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A Softer World

I recently discovered a wonderful box of old photos that came from a Mystic woman of my grandmother's generation, Elizabeth Stowe. This was the house she grew up in on Pearl Street, on the Groton side of Mystic

Along with this photo there were some lovely images taken along River Road, in Old Mystic and in North Stonington.

What is it in these old photos that has such a sense of calm and harmony? And why doesn't it feel like that now, particularly when so much of our part of Connecticut has been preserved: We do not live in a place where old houses are torn down to make way for ugly modern boxes. What has really changed besides a layer of macadam?

The Stowe house is still there, along with the stonewall and even some of the trees, and the telephone pole was already there when the photo was taken, but somehow it doesn't look the same. There is a calmness in all these old photos, and its not just because there are dirt roads, or an ox cart, or people sitting in a canoe.

What has changed is our relationship to the plants around us. Look closer at the photo of the Stowe house. Today if you stand in front of it - or most homes in this area - you will see a tightly mown lawn and perfectly groomed shrubs. The informality and naturalness is gone. Instead of long grass by the side of the road and trees and shrubs in their God-given shapes, everything has been clipped and tightened into submission.

This shift in our landscape started after World War II. When the war ended, a lot of the guys who came home had post traumatic stress disorder, only we didn't know what to call

it then, or how to treat it. They had been drafted for "the duration plus six months" and had spent a lot of time "policing the grounds" and keeping everything "ship shape". The GI BIll gave them the ability to own homes, and they set to work on the landscape in earnest, motivated both by soldierly neatness and a need to work out post-war stress in a world where nobody was supposed to talk about anything.

This mania to dominate the landscape changed the look of our country. It was exacerbated by the rise of chemical products that coincidently also came out of WWII. The companies that had been making and stockpiling nerve-gas, for example, had to do something with their unused war product now that it was peacetime, and discovered that it could be used to kill weeds and bugs. These products just fed the mania to make everything pass muster.

Is a postwar landscape really appropriate for our historic houses? There was no pesticide industry before WWII. No one had a chem-lawn. No lawns had all grass and no wildflowers in them. In Elizabeth Stowe's time, a yard had clover, bluets and dandelions. Mowing was originally done by grazing sheep or by scythe, infrequently if at all. Many times mowing was confined to paths that traversed more natural areas. A lawn might be mowed five times a year at most. It was a relaxed look and attitude.

Most of us were raised in a post war landscape; and the dad's who put us to work in the yard were WWII vets. There is a correlation between the wartime experience of my friend who was a Marine in Okinawa and the fact that he literally didn't want anyone to walk on his lawn. His chem-lawn was really a stress-lawn. Instead of peacefulness, it evoked mania - and is in fact the most stressful way to grow plants or to interact with the environment: You feel it when you look around at the world today.

We were trained in obsessive postwar maintenance, but we aren't obliged to keep doing it.

In order to reclaim the enticing peacefulness of the past, we need to embrace its naturalness. We can put down the chemicals and let wildflowers find a home. We can think about mowing less frequently, and let some areas grow out, mowing or weedwhacking only to keep invasives in check. We need to think about the shape and size of our trees and shrubs, and plant them so they can reach maturity naturally.

This doesn't mean we can't have a topiary or a neatly clipped hedge or lawn, just that we should make choices about our landscapes with a knowledge of our history and a feel for the living things around us. Only then can we recapture the wonderful sense of place that is shown in these photos.

The Mystic Road, North Stonington

In my next post, I'll show you some modern applications of a natural look...


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