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Semiotica 2015; 207: 369393

Elizabeth C. Hirschman*

The machine or the garden: Semiotics

and the American yard
DOI 10.1515/sem-2015-0045

Abstract: Around 10,000 BC, rapid global warming led to the development of
agriculture, sedentary life, and the long distance transport of goods, services,
and knowledge the precursors of contemporary civilization. Concurrent with
these events arose the utilitarian philosophy that the natural world should be
exploited for material advancement and that parcels of land could be privately
owned and developed. This practice continues to the present day through
individual ownership of houses and their surrounding yards. Interviews with
American homeowners can provide semiotic insights into how the land under
their direct ownership is viewed. Findings lead along a complex trail of images
suggesting that the relationship between humans and nature is deeply conflicted. Tracing this relationship back in time through various philosophical
positions regarding nature suggests that humans may not be ideologically
committed to environmental preservation.
Keywords: romanticism, utilitarianism, ecology, environmental history, nature

1 Introduction
Arriving on the shores of North America in 1629, John Winthop of the
Massachusetts Colony declared (see Elliott 1984: 37), The whole earth is the
Lords Garden and he has given it to the sonnes of men with a general condision: Increase and multiply, replenish the earth and subdue it. Surrounding
almost every free-standing home in North America, and much of Western
Europe, is a plot of this earth. Some are enormous, encompassing several
hundred acres; most are much smaller, usually no more than a quarter to half
an acre of land. Upon this legally possessed earthly domain the individual is
able to enact his/her own version of the Garden.
Last year, Americans spent 5.25 billion dollars on chemical fertilizers
and spread 67 million pounds of synthetic pesticides and herbicides on
*Corresponding author: Elizabeth C. Hirschman, Rutgers University, Newark, NJ, USA, E-mail:


Elizabeth C. Hirschman

their yards.1 An additional 60 million gallons of fresh water were used to

keep those yards green, while 25 billion dollars were spent on commercial
lawn care services, mowing, trimming, and leaf blowing machines to
enhance their yards appearance.2
Remarkably, semiotic theory has not yet ventured into these domestic
grounds to inquire what they signify. Are they a part of our self-image (Belk
1988)? Do they function as sources of recreation and delight (Hirschman and
Holbrook 1982)? Are they mere home maintenance activities (Bryson 2010)? Or
do they perhaps represent humans larger relationship to the Earth (Perlman and
Milder 2005). Nash (1982: 31) identifies the American (and Western) emphasis on
utilitarianism as a primary source of meaning: Wilderness was [viewed as]
waste; the proper behavior toward it was exploitation Wherever [American
settlers] encountered wild country, they viewed it through utilitarian spectacles:
trees became lumber, prairies became farms, and canyons the sites of hydroelectric dams.
But the core semiotic issue goes back much earlier than the settling of North
America by Europeans. Archaeologists date the large-scale human modification
of nature as beginning approximately 10,000 years ago with the advent of settled
life in the Levant, China, and the Americas (Rindos 1984). This agricultural
initiative was made possible by an increase in global warming that occurred
around 9600 BC and continued for the next several centuries (Mithen 2003).
Within a few decades, global temperatures rose approximately ten degrees,
shrinking the glaciers that had engulfed much of Europe, Asia, and the
Americas during the Ice Age, and creating a warm, moist climate ideally suited
to human agricultural endeavor (Mithen 2003). Plant and animal husbandry the
purposeful investment of human effort in altering the ecosystem set in motion
not only additional physical changes to the natural environment, but also gave
rise to culturally shared beliefs that humans should control their own destiny
through the manipulation of nature. Across human settlements, the landscape
now became semiotically cast as a set of resources; perhaps one of the most
profound concepts to enter the human interpretive system (Cronon 1996).
Prior to the climatic alterations making large-scale agriculture possible,
humans had, themselves, been altered, gaining capabilities for art, music,
symbolic cognition, and technological creativity (Mithen 2003). With these
novel intellectual skills, the construction of tribal and personal identity, religious practice, and trade over large-scale areas became possible. Permanent,
1 (accessed 26 June 2015).
2 (accessed 26 June 2015).

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large-scale settlements in which surrounding lands were intensively cultivated,

labor became specialized, and economic surpluses necessary to long-distance
trade appeared in the Middle East and Central Asia (Bar-Yosef and Belder-Cohen
In what is now Iraq, permanent settlements were established through the use
of irrigation. These settlements gave rise not only to written language and a
monetary system, but also to the status hierarchies, wealth inequalities, and
commercialization of symbolic goods and services that mark contemporary economic systems. As Mithen (2003: 420) puts it, Civilization [represented] an entirely
new scale of human society monumental architecture, urban centers, extensive
trade, industrial production, centralized authority and expansionist tendencies.
Nash (1982) points out that it is with the origins of civilization that the natural
world was conceptualized as being a distinct entity apart from human life (and see
also Cronon 1996). Prior to this point in history, humans viewed themselves as
embedded in nature; there was no semiotic separation. From this point forward,
however, plants and animals became bifurcated into cultural categories: useful
and useless, tame and wild, domestic and feral. Domesticated animals and plants
became ours to tend, care for, and improve, while those dwelling outside the
boundaries of the ancestral village or the modern yard were usually to be
feared or destroyed (Barbour 1973).
This intellectual and philosophical separation was exacerbated during the
Enlightenment when, as Nasr describes,
The Cartesian surgical operation separating spirit and matter came to dominate scientific
and philosophical thought The question now became the utility of knowledge This
practical and utilitarian bent, crystallized by the French Revolution, accentuated the effect
of the new mechanistic science The only role left to man was to conquer and dominate
nature to serve his needs (Nasr 1997: 7172)

