Green Mind

A grassroots history of sowing and mowing in Aotearoa.

I left Wānaka in my little white Toyota campervan, bound for the North Island. The trip was equal parts long and tedious, novel and exciting. There were windy sections and straight sections, narrow mountain passes and expansive valley floors. As I drove and drove across our beautiful motu, I started to notice one thing above all else: grass. Shitloads of it. There was short grass, tall grass, grass with flowers, tussock grass, lawn grass and turf grass; if I was playing a game of eye spy with myself, I know what my first guess would be.

Take a drive around Aotearoa and you’ll see the same thing, the innumerable rolling paddocks of green and brown. Or pull up Google Earth to get a confronting bird’s-eye-view of a grass-obsessed nation. To some overseas visitors, this might represent pastoral perfection – a physical manifestation of the Hobbiton of their dreams. But most of the grass species in this country aren’t supposed to be here. They’re not indigenous, but the result of colonisation, slash-and-burn agricultural practices and land use intensification, insidious monocrops that have cast out native flora and fauna.

Aotearoa New Zealand isn’t unique in our fetish for the fluffy green stuff; it’s ubiquitous on an international scale. Grasses account for just over half (51 per cent) of all dietary energy consumed by humans – through crops such as wheat, rice, maize, barley, oats, millet and sugarcane – not to mention as feed for meat and milk-producing animals like cows, sheep, goats and deer. Of all crops grown in the world, 70 per cent are grasses. They are a central character in the modern human story. But what came before all this? How much grass is natural?

Grasses of the past

In Aotearoa, long before human occupation, grasses were already present in the form of tussocks of the genera Chionochloa (snow and red), Poa (silver and blue) and Festuca (hard). A tussock is not a single group of related plants but instead reflects a growth habit, a clumping form. This is a particular arrangement that forms a central tuft of foliage, with tillers (stems) that fan upwards and outwards from the centre, and new leaves that grow from the base, not the tips. In North America, similar plants are referred to as bunch grass. This “tussock-forming” or “bunching” growth habit may have evolved to protect these grass species from the effects of frost and fire – some are capable of living to be several hundred years old – though it certainly doesn’t make them immune.

Tussock grasslands served a very important role in the early ecosystem of Aotearoa. Several native bird species evolved to subsist on them, most notably the kākāriki (New Zealand parakeet), the takahē and the moa, and they also supported a rich and diverse gamut of reptiles and invertebrates.

The archaeological record reflects a marked increase in fires after the arrival of humans in Aotearoa. Of course, there were natural fires caused by lightning that would occur every few decades, but the frequency of large-scale fires increased with the presence of Māori. Fire was used to clear land for cultivation (especially of kūmara) and for settlement, and as a hunting tool. It may have also been a way to encourage the growth of rhizome-producing species, like ferns, or a way to facilitate unimpeded ground travel. This use of fire encouraged the spread of tussock grasslands from 1.5 million hectares to eight million hectares, reaching their greatest range in the early 1800s, at which point they accounted for 31 per cent of the total mainland land mass (mostly in the eastern parts of both islands).

Fire was also a sign of human habitation for the next lot to arrive. When Captain James Cook’s Endeavour pulled up in 1769, the botanist onboard, Joseph Banks, recorded this observation in his journal: “At night we were off Hawks Bay and saw two monstrous fires inland on the hills: we are now inclind to think that these and most if not all the great smoaks and fires that we have seen are made for the convenience of clearing land for tillage, but for whatever purposes they are intended they are a certain indication that where they are the countrey is inhabited.”

