The grass is as fake as the people who walk on it

Merely a scent of the noxious odor emanating from Abele Quad was enough to drive me back into the library. From the safety of the great indoors, I was able to watch the Dust-Bowl-era scene unfolding on the other side of the glass. Clouds of dirt billowed from the barren soil, concealing the azure blue sky above. A column of tractors spewed tiny pellets of synthetic fertilizer across the parched earth, which then helplessly flew away with the next gust of wind. Such hardships must be necessary to prepare for the day when the verdant strips of turf will magically form a pristine lawn, right?

The remodeling of Abele Quad generates the usual inconveniences associated with any construction project. Ironically, the most damaging aspect of the project is its objective — to make campus more "green." Ever since Carolina Green Athletic Field Construction rolled out bales of artificial turf across the heart of Duke’s campus, the lawn has looked stunning. But beneath its glamorous appearance, the grass harbors ecological and social malaise.

Sometimes the grass is greener on the other side because it’s fake. Duke’s landscaping decision is a form of values signaling that impacts the thoughts, identity and appearance of those who tread on it.

Lawns are America’s most irrigated "crop." Given that the city of Durham almost cut off Duke’s water supply during a drought in 2007, the amount of lawn on campus is problematic. Duke’s Climate Action Plan identifies emissions from fertilizer as a significant source of the university’s emissions. Lawns function as an ecological trap, attracting fauna such as insects only to kill them off due to a lack of habitat. Additionally, a lawnmower running for a mere hour emits the same amount of harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs) as a car traveling 400 miles. And don’t forget that lawnmowers expel a disproportionate amount of tropospheric ozone and noise pollution relative to their size.

Although these realities may be concerning, they don’t explain how lawns shape us and our identity.

To answer this question, let’s take a brief journey through the history of lawns in Western society. Lawns began as a sign of feudal power in medieval Europe while also serving the practical purpose of making it easier to spot approaching enemies. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century and the rise of suburbia when common folk could afford to maintain their own lawn. Policies of racial segregation in the lush suburbs made lawns a symbol of white superiority, according to civil rights icon John Lewis.

In other words, rolling out the green carpets isn’t just bad for the environment, it flies in the face of the university’s goals to make Duke a more inclusive place.

“Lawns are symbolic of our lack of thought,” read a sign that appeared soon after the fresh turf was plopped into place on Abele Quad. It is appropriate that the sign was a part of 11th Organ, a Duke Arts program centered around innovative art forms.

From an academic perspective, this maxim couldn’t be truer. A typical day in the life of a Duke student involves copying and pasting code from the internet, memorizing all 20 amino acids or calculating the deadweight loss of a market inefficiency. While all these skills may be professionally valuable, they don’t take that much creativity or original thinking. Our limited curiosity is exhibited by the decline of humanities at Duke and across the nation. In a way, our thoughts mirror the grass we gaze upon — both are uniform, facile and repetitive.

The grass also mirrors our own fakeness, our attempt to live up to expectations that we are not designed to meet. Think about it. Biologically speaking, grass isn’t supposed to be bright green in the middle of winter, even in North Carolina. But because of our preconceived notions of grass as evergreen, Duke replaced real grass with fake grass to satisfy our expectations. In the same way, we attempt to project an image of ourselves as an overachiever, a pathbreaking innovator — someone who never fails. But this masks our true selves, people ridden with struggles, shortcomings and uncertainty.

We crave a landscape that matches the superficiality of our existence. In many ways, this shallowness is predictable, driven by market forces. Social media feeds prioritize posts that reinforce stereotypical archetypes because they know this content will generate more engagements. Students tailor their resumes and thus their lives to fit the specifications of large corporations. In other words, creativity may get you into Duke, but conformity helps you succeed at Duke. We came into Duke as wildflowers but then realized that being grass is easier and ultimately more lucrative.

I understand that Duke will never get rid of all its lawn. But there are practical solutions that can lessen the environmental and cultural burden lawn places on the community. Pocket prairies are biodiversity-rich patches of native grasses planted in urban areas. Replacing sections of the Abele Quad turf with pocket prairies will enhance habitat as well as add diversity to the otherwise dull landscape. Perhaps more importantly, these patches of native grasses, with their intricate stems and distinctive flowers, will demonstrate to visitors and students alike that Duke values a variety of ideas. Already, universities across America such as Marquette and Oklahoma State have livened up their campuses with real nature.

Changing our campus culture will take a more grassroots (no pun intended) effort. But I am hopeful that students can take cues from nature and pursue interests merely for their intrinsic value.

Grass oversimplifies the beauty that nature has to offer. Let’s make sure that the lawns of life don’t dim the magnificence of our human nature.

Aaron Siegle is a Trinity sophomore. His column typically runs on alternate Fridays.


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