2 Countervailing philosophies
Although the Cartesian utilitarian view of nature was and remains the
dominant intellectual current in both the United States and Western Europe
since the 1600s (see, for example, Berman 1981 and Landy and Saler 2009 for
arguments in support of this), there have consistently been countervailing
philosophies, the most significant being Romanticism (Barbour 1973, and see
also Landy and Saler 2009). Romanticism blossomed in both England and the
United States from the late 1700s forward. With it came a revived interest in the
aesthetics of nature and an embracing of primitivism (Marx 2000 [1964]). Evans


Elizabeth C. Hirschman

(2007 [1819]), for instance, penned the words, How great are the advantages of
solitude! How sublime is the silence of Natures energies. There is something in
the very name of wilderness that charms the ear There is religion in it.
Nash (1982: 4445) observes of the Romantic Movement, The concept of
the sublime and picturesque led the way by enlisting aesthetics in the wild
countrys behalf, while Deism associated nature and religion. Romanticisms
embrace of the natural state of man reversed the logic of utilitarianism.
Simplicity, wildness, and disorder replaced complexity, domesticity, and
predictability as the most desired virtues in life. Urbanization had created
its own problems of blight, congestion and confinement against which the
Romanticists rebelled (Nash 1982). With the intellectual groundwork laid by
Burke (1757), Kant (1960 [1786], 1987 [1790]) and the innovative aesthetic
reception theories of Gilpin (1803), the movement to re-enchant nature gained
traction in both the academic and artistic communities. Nature was recast as
made in Gods image, while man was seen as flawed, inadequate, and selfish
(see especially Rousseaus writings in Emile, 1792, and Julie Ou La Nouvelle
Heloise, 1761; [Rousseau 2009]).
However, in both the United States and England perhaps the most influential
advocate of naturalism was George Gordon/Lord Byron. His words written in 1816
inspired a change of attitude toward the American wilderness, which was seen as
the last remaining wild place in the New World, There is a pleasure in the
pathless woods. There is a rapture on the lonely shore I love not man the
less, but nature more (Gordon 2009 [1816]). By the middle of the nineteenth
century, America had produced its own eloquent spokesman for re-enchanting the
natural world Henry David Thoreau, who declared: in Wildness is the preservation of the World (1991). Thoreau saw the earth in its natural state as the
achievement of divine perfection and the greatest source of nourishment for the
human spirit, writing (1960: 27), Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air;
drink the drink; taste the fruit Be blown by all the winds. Open all your pores
and bathe in the tides of nature, in all her streams and oceans, in all her seasons.
In 1890, the US Bureau of the Census declared the American frontier to be
closed, meaning that the country had now securely civilized itself from ocean
to ocean (Turner 1921). But as Nash (1982: xiv) notes, with the closing of the
frontier, the scarcity theory of economic value began to work on behalf of
wilderness. Americans began to miss what they no longer had, and a movement toward preservation of the remaining fragments of wilderness began. John
Muir, the chief semiotic architect of the environmentalist movement, placed the
cultural primacy of commerce and business in opposition to the preservation of
nature, declaring in 1912, These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature. Instead of lifting their

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eyes to the God of the mountains, they lift them to the Almighty Dollar (quoted
in Cohen 1984).

3 Turn-of-the-century rhetoric regarding nature

Examining contemporary landscaping guides helps to provide a sense of what
was going on at ground level as property owners during the latter half of the
nineteenth and early years of the twentieth centuries attempted to construct
their yards. From this perspective, we gain a sense of whether the utilitarian
orientation toward nature was predominant, or if romanticism was making
headway in semiotic constructions of the yard. The Handbook of Practical
Landscape Gardening (1877) by D. M. Dewey is directed toward families having
city and suburban residences and provides designs for lots and grounds.
During Deweys time period, the rapid industrialization of the northeastern US
led to large-scale movement of urban populations to the outskirts of cities. These
suburbs (Schuyler 1986) were largely planned developments with roads, schools,
and designated plots of land for each home-site. Trolleys and passenger trains
connected the communities to the city, where most household heads were
employed. Family incomes rose dramatically, encouraging consumer spending
on household possessions including their yards and stimulating upward
social mobility (Veblen 2008 [1899]). Fitzgeralds famed novel of this era, The
Great Gatsby (1922), provided a vivid fictional account of the twenty-year epidemic of consumption in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic US, just as Veblens
Theory of the Leisure Class (2008 [1899]) had so done in sociological terms two
decades earlier.
In Deweys landscaping guide we see the marked prevalence of the utilitarian philosophy then dominant in US culture. The author notes in the preface
that the book is intended to be a practical guide for the improvement and
decoration of the home grounds The practical utility, as well as the financial
value, of property improvements is now fully understood. Dewey advocates the
landscaping practices of England, the model for upper class iconography that
Americans had adopted (see Veblen 2008 [1899]): The value of everything that
approaches the beautiful is enhanced by an appropriate setting The art of
composition embraced in landscape gardening has certain principles which go
towards forming a unity of the whole and from which no deviation may be made
without marring the result (1877: 56).
Dewey viewed the randomness of nature as unattractive: The conglomeration of trees, flowers, and shrubs all striving for dominance in a natural wood
is totally unsuited to scenes of art (1877: 7). He recommends designs featuring