Caption: Corrugated-iron hut on a tussock hilltop, including an unidentified man carrying a billy into hut, [near Godley or Macaulay River?], Mackenzie District, Canterbury Region. Williams, Edgar Richard, 1891-1983: Negatives, lantern slides, stereographs, colour transparencies, monochrome prints, photographic ephemera. Ref: 1/4-097639-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/32056473

Out to pasture

When European settlers stepped off their boats, they brought with them a Noah’s Ark of exotic species: trees and plants from every corner of the world, grazing mammals, predatory mammals, game birds, freshwater fish – and grass, so much grass! As these early colonists made their way around the country, displacing Māori communities as they went, they wantonly released their pet projects into the veld, ultimately seeking familiarity, comfort, and personal prosperity via the absolute destruction of what had come before.

Naturally, all these new people in the country meant lots of mouths to feed. The challenge was to “improve” on the land’s original state, to make it “productive” and “useful”. Fire – at an unprecedented scale – quickly became the tool of choice for early farmers, and tussocklands and old-growth forests were either burned or felled for timber. In the decade from 1890 to 1900 alone, 27 per cent of New Zealand’s forests were cleared (13 percent of the country), most of which became pasture for animals.

As profit became the primary driver of land use, grass started to become a serious business in New Zealand. It was having a field day. Chemical sprays like Glyphosate appeared on the market to address the “weed problem”, and these chemicals began to play a significant role in reducing the range of native flora and fauna. Further destruction came at the hands (or mouths) of species such as rabbits, hares, deer and goats, alongside their more domesticated brethren: cows, sheep, pigs, and horses.

Meanwhile, the grass just kept coming. Not only was it beginning to spread its roots in the earth, but it was starting to invade our psyche too. Grass can almost feel like a Machiavellian actor in all this, plotting its way toward world dominance, but the reality is we’re the ones to blame. We just can’t seem to get enough of the green stuff, seemingly at the expense of everything else.

Green Mind

As a famous frog once sang, “it’s not easy being green.” And yet. Psychologists have suggested that green has mood-enhancing effects on humans. This “colour theory” posits that green makes us think of new life, growth, abundance and renewal, providing feelings of peace that manifest in the body as an increase in feel-good neurotransmitters, like dopamine and oxytocin, and a drop in the stress hormone cortisol. 

Wallace J. Nichols, an American marine biologist and author of the book, Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, Or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do, suggests that humans’ need for safety and security has been an evolutionary driver, and this is manifested in an attraction to water or grass. Think about it: our brains are wired to protect us from predators, enemies and anything else that goes bump in the night, and both water and grass provide a relatively unobstructed view for us to see what’s coming our way, to the relief of our constantly fretting lizard brains. Nichols goes on to offer scientific evidence that being near blue water can generate feelings of calm, serenity and tranquillity, an almost hypnotic, meditative state that he refers to as “Blue Mind”.

In the early 1990s, another researcher, geographer Wilbert M. Gesler, coined the term “Therapeutic Landscapes” to describe settings that have “an enduring reputation for achieving physical, mental and spiritual healing.” “Nature”, in other words. Just like any essential nutrient, a deficiency in exposure to nature’s colours, sounds, and smells can impair our brain’s ability to function optimally.

In most of New Zealand’s high-security prison units, inmates don’t have access to grass; their entire world is enveloped in concrete, plastic and steel. However, when an inmate qualifies for a low-security unit, by virtue of good behaviour, they are allowed access to a grassy yard for the first time in years. It’s not uncommon for newly transferred inmates to walk out onto the grass in a semi-hypnotic state, revelling in the feeling, and then sit or lie down in the grass while picking out individual blades to play with in their hands.

The lawn con

In the words of the Kiwi writer Joe Bennett, “a lawn mown is a mind eased.” We’ve all seen those uber-satisfying “lawn porn” videos on social media (or is that just me?). But where does this slightly sad suburban hobby actually come from? Does anyone really care if your lawn is ryegrass or fescue, kikuyu or couch? Why does beer taste so much better while you’re surveying a freshly mowed lawn? And why do we have residential lawns at all?

It all started in France. In 1680 André Le Nôtre planted a lawn (his tapis vert, or green carpet) in the Gardens of Versailles to please his king, Louis XIV. Pretty soon the trend caught on and every country estate in Europe had a perfectly manicured lawn, with the requisite peasants that were needed to scythe and scissor-clip it. For the longest time, this was the way of the world: if you had a lawn you were rich as hell, if you didn’t, well… But then America happened. And Canada. Then Australia and, eventually, New Zealand. All of a sudden there was a glut of new land available for planting, and plant they did.

The push mower arrived on the scene around the mid-1800s, and its advent meant manicured residential lawns became accessible and affordable for common folk. The lawn craze spread and eventually almost every neighbourhood in New Zealand – and the Commonwealth – wafted with the sweet smell of freshly cut grass. For me, it’s the smell that reminds me of the rugby paddock and our family bach, or the smell of summer, stored in my olfactory memory in perpetuity.

Studies have shown that the scent of freshly cut grass has a positive psychological effect. The smell is produced mainly by a compound called cis-3-Hexenal, which is known as a ‘Green Leaf Volatile’ (GLV), a type of hydrocarbon. The reason we seem to like the smell of grassy GLVs may have to do with their similarity to the GLVs that are released by vegetables when they are ripe. But, while grasses will release GLVs in response to strong sunlight and other factors, when cut or damaged the quantity of emissions increases by 180 times. These hydrocarbons then mix with other gases in our atmosphere and contribute to smog and air pollution. Some estimates suggest lawnmowing accounts for ten percent of the total hydrocarbon released into the atmosphere.

So, it smells good, but cut grass is actually a significant contributor to the formation of aerosols and ozone. Other environmental impacts of residential lawns include the enormous burden of irrigation (think verdant green lawns in the middle of a Central Otago drought) and the elephant in the room: the carbon footprint of lawnmowers and other fossil-fuel-powered gardening tools, a combo that contributes to five per cent of total air pollution.

Is there an alternative? Many people are choosing to replace their residential lawns with edible plants, a movement known as foodscaping that has been gathering worldwide momentum. On the other end of the spectrum, there are several New Zealand companies now offering plastic artificial turfs for sale and arguing they’re cheaper and better for the environment. According to one Auckland-based seller, business is sprouting. “Our turfs last for over 20 years and you never have to mow it. Most lawnmowers last five to ten. So, if you factor in the amount of emissions, you would be incurring mowing the lawn each time (GLVs and fossil fuels), and the fact that you’re going to have to eventually put at least two lawn mowers into the landfill, artificial is the more sustainable product.” (Of course, that argument ignores the fact that turf lawns are notorious producers of microplastics and hormone-disrupting chemicals, as well as heat absorbers.)

Re-wilding

In Ye Olde England, the spiritual home of the manicured lawn, they have started an annual event called ‘No Mow May’ that encourages landowners to avoid mowing in early spring (October would be the Southern Hemisphere equivalent) to allow wildflowers to grow and subsequently feed pollinating insects. The results? Indisputable. Changing this one habit led to a tenfold increase in the amount of nectar available to bees and other key pollinators during the month of May. Moreover, not mowing resulted in better soil health and fertility, better plant pollination, more insects, a reduction in noxious weeds, a reduced pest population, and decreased storm runoff.

Closer to home, Wānaka locals saw a similar approach applied at Lismore Park, where the Queenstown Lakes District Council took a hiatus from intensive mowing to allow the plants some room to breathe and the pollinators free rein. Many angry letters ensued, berating council for the “eyesore”, the “fire risk” and the “lazy park management practices”. Eventually, they were forced to renege and start mowing. Better to have loved and lost?

What does the future of grass look like in Aotearoa? I’m not entirely sure. Will we start to see monstrous, Orwellian carpets of artificial turf where pasture grasses once stood tall in the wind? God, I hope not. Or is there hope for a return of the tussock grasslands and forests of yore? Who knows. The only constant is change. And remember: the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.

Words: Jason Harman

Photos (except where noted): Sampford Cathie