Wednesday, October 03, 2012

From famine to front lawns

Suburban houses look like this:

because of this: 

In the 1840s, the monoculture potato plantings across Ireland (and elsewhere in Europe) were stricken by a black rot, the fungus phytophthora infestans. An airborne fungus, it quickly spread throughout the country and was particularly devastating because small tenant farms had been forced to plant largely one variety of one crop. 

What few histories of the famine tell us is the agricultural aftermath, in which the more fortunate farmers in mainland Europe, especially in Germany, who had had other crops to subsist on, imported new and different (fungus-resistant) potato varieties from the same place the originals came from - the Andes - starting in the 1850s. And along with those potatoes came some nematodes.

Golden nematode cysts

By the 1880s, golden nematode infestation was becoming a problem for potatoes in Europe, although it didn't return to the UK until the 1920s. In the late 1930s, golden nematodes were discovered in potato fields on Long Island, possibly brought in on military shipments from Europe landing nearby.  By 1941, they had caused so much damage that the farmers were willing to sell the land at a much-reduced price. 

A price that allowed the Levitt family which bought that land to manufacture and sell a new kind of home to a new kind of homeowner. 

Along with mass-produced homes, Abraham Levitt created mass-produced landscaping. The cheapest and easiest way to cover up bare ground was with grass, and Levittown homes were surrounded by green lawns. Each had two trees, some shrubs, and instructions on giving their lawns a "crew-cut" once a week between April and November.

Levittown, with its covenants against fences, enforcement of lawn care, and new model for community, was the model for the "ideal lawn" so prevalent today in sprawling suburbia. And all because of a fungal infection half a world away and 100 years earlier.

*Ok, and also the rise of the automobile, the 1950s ethos of conformity, a way for male office workers to enact a dominance-over-nature masculinity, the change to a 40-hour work week, etc.


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