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wide, grass-covered lawns (then the prevailing motif in Britain) that require
mowing with regularity to obtain a uniform, velvety green surface To
mow closely a well-established turf is to encourage the fine grasses and kill out
the coarse kinds (1877: 10). The author further recommends the pruning of trees
and shrubs to attain tasteful shapes: You can form your trees into a round,
open, compact or spreading head, according to your fancy (1877: 17).
However, by the early 1900s (post the influence of Thoreau and Muir),
professional landscaping semiotics had been altered somewhat. In a guide
book titled How to Lay Out Suburban Home Grounds (1907), Herbert J.
Kellaway, a prominent landscape architect, writes, Outdoor art is today recognized as necessary to the completion of a home. What are the best methods to
pursue in designing small suburban grounds? The following thoughts are
written as an incentive to good taste (1907: v).
To suburban residents ascending to the growing middle class, home ownership became the crown of a mans ambition, according to Kellaway (1907: 3). But
keeping the grounds of the newly acquired home in order requires the purchase of
fertilizers and materials, as well as the labor of a hired man (1907: 4). Prior to
designing the home, proper, Kellaway (1907: 7) recommends planning the front
approach, the servants approach, the laundry yard, flower garden, tennis court
lawn, location of trees and shrubs, and the grading [of the lot].
However, the structured formalities of the English-style landscape popular
in the late 1800s had now given way somewhat to a greater embrace of
American naturalism. Kellaway (1907: 8) writes, Expression may be given to
the formal style of gardening, while others may be satisfied by the informal or
natural style Instead of clinging to one or the other, [the homeowner] may
blend well kept lines with an opportunity to retreat to the easy flowing grace of
the natural or wild treatment.
Perhaps the strongest indication of a transition to a more romantic semiotics
of the yard contained in Kellaways (1907) treatise is the primacy he gives to
existing natural structures and flora already present on the land prior to its
development by the new homeowner: If there are good trees existing on the
land, every effort should be made to save them The style and shape of the house
should be made to save the tree, so that it may give emphasis to the house Too
many house plans are made on paper without reference to the natural conditions
of the grounds (1907: 19).
Despite this greater appreciation for naturalness, however, there is still strong
advocacy of human intervention to insure a successful lawn in Kellaways (1907)
advice to homeowners. Commercial fertilizers are recommended and specific grass
seeds, Kentucky blue grass, Rhode Island bent grass, red top [clover] and white
clover are the advised lawn species (1907: 61). Any weeds that appear must be

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dug out of the lawn, so as not to disturb the velvety green carpet of grass
installed by the homeowner (1907: 61).

3 The contemporary American yard

We now move forward in time to the present day and take a look at the
relationship of contemporary Americans to the land they own. As we document,
the semiological accounts of what their yards represent range from romanticist
narratives invoking creationism and agrarianism to others describing the importance of subjugating and controlling nature through technology and science.
Most of the homeowners to whom we spoke seem to construct their relationships
with their yards somewhere between these two ideological extremes.
Interviews were conducted with forty-one persons at their homes in the MidAtlantic and Northeastern regions of the US using the interview guide shown in
Appendix 1. Families ranged from married couples with children to retired
couples; there were also single person homeowners and single parent homeowners included in the sample. Socioeconomic status ranged from working class
to lower upper class.
While our intention was not to collect a representative sample of
American society, we did strive to include a diverse set of potential viewpoints
that could provide insights into the individual/yard relationship. By selecting
persons having varied characteristics, one can be more confident that the range
of semiotic ideologies present within a given population are given voice (see,
e.g., Birks and Mills 2011; Corbin and Strauss 2008; Martin and Gynnild 2011).
Each interviewee was asked for permission to photograph his/her yard, as
specific areas and plants were discussed. This enabled anchoring of their commentary in a series of visual images that was very useful for semiotic interpretation (see, e.g., Martin and Gynnild 2011). As will be discussed, modern-day
homeowners draw from many diverse cultural texts in constructing meaning
for their yards, but their overarching philosophy seems to be the privileging of
utilitarianism above romanticism.

4 Findings
Perhaps one of the most important findings was also the most immediately
obvious within the interview set, none of the informants has a yard that is
left completely in an untended natural state indeed, none of the suburban


Elizabeth C. Hirschman

areas in which the interviewees homes were located contained any yards which
are in a wild condition. This is because current cultural norms for this part of
the US will result in complaints being filed against homeowners who do not
properly maintain their yards by mowing grass, trimming shrubs, and removing weeds (see, e.g., Bormann et al. 2001; Jenkins 1994; Schultz 1999 for a
discussion of contemporary American expectations regarding yard care.)
Therefore, all of the homeowners have grass covered lawns with some purposeful landscaping using trees, shrubs, and/or flowers. Additionally all those interviewed reported that their lawns were mowed on a regular schedule during the
summer months, hedges and trees were trimmed periodically, and any trash or
debris was promptly removed from the lawn.
Notably, this contemporary landscaping pattern is remarkably consistent
with those depicted in the landscaping books already discussed dating from
the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (i.e., Elliott 1984; Kellaway
1907). What this suggests is that American iconographic norms regarding yard
landscaping have remained virtually unaltered for well over a century. The
predominant pattern is one in which the house occupies the central portion of
the yard placing it in a privileged position and presenting the house, i.e.,
(civilization), as the crowning achievement of the familys social position
while nature, e.g., flower beds, shrubbery and trees are placed in roughly
formal balance and in subsidiary roles on either side of the dwelling. In
essence, this iconography represents the Machine > Garden ideology (see Marx
2000 [1964]) of the contemporary US a pattern of technology dominating
nature that has been in place since at least the latter half of the 1870s, as per
the Elliott (1877) landscaping guide. It is a clear signal that utilitarianism
In yards constructed within the past decade post the recent increased
emphasis on environmentalism during the early 2000s (see, e.g., Perlman and
Milder 2005) there would often be islands of trees and shrubbery in the front
yard bedded with mulch and surrounded by stones or short fencing. These seem
to announce that the homeowner is preserving nature, at least in small, tidy
patches. But the overall motif remains that of a uniformly cut lawn with
balanced individual trees and groups of trimmed shrubs arranged across the
surface, visually dominated by the house.
What is the underlying philosophy regarding nature suggested by such
settings? It would seem to be one celebrating human control and organization
of the natural environment. At its most basic, the American suburban yard
appears to be a relatively consistent composition of domesticated plants chosen
for their decorative appearance and ability to be shaped into desired patterns.
While this is likely not what Thoreau, Lord Byron, Walt Whitman, and John Muir

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had in mind when they described the chaos, power, and sublimity of Nature,
viewed in long-term historical perspective (i.e., millennia), such a pattern does
seem indicative of an agrarian impulse. Humans have continuously selected,
nurtured, and harvested plants for the past 10,000 years, thus the present yard
landscape seems to represent this same cultivating motive it just has become
more uniform and codified. While suburban homeowners may not have golden
fields of tall ripening wheat as their ancestors did, they may gain similar
satisfaction from green carpets of cultivated grass and ornamental trees and
Consistent with this interpretation, one of the primary conceptual structures
found within the interview transcripts deals with homeowners perceived custodial role toward their yard. A key element here is whether the individual chooses
to anthropomorphize the yard and its contents, or not. Typically, if one sees the
yard as alive, she/he adopts the role of parent or steward. This self-assigned
role often is taken on with great care and attention to detail on the part of the
homeowner. For example, Jennifer, age thirty-seven, mother of four, has lived in
her present house for five years:
My yard is like my baby. We are constantly taking care of it and making renovations to it.
We really take good care of it We are now in the process of putting in a garden The
backyard was pretty much of a blank slate when we got here We made changes in the
yard to make it our own We cleaned-up the landscaping and planted some shrubs We
planted new flowering trees

Note that Jennifer also expresses a desire to personalize the blank slate of the
yard and sees in it an opportunity to create an aesthetic statement. In this, she
very much resembles the aristocrats of eighteenth century Britain who set about
creating Arcadian gardens on their estate grounds (Schama 1996). Within this
aesthetic, wilderness is deliberately transformed into an art form governed by
the prevailing decorative codes of the period; nature in its raw form is
deemed too disheveled to conform to cultural standards. But it is seen as
deserving the time and attention required to render it beautiful in the owners
This same informant extended her anthropomorphic imagery by viewing the
yard as living through a seasonal cycle.
The yard almost hibernates through the winter. The shrubs will die and the tree loses its
leaves I love the spring, because that is when the cherry tree and azaleas bloom. The
yard slowly comes back to life. We hear the birds chirping and the yard is full of color

What is notable here is that Jennifer does not see herself as causing these
changes; rather they occur naturally. Seasonality is something humans have


Elizabeth C. Hirschman

always had to accept with regard to the plants and animals in their care; we do
not control the weather, the seasons, the sun, or the rain. There are aspects of
nature over which we do not exercise dominion.
Another detailed stewardship pattern was described by a JapaneseAmerican informant, Kasey (married, age twenty-eight, no children).
Taking care of the yard is a daily experience for me and my wife There is much to do
when the weather conditions are pleasant for yard work Shrubs need pruning, grass is
cut, herbs are plucked, ripe vegetables and fruit are collected, the area is kept clean of
debris, and plants and flowers are watered.

Kasey and his wife not only work to keep their yard healthy, but also beautiful, consistent with what Kasey describes as a traditional Japanese aesthetic.
It is a Japanese yard with a Japanese maple tree and red and green aromatic
shiso herbs by the walkway. Apple and peach trees are scattered through the
yard. Kasey checks on each tree daily during the summer, wrapping the fruits
when they are almost ripe to prevent birds and insects from harming them.
Kasey reports, Most people like to grow plants to see the beauty of the
flowers or taste the juicy fruits and vegetables. But the best part for me is to
see the plants grow from being a seedling, to a bud, to a full-grown fruitbearing plant This quasi-parental role is one often found in family farms,
especially those in which the land has been worked across several generations (Horwitz 1980).
Continuing the interpretive theme of the good parent, several homeowners
reported making extensive efforts in the fall to protect their plants from the
severity of winter. For instance, each autumn, Tony (age sixty-four, married)
rearranges his plants and adds extra mulch to the young shrubs and trees; he
believes this allows them to spread and strengthen their roots in preparation
for the coming spring. Once the weather starts getting cold, Tony saturates the
soil around the plants with water and adds more mulch. This, he believes,
helps them adjust to the worsening weather and keeps them warm through the
winter. Similarly, Mina (age forty-three, divorced) feeds (fertilizes) her plants
in the spring and again in September and October, and carefully trims their
leaves. In winter I move some of the plants with pots into the warm house, and
take them out again in spring. Within these conceptualizations, plants are
deemed to be living entities with human-like needs; it is worth keeping in
mind that ancient peoples commonly composed mythologies in which plants
and forests were given the status of deities (see e.g., Campbell 1991; Levi-Strauss
2005 [1978]).
Two final examples help to document other aspects of the consumer
caretaking role. Carol (age fifty-one) lives with her husband and seven children

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in the same home that once belonged to her parents. Recently, they added a
deck to the back yard, carefully constructing it around a large pear tree that
has been in the yard since Carol was a child. Carol says she loves the pear
tree and built the deck around it so it can be a part of the family It brings a
lot of warmth to our home. The human perception of a tree as a friend or
family member has very ancient roots. For example, one of the earliest known
religious symbols is the Tree of Life which is found in myths and folklore
worldwide (Campbell 1991).
However, in this contemporary instance the tree has been tamed to the
extent that it is now enclosed in the family dwelling and is dependent upon the
human family for its care and well-being. Conversely, the tree of life symbol in
mythologies usually protects and shelters humans (see e.g., Campbell 1991).
Notably, such mythologies likely pre-date the arrival of agriculture in human
society and reflect the time period during which we were protected by nature,
rather than seeing ourselves as natures protector. The domesticated tree belonging to Carol and her family echoes the cultural appearance of the so-called sacro
bosco, sacred grove, of poet David Vinckboons (15791629) in the early seventeenth century. The sacred grove became a recurring motif of Arcadia from the
sixteenth century forward and represented a blending of the wild and tame
conceptualizations of Nature. Just as I am proposing here, the chaotic wilderness
was depicted as desirably transformed into a bountiful garden (Schama 1996)
with humans as its caretakers.
This line of interpretation can be carried forward to the narrative provided
by Linda (age twenty-nine, single), who has implemented organic gardening in
her yard. She reports that, My current garden is about six years old Ive
transformed what was an almost empty lot of grass into a garden that grows
fresh vegetables, flowers, and even fresh eggs in the morning. Linda has three
chickens that roam the yard eating bugs, fertilizing, and mowing the grass.
At present, Lindas garden is producing pears, asparagus, plums, and blueberries. In her narrative we witness a highly involved individual who seems to
have taken on the role of a Mother Earth figure with respect to her yard. Not
only does she have decorative plants (the flowers) and edible plants (vegetables and fruits), she has also expanded her domain to include edible animals
and eggs (the chickens) and is using them to help supply the botanical needs
of the yard (fertilizing, insect control, mowing). Importantly, however, this is
the only instance in the interview set in which I encountered an Edenic (see
Cronon 1996) yard/garden in which all the elements are present to produce a
balanced eco-system. In all other instances, consumers relied on some forms of
technology (i.e., the Machine, see Marx 2000 [1964]) to maintain their


Elizabeth C. Hirschman

5 The rejecting parent

Some individuals, however, do not see themselves as loving caretakers for their
yards. Instead of viewing the trees, shrubs, and grass as a collection of botanical
children or infants needing care and protection, they see their yards as
unwanted responsibilities. Eva and Mark (ages twenty-five and twenty-six), a
couple with two small children, do not want to extend their parenting duties to
their yard. Presently, they are unhappy with the appearance of their backyard
and the effort it requires. To help reduce the unwanted responsibility, they have
planted low maintenance shrubs on the sides of their house and installed a
laminate fence, which is easier to maintain than wood, since it does not need
painting and wont rot. They plan to replace the pavers with concrete, so that
moss wont grow in-between the stones. The house grounds, in their case,
function as a faade implemented to satisfy cultural conventions.
Another interviewee, Kim (forty-seven, married, three children), has been
extremely frustrated the past few years by her failed efforts to heal or remove a
dying tree from the backyard. She managed to cut off some of the dead branches
[but] we wound up making it look hideous. Kims description of the tree as it
presently appears includes the adjectives butchered, devastated, and
pathetic. Seeing the tree still in the yard makes her feel depressed. Kims
perceived failure at caring for her yard extends to the lawn area, as well. She
states she would like to tear up the grass and lay pressed concrete around the
entire yard. Thus, Kim feels incompetent in her agricultural activities and
would prefer to simply install the Machine (Marx 2000 [1964]) around her
There is a very evocative passage in Schamas (1996: 527) book, Landscape
and Memory, describing the human motivation underlying such faade presentations of nature:
Arcadia redesigned [is] a product of the orderly mind, rather than the playground of the
unchained senses. When Vitruvius writes of rivers, springs, straits, temples, groves, hills,
cattle, shepherds, it is a wall decoration for the portico or vestibule area meant for seated
conversations. Satyric landscapes featuring caves, mountains and woods were on view as
stage sets for the Roman theater. And the best recommendation that Pliny can think of for
the hilltop view at his Tuscan villa is that the countryside around it appears not as a real
land, but as an exquisite painting. (Schama 1996: 530)

In other words, the yard does not have to be real, it just has to look good. The
goal is to create artificial perfection within ones garden that eliminates the
unsightly, the disturbing, and the disheveled.

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6 Beyond the yard the wilderness

The informants also believed that that the yard, lying outside the home and
serving as a buffer between the family and the wilderness of the external world,
could be filled with shifting meanings and transitional alliances. Does this land
belong to us or to nature? Is it civilized or wild? Does it protect us or threaten us?
Within the set of collected narratives, we find that most persons desire their yards
to be physically accommodating and malleable to their aesthetic goals. Aspects of
the grounds, such as poor drainage, rock-strewn surfaces, steep embankments or
excessive levels of shrubbery or trees that obstruct the creation of the desired
landscape, are looked upon as problems or disappointments. For example,
Richard and Christine (late thirties; three children), an affluent professional
couple who live on a five-acre wooded estate, discovered that their yard is not
well suited for growing grass, because of the rock outcroppings and clay soil.
Further complicating things, the grounds are steeply sloping in areas, making it
difficult for the landscaping service to keep it trimmed.
But of even greater concern to this family are the over-abundant deer, rabbits,
and wild turkeys on the grounds that devour the flowers and specimen plants.
There are more threatening animal species, as well, lurking in the woods just
beyond their yard, including foxes, coyotes, bumblebees, and hornets. The
family plans to install a fence this summer to keep these threatening aspects of
nature out of the yard. Analogously, Hiza (fifty-seven, married), who immigrated
from Pakistan two decades ago, lives in a wealthy suburb and also is frightened of
the animals she believes lurk in the woods at the edge of her yard. The woods are
dark and scary. In the woods there are dangerous animals foxes and snakes
Dating back at least to the fourth century BC (see, e.g., Schama 1996),
homeowners attempted to segregate wild flora and fauna from domesticated
species using walls, hedges, moats, and fences. Within the boundaries of the
home-grounds were kept plants and animals thought to be useful or beautiful,
while beyond the boundaries lay chaos and the potential for personal harm or
even death. The modern American suburb seems to still retain this sense of tame
and wild, safe and dangerous. I did not encounter any instances of homeowners,
even those who live in relatively rural areas, attempting to encourage wildlife to
venture into their yards. Instead, efforts are consistently undertaken to keep
non-domestic animals away from the home grounds.
This inhibition toward animals perceived to be out-of-control extends to
domestic pets as well. For instance, Juhee (age twenty-three), a single woman,
lives in a lower middle class townhouse complex and has just a small backyard,
but still finds it vulnerable to invasion by unwanted animals. She reports that


Elizabeth C. Hirschman

her next door neighbors dog runs loose, digs holes, and defecates all over the
place. The sun is also seen as an enemy, burning off patches of grass every
summer. In the autumn, leaves from her neighbors tree fall into her yard, and
Juhee has to rake up all the leaves to avoid an insect infestation.
Juhees yard seems to represent an endangered Garden; one that she has
been unable to protect from predators. While in the past, predators included
wolves and other large beasts, in contemporary life domestic dogs are often seen
as similarly invasive (Jenkins 1994). Additionally, weather in the form of
droughts, floods, extreme cold, and heat has always been a potent enemy of
human efforts to manage nature (Cronon 1996).
Consistent with this interpretation is the narrative provided by Ken (fortythree, married, two children), who gave the following description of his lawn:
The lawn kind of takes a beating in the summer We first put down some pesticides one
called Grub Control. The bugs basically ate up the roots of the lawn One summer, we
put down a fertilizer that was supposed to have insect control in it, but it did not perform
adequately, and we got grubs. So now I also use Grub-Ex, and that stuff works really
well. I havent had any problems since I started using that I sometimes spray [the grass]
with Miracle-Gro, if the lawn needs a little bit of a boost.

Here the utilitarian orientation toward creating a desired tableau with doses of
technology is apparent. As Shama (1995: 538) notes, the contemporary yard
often reflects the stifling conformity of a carefully contained, cosmetically
preserved form of wilderness.
Maurices (age sixty-eight, retired, married) yard, pictured below, is an
exemplar of the precise controls and boundaries placed around domesticated
plants by some homeowners (Figure 1).
As the interview notes describe it, Everything [in Maurices yard] is extremely neat. Everything is edged to perfection; there are clear, clean lines around
each trees mulch; the stone walkways are neatly placed with no dirt; the grass
is trimmed The historic precursor to these highly structured contemporary
suburban yards are the gardens of Versailles (see, e.g., Coates 1998), which
epitomized the aesthetic of formal balance then reigning in seventeenth-century
Europe. During this time period, the globe was successfully circumnavigated,
the continents were claimed, and all of the earths vast territories declared the
legal possessions of various European states.
The French monarchy, wishing to create a suitable iconography to exhibit its
dominance, constructed the Versailles gardens surrounding the royal palace as a
botanical and topographical painting. Plants, and later animals, were transported from around the globe and placed on display in the garden (Marsh 1864),
creating a semiotic summary of Frances global possessions. Three hundred

The machine or the garden


Figure 1: The perfect yard.

years later, many of the botanical displays surrounding American homes similarly exhibit non-native plants that are meticulously shaped and contained
within a formal structure of stones and bricks. Dirt, debris, disunity, and
disorder are vanquished. The result is landscape-as-statue (Figure 2).

7 Wilderness redux
However, even in the midst of contemporary suburbia, nature is sometimes
allowed to take its course and re-inhabit territory it had previously given up to


Elizabeth C. Hirschman

Figure 2: The gardens at


Figure 3: The machine consumed by the garden.

The photo in Figure 3 of an old, nonworking farm truck

collapsed chicken coop, (not shown), is multiply indicative
willingness to let the machines of civilization be consumed
The abandoned truck belongs to a retired farmer, Ben

and a nearby
of the owners
by wilderness.

The machine or the garden


widower), who grew up in the house where he (and the deteriorating farm
equipment) presently reside. This old chicken coop is no longer in use,
obviously I didnt have time to tend the chickens, so I boarded up the
coop maybe twenty years ago. But its still interesting to look at Even
farther back is an old pickup truck that belonged to my father We were
doing work back there in the woods when the radiator went out. Its the kind
of area where you just leave junk out in the woods, so thats what we did. It
kind of looks haunted now.
Several ideas are contained in Bens narrative that invite exploration.
First is the idea that genuine wilderness is where articles from civilization
may be discarded and will be re-absorbed into nature a notion that has
been expressed by writers such as Cronon (1996), and Nash (1982). This
perspective assumes that, ultimately, nature is capable of re-absorbing civilization that the natural world is more powerful than the human world.
Closely related to this is the view that genuine wilderness is a place where
humans exercise no control; it is where humans abandon their efforts at
working the machine; where they make no attempt to domesticate and
civilize the landscape.
Mithen (2003), an archaeologist, proposes that to the human mind,
wilderness is not comprehensible without civilization as a countervailing concept; wilderness, itself, is a culturally constructed category. And as Franklin et al.
(2000) observe, the distinction between natural and unnatural is shifting more
rapidly today than in prior time periods due to recent technologies of genetic
modification (and see also Mithen 2003). A second idea raised by Bens commentary is the fragility of civilization in the absence of constant human effort to
maintain it. Buildings, machines, and roads will all soon disintegrate, if not
continuously repaired. The temporariness of human endeavor is contrasted with
the robustness of nature that consistently re-asserts itself in the absence of
ongoing intervention by humans.
As Marsh was describing as early as 1864, there are many locations around
the globe that once were occupied by people and upon which enormous cities
were constructed. Yet due to desertification, land erosion, or other large-scale
climate changes, these places are now no longer inhabited. The ruins of Troy,
Akkad, Nineveh, Menes, Ubar, Helike, Angkor, Mesa Verde, and Machu Pichu
bear mute testimony to the ultimate frailty of the Machine. This is perhaps the
deep-seated dread of the homeowners described above, who see wildness
lurking at the edges of their suburban yards: without constant vigilance, chaos
will consume us.
A third notion apparent in the narrative is that of haunting. Wilderness
has always been depicted as the primal source of haunting of the enchanted,


Elizabeth C. Hirschman

the frightening, the ominous (see e.g., Berman 1981). From the time of Sumer
and Akkad, the area outside the city wall, beyond the village gate, across the
garden fence has been viewed as a place where humans should fear to venture
(MacNeish 1992). It is usually cast in myth as the land of desolation in which
those who seek to prove their courage are tested, those who must be purified are
cast, those who have sinned are banished (see, e.g., Campbell 1991). It is not
welcome in American suburbia.

8 An agrarian middle ground?

However, among some of the informants there appeared to be a semiotic
middle-ground a seemingly comfortable place between the wild and packaged forms of nature. This occurred among the suburban homeowners who
viewed themselves as agriculturalists, albeit on a small scale. For example,
Jim (age fifty-two) and his family moved into their house around twenty years
ago; since then he has transformed the yard, which was a blank slate with
one large pine tree into a functioning mini-farm that grows flowers, fruits,
and vegetables.
In the front yard, I added a bunch of flower beds and shaped them into a heart by creating
a stone border. But the backyard is where I made the most drastic changes. Im from
Arkansas and I love to garden, so I made a nice-sized garden on the right front side of the
backyard. I usually plant sunflowers, zucchini, eggplant, onions, lettuce, cauliflower,
pumpkins, and I am famous for my tomatoes. They always turn out delicious
Whenever things are ready for the picking, my wife uses them for dinner and I also give
some to our neighbors.

Significantly, Jim allocates his front yard to public display purposes, adhering to the neighborhood norms prevailing in his subdivision (as per Veblen
[2008] 1899). But his backyard is dedicated to agricultural pursuits, which
provide an element of personal and social pride, as well as utility. Notably,
none of the persons whose narratives we collected grew crops in the front yard
of their homes. This area seemed consistently used for social displays of conformity (Veblen [2008] 1899 and see also Jenkins 1994).
Upendra (thirty-two, single parent) immigrated to the US from India and has
resided here for fifteen years. She has lived in her present house for three years
and has an eight-year-old daughter. She is an avid mini-farmer who attempts to
be organic, but also uses a professional lawn care service to assist in the fight
against weeds. Her personal work activities in the yard suggest a large

