Who In The Hell Was Capability Brown?

“Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind.”
-Qoheleth

I probably was 14 at the time. I know that it was one of those hot, steamy summer days before I acquired my first newspaper route and still relied upon mowing a few lawns for whatever dollars I was able to earn. This could have been one of many days, because they so often turned out the same. I only remember that my dad dropped me off at a spacious home with an equally spacious lawn where I would earn my weekly three dollars before being picked up at the end of the day.

This time, it was not to be. No. I cranked away, nearly wearing my arm out, and the old lawn mower with its generally reliable Briggs & Stratton engine stubbornly refused to kick over. Finally, in frustration, I gave up, defeated and woebegone, and trudged the long way across town to home. Of course, after he got off work, where he served as a shipping clerk in a local industry, Dad gave the starter rope one single pull and it immediately coughed into life. Such experiences have caused me to bear a lifelong antipathy toward lawns and lawn mowers.

There was once a man named Capability Brown who was born in England in 1715. At the time, he was a famous gardener and it seems a well-intended individual who earned his famous nickname by urging the landowners of vast estates that their lands had “greater capabilities” for improvement if his methods were adopted. His birth name was Lancelot Brown, but he is known historically as Capability. Capability rearranged the flora of 170 British estates in the course of his career.

Capability was dissatisfied with the state of gardening and lawn care in Victorian England and decided to change things. His emphasis was upon huge homes surrounded by vast sweeping lawns, carefully mowed and tweaked and tortured into lifeless expanses of manmade extravagance, an example of monoculture at its worst. For instance, he designed the grounds of the United Kingdom’s Highclere Castle, the setting for the PBS series “Downton Abbey.” His concepts were applied by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to their estates at Mount Vernon and Monticello. Of course the meticulously manicured desert places on those two properties were the fruit of slave labor.

The bloated egotism expressed by those lifeless expanses was not limited to the extravagantly wealthy. The neatly sculpted, sterile lawn behind the stereotypical white picket fence became the middle class ideal all through the Victorian Era and into the present day.

Today, it is estimated that 40,000,000 acres globally are devoted to lawns, nearly all expanses of little or no worth to anyone. In a world fraught with food shortages, the acreage would be better devoted to the cultivation of corn, wheat, oats, soy beans, alfalfa, garden truck, fruits, shade trees, grazing land for the deer and the antelope, even solar panels. As it is, those thousands of acres produce nothing. In fact, they contribute to the continuing decline of the global ecosystem.

In 1830, the first lawnmower was invented by Edwin Beard Budding. In his recent book If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal: What Animal Intelligence Reveals About Human Stupidity, science writer and dolphin researcher Justin Gregg estimates that 12,000,000,000 gallons of gas is consumed by lawnmowers each year. He points out that running a power lawnmower for one hour equals driving 100 miles in a car. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that lawn care contributes 4% of the country’s CO2 emissions annually. In addition, lawn care consumes 9,000,000,000 gallons of water per day in a world with diminishing fresh water supplies. Then, too, the widespread use of pesticides by suburban lawn enthusiasts, particularly brands such as Monsanto’s Roundup (which is banned in 28 countries and several U.S. states and Mexico), poses a threat to insect, animal and human life and wellbeing. All in service to a contorted concept of beauty and to the desperation on the part of all too many to “keep up” with the omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent but mostly mythological “Joneses”.

Those who are obsessed with their lawns, hoping to gain “oohs” and “aahs” from friends and neighbors and passersby, are complicit in further depleting already overstressed water supplies in the Southwest.

One winter afternoon many years ago, I purchased a car from a salesman who said that he could scarcely wait for spring so that he could climb back onto his power mower and mow his huge lawn. I thought to myself, how unfortunate for him, preferring the noisy carbon monoxide-belching uproar of a lawnmower to the songs of spring peepers and the trilling of red-winged blackbirds. I caught myself pondering what it was in his life that he hoped to drown out with the ear-piercing roar of a lawnmower engine.

Western man’s passion for lawn care gobbles up precious time, money, resources, and energy, and contributes to the overall decline of life on planet Earth, the only home we have. Capability Brown seems to have been a well-intended individual, although in thrall to a contorted definition of beauty. It is doubtful that he could ever have imagined the destruction that his ideas would eventually foster.


For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com


Lorin Swinehart
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