Saturday, December 03, 2005

America's Turf Terror (II)

Somewhere west of Laramie there's a broncho-busting, steer-roping girl who knows what I'm talking about. This is the first sentence of the now famous 173-word advertisement for the Jordan Motor Car Company that appeared in the 1920s. The age of modern advertising began in this decade. Anything could be sold to the public these modern day alchemists told their clients ... and they were mostly right.

The 1920s proved to be a sparkling new era for American lawns and all it represented. The wealthy created gardens on large estates from the east coast to the west coast. The popularity of golf took off in the 1920s. As more and more Americans started playing the game, it wasn't long before a few perceptive businesses and advertisers started encouraging homeowners to create that golf course "look" with their own lawns. The Depression and World War II slowed things down but only momentarily.

The chemical companies had been kept busy during the war developing various compounds and mixtures, in the fight against fascism. What they had discovered and developed during wartime, they were determined to market during peacetime.

A "new" series of summer insecticides appeared in the 1950s. They included DDT, DDD, BHC as well as chlordane, aldrin, and dieldrin. Some of the phosophates included parathion, diazinon, and metacide. The list went on and on. Some "experts" even talked about the future for curing plant disease might be chemotherapy. Cancer patients were apparently not the only ones with some hope now.

A number of lawn care people recommended products that had been developed by military chemical warfare specialists--as a weapon against crabgrass. Chlordane was initially thought to be the most effective herbicide. Then came potassium cyanate, followed by lead arsenate and ammonium sulfate. One chemical company came out with a product that was advertised as the ultimate in the war against broad-leaved weeds, the now infamous 2,4-D. Some fifteen years later this became the main ingredient in the defoliant Agent Orange used in Vietnam.

What a glorious time! Farmers were spraying crops with all these modern chemicals, wherever and whenever they could. Don't worry. Be happy. Trust us. Homeowners put down new lawns, poured on water, fertilizer, and lime. We mowed the lawns, not letting the grass grow more than a few inches. Then we added chemicals to kill "weeds," insects, and those damn rodents. We rested a while. Then we started all over again and again, and again. A drug-addicted landscape rapidly spread across America. Don't worry. Be happy.

But someone spoiled the party in 1962. A little known marine biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service named Rachel Carson wrote a book entitled Silent Spring. Perhaps what we were doing to our planet might be very bad Ms. Carson suggested; the massive, indiscriminate use of pesticides had to stop if we wanted a livable environment. The lawn care industry, especially the chemical companies, did not like what Rachel Carson had to say. But of course the industry, then and now, knew only one way to deal with any critic. They attacked her. She was threatened with lawsuits, and accused of being unqualified and hysterical, among other things. But a lot of unquestioned beliefs were beginning to unravel in the 1960s.

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