once called home—a habitat that’s now in short supply in California—into a disease-free woodland. Their rapid growth also made eucalyptus a favorite of citrus farmers, who planted them for windbreaks, and there was briefly a speculative boom of eucalyptus lumber in California. (When the wood proved to be horrible for just about any use, that industry quickly died.)

Still, eucalyptus can be found up and down the state, including in the Oakland Hills, above where Pollan lives. The incendiary trees occasionally threaten to burn down his city, as he noted, and he agrees that they should be removed from places where they’re a fire risk. Earlier this year, when a stand in the same hills was slated for removal for fire prevention purposes, Nathan Winograd of Save the East Bay Hills told San Francisco’s CBS affiliate that the people behind the plan were “biological xenophobes.”

There’s another stand of eucalyptus trees along the 218 highway, which cuts west from the 101 and out to the Monterey Peninsula, where my grandfather has lived for my entire life. When we’d fly out from Iowa when I was a kid, I marked our arrival by smelling the resinous scent of the trees and seeing the ruddy bark peeling away form the trunk in shaggy red sheaths. I always insisted on rolling down the windows as the car passed through, knowing that the woodsy smell would be followed a few miles down the road by the first scent of the Pacific. It’s a part of how I define California—as is the sight of coastal live oak, the bright-orange smattering of poppy blooms on the side of the road, or a dense mat of ice plant.

“Could we remove them? Should we remove them?” Pollan wondered of eucalyptus. “I think we have to make peace with them, at this point.”

But just as there is a very distinct before-and-after moment for eucalyptus in California, demarcating when it wasn’t and then was part of the state’s landscape, the same could go for the lawn—the drought that started in 2011 may very well kill it. What will replace it, however, remains to be seen.