“In Billings,” the letter said, “we value neighborhood and community efforts to maintain a beautiful City.” The problem was, the letter maintained, that I had not been doing my part in these efforts. My yard represented a “nuisance” to the “public health and welfare” because it contained “untended vegetation” more than a foot tall. If I failed to rein in this excess and refused to pay the variety of fines that could build up in response to said failure, a lien would be placed on my property.
I thought about the six years of my residency at the address referred to in the city letter and the care I had taken to choose just the right plantings. I thought about my aching hands, knees and back from all the yard work I had done. I wondered, to be succinct, what exactly the complaint was.
So I assessed my yard. Ah, there was bindweed growing up the fence in back and bindweed in the front flowerbeds. Now, bindweed is about the most vile plant known to man, and I have been working all these years to control it. I could understand any complaint lodged against bindweed.
But, as I soon discovered upon talking with one of Billings’ two code enforcement officers, bindweed was not the problem. No, it was my blue grama grass out front, a plant with lovely seedheads and a rich green hue in summer that turns golden in fall and winter. I also — gulp — had a patch of sunflowers.
Blue grama is a warm season grass and, I admit, it does look pretty ratty until it greens up. However, it requires very little water (about 12 inches per year seems to work well), no fertilizing, and little (if any) mowing. It also effectively chokes out bindweed and other noxious intruders, and thus requires no applications of herbicide.
However, to please the good people of Billings, I will keep it trimmed so that it looks like an almost grown-out crew cut.
Frankly, though, I have to wonder at the popular definition of “public health and welfare,” and how growing region-appropriate plants constitutes a “nuisance.” A quick exploration of neighborhood yards has led me to several conclusions in this regard:
1. Codes are enforced haphazardly. As the very kind code enforcement officer explained, there are only two such professionals in Billings, and they must respond to complaints. Perhaps they have little time for problems that do not generate outrage.
2. Bindweed and other noxious invasives are ubiquitous. Thus, there is no concern for quality of vegetation. It’s all about cosmetics. If I keep a crop of goat-head thorns at a tidy 4 inches, there is no health hazard or public nuisance even though all the neighborhood kids will have flat bike tires and their dogs will limp.
3. No particular effort is made by the city to trim weeds in public spaces.
4. Vegetation that obstructs drivers’ vision is not deemed a “nuisance.”
5. Drenching a lawn with herbicides does not constitute a health hazard and, is, in fact, quite common.
My explorations of the neighborhood and, indeed, the city itself have led me to characterize the choices we citizens of Billings make about our living space. We prefer monocultures to diversity, convenience to beauty, and order to disorder. Certainly, these preferences are understandable if biologist E.O. Wilson is right when he claims that we humans innately crave the open, grassy landscapes in which we evolved.
Still, given our dwindling resources and tight pocketbooks, why doesn’t the city encourage (and why don’t citizens demand) a more suitable use of our yards? They are, let’s face it, basically prairie. What should grow here are bunch grasses, skunkbush sumac, cottonwoods, deer, rabbits, and bison.
Ay, there’s the rub. Though going a bit “natural” in our landscaping would conserve water, save money, and limit chemical runoff into our rivers, it would also force us to consider our presence in this place. Why did the wild things that lived here have to be “cleared” away? And what about the human cultures that inhabited our neighborhoods, say, a hundred years ago? What of them?
No, most of us don’t want to think about that. So we cultivate our Kentucky blue grass at great effort and expense, put money in the pockets of chemical companies, and rarely (from what I have observed) venture outside at all. This lack of pedestrian traffic must also be why very few homeowners shovel their walks in the winter, preferring to leave them an icy hazardous mess ... but that’s another argument.
Cara Chamberlain teaches at Rocky Mountain College.