The machine or the garden


commitment to gardening, and she mixes both organic and chemical treatments
to obtain the desired results:
I put up a 12  40 foot vegetable garden using a raking machine and flipped all the soil
up to 1 foot [deep] and put in 4 yards of new soil. I used wooden blocks around the
vegetable fence to avoid erosion. I made stands and supports for the vine-type vegetable
plants. [In our surrounding yard] I have five professional treatments for weed-free grass
and built-up healthy turf. We also added worms to ensure natural soil movement and to
keep the soil healthy. We added horse manure to the vegetable garden from a horse
stable. We use all the waste from vegetables, fruits, grass and leaves to make compost
soil I am planning on planting fruit trees such as apple, peach and pear, as well as
some flowering trees in front

When asked, What is your favorite part of the yard?, she replied: I like to
see plants growing from seeds into full plants with vegetables on them, okra,
black-eyed beans, green peppers, chili peppers, green peas, long squash,
garlic, bottle gourds, and eggplants Homegrown vegetables are so much
better than frozen packets You can taste the difference and its more
satisfying to eat the ones you grow yourself. Upendras description of her
yard is largely consistent with American small-farm practices. While some
small farms are consistently organic using no artificial chemicals and a
minimum of machinery most actually blend together technology and nature
to grow their crops (Perlman and Midler 2005). Upendra and others like her
represent a middle-ground in Nashs (1982: 6) spectrum between nature and

9 Discussion
Thoughtful examination of cultural narratives produced across various historical
epochs can provide key intertextual cues as to the views people have of their
relationships to one another and to their world (see, e.g. Lawson and Wooliscroft
2004). The trajectory of Judaeo-Christian religious philosophy has been cited by
scholars as one source of the environmental degradation now confronting
Western societies (see, e.g., Coates 1998). Commonly, this trajectory is traced
back to the Age of Discovery, when previously unknown continents of wilderness were claimed by various European nations (Barbour 1973). I have
described the intellectual development of the Western utilitarian philosophy
which views nature as a resource to be exploited (Coates 1998), as well the
countervailing romantic ideology which sprang up in opposition to it (Bate
1991). However, this is insufficient as a socio-historical explanation for the


Elizabeth C. Hirschman

views of the American homeowners interviewed. The semiotic origin point can
be traced substantially farther back in human history.
An important clue lies in the narrative material dating from the Greek
writers of the third and fourth centuries BCE (e.g., Virgil [1987]) discussed earlier. These writings describe a preference for the human rearranging of natural
tableaux into ones deemed more classically perfect and aesthetically structured.
Thus the utilitarian philosophy time-line should be moved back from the Age of
Discovery over 1,900 years to classical Greek culture. One might argue that the
strong influence of Greek democratic philosophy underlying the American political and social systems is somehow responsible for the current technologicallydependent yard-scapes. But it is unlikely we can lay responsibility for the
current conformist structuring of the land surrounding American homes upon
the doorstep of Greek philosophies celebrating individuality and personal freedom (Fussell 1965).

9.1 Abandon ecological hope, ye who enter here

Thus we must search earlier for the cultural origins of ecological utilitarianism.
The ideology does not arise in ancient Greece, but far earlier in the city-states of
Sumer and Akkad (Redman 1978) predating Hellenic civilization by at least
1,500 years. It is here in these ruins now marked by desertification due to
unwise human agricultural practices that we find the earliest known narrative
dealing with relationships between humans and nature, people and land, civilization and wilderness. The Epic of Gilgamesh is literally (and figuratively and
historically) the Ur-narrative of humans and the earth. And it contains the
semiotic seeds of both the Utilitarian view and the Romantic view most scholars
date only to the sixteenth century CE (see, e.g., Berman 1981).
The Gilgamesh Epic, written in ancient Sumeria, is profoundly relevant to
comprehending the contemporary American yard, because it evidences that
humans have cast themselves as appropriately altering the course and form of
natural processes since at least the dawn of civilization (see Mithen 2003). Ur,
the first known human city-state, was located in Sumeria and consisted of a
fifty-acre parcel of land in what is now modern Iraq. Located along the
Euphrates and Tigris rivers, Ur had 6,000 human inhabitants and additionally
housed 10,000 domesticated animals. It was surrounded by 3,000 acres of
cultivated land, much of which was planted in mono-crops. Every year, the
local farmers would divert the twin rivers of the city to irrigate their lands the
first instance of large-scale environmental engineering known to archaeologists
(Redman 1978; Mithen 2003).

The machine or the garden


During the time period from 2900 to 2700 BCE, the Epic of Gilgamesh was
composed (see George 2003). In the narrative, the king of Uruk, Gilgamesh, and
his hair-covered, formerly forest-dwelling friend, Enkidu, set out on a journey to
the great Cedar Forest (equivalent to the wilderness). Their task is to slay a
giant beast, Humbaba, who guards the forest from human intruders. In Tablet 5
of the tale, Gilgamesh and Enkidu, stood at the forests edge, gazing at the top
of the Cedar Tree, gazing at the entrance to the forest where Humbaba would be
walking Across the face of the mountain, the Cedar brought forth luxurious
foliage, its shade was good, extremely pleasant
Upon encountering Humbaba, the two men are filled with fear. Humbaba
threatens to tear them apart, but the mighty god Shamash, Lord of the
Mountain, comes to their aid and surrounds Humbaba with mighty tempests
Southