Sun | Sep 19, 2021

Carolyn Cooper | Emancipated from enslavement to grass

Published:Sunday | August 1, 2021 | 1:34 AM

One of the enduring legacies of colonialism is our love of lawns. Just think of King’s House. Acres and acres of wasteful grass! It is true that some of the land is under cultivation for food. But most of it is nothing but grass, serving absolutely no purpose except looking pretty. The King’s House website gives a revealing history of the grounds. Sir John Peter Grant, Governor of Jamaica from 1866-1874, established the first lawn, which was professionally laid out.

Then came Sir William Grey who was governor from 1874 to 1877. The King’s House website passes this damning judgement on him: Grey “changed all this and the lawns and gardens were transformed into vegetable and food plots, and grazing lands. Fortunately in 1877, he was replaced by Governor Sir Anthony Musgrave who, along with his wife, Lady Musgrave, restored the gardens to their former glory.”

But was it really fortunate that Grey’s seemingly inglorious vision of food production was eclipsed by Musgrave’s purely decorative taste? Landscaping is not simply a matter of artistry. It’s a very political issue. King’s House represents the power of the monarchy to stamp its imprint on the land of the colonised. In much the same way that the bodies of human beings were branded! The Queen and her loyal representative can afford the luxury of acres of lawn. It is her subjects, however rebellious, who will be forced to laboriously tend the ungrateful grass.

The manicured lawns of Vale Royal are another example of imperial landscaping. The British Government acquired the mansion in 1928 as the residence of the British Colonial Secretary. In 1962, Jamaica inherited Vale Royal, which became the official residence of the prime minister. In 1963, a decision was taken to build Jamaica House. I suppose the duppies of the colonisers were haunting Vale Royal. But the landscaping of Jamaica House imitated the colonial model. Independence did not extend to emancipation from the tyranny of the lawn.

‘A MARK OF WEALTH AND STATUS’

The idle lawn is a completely European invention. The Planet Natural Research Center (PNRC) website confirms that, “In the 16th Century Renaissance, lawns were deliberately cultivated by the wealthy in both France and England, though they were more likely planted with chamomile or thyme than with grass. Both of these ground covers make excellent alternatives to grass in modern lawns.”

By the 17th century, the fashion in lawns became far less practical. According to PNRC, “Closely shorn grass lawns first emerged in 17th century England at the homes of large, wealthy landowners. While sheep were still grazed on many such park-lands, landowners increasingly depended on human labor to tend the grass closest to their homes. Before lawnmowers, only the rich could afford to hire the many hands needed to scythe and weed the grass, so a lawn was a mark of wealth and status.”

We know where a lot of those ill-gotten gains came from. Sugar plantations in the Caribbean! And unlike the hired hands who cut and weeded the grass in England, enslaved Africans in Jamaica, for example, worked for nothing to create wealth for others. The lawns that many of us admire are the product of a capitalist economic system rooted in the exploitation of cheap, or even worse, forced labour. Lawns are, literally, an outgrowth of empire.

WAR ON GRASS

Lawns sprung up all over the British colonies, including the US. Golfing and outdoor bowling were invented in Scotland, a country that is mostly open grassland. The Scots brought their games to the US, as well as the grass seeds that were essential for the establishment of playing fields. A 2019 article posted on the Grist website reported that “grass is the single largest irrigated agricultural ‘crop’ in America, more than corn, wheat, and fruit orchards combined”. Furthermore, “Americans spend more than $36 billion every year on lawn care, four-and-a-half times more than the annual budget of the Environmental Protection Agency.” This is truly alarming.

I haven’t managed to find any statistics on the cultivation of grass for lawns in Jamaica. I suspect that it’s not on the same scale as in the US. Relatively few Jamaicans can afford the upkeep of a lawn. It is a demanding taskmaster, if you take it as seriously as some homeowners do. There’s the constant watering. Mowing consumes a lot of fuel. Then, there’s the economic and ecological cost of pesticides which can contaminate drinking water. Many lawn fanatics don’t even bother to compost grass cuttings. They prefer to them throw out and buy commercial fertilisers. It’s a cycle of complete waste.

Over the last four years, I’ve been waging a war on grass. Thanks to my comrade in arms Dr Ajamu Nangwaya, a self-styIed anarchist, I’ve ‘sighted’ that grass is a wasteful luxury we simply can’t afford in a country that is so dependent on imported food. Lawns consume resources that would be much better spent on agriculture. PBC Jamaica did an excellent news story on Ajamu’s lush farm at his home in Gordon Town: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u-jIn7fPyBg

I’ve been replacing grass with callaloo, coco, pineapple, cane, sweet potato, pumpkin, cassava, tomato, sorrel and much more. It is such a joy to eat food from your own garden! And I’m farming in both my back and front yard. It’s edible landscaping. Lloyd, one of the gardeners who works in the neighbourhood, recently gave me a lovely compliment: “Miss Cooper, yu garden look boasy.”

Emancipation is not only about the abolition of physical slavery. As Marcus Garvey reminded us, emancipation is also psychological. Decolonisation is not simply a matter of getting rid of the Queen of England as Jamaica’s head of state. It’s also about how we disengage from the seemingly superficial legacies of imperialism. A carpet of grass at the front of one’s house is not a sign of true wealth. It signifies entrapment in an ideology of Englishness that is fundamentally alien. A lawn is, ultimately, a weapon of ecological suicide. Unless, of course , it’s a ‘dancehall’ where vibrant Jamaican culture reigns supreme.

- Carolyn Cooper, PhD, is a teacher of English language and literature and a specialist on culture and development. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and karokupa@gmail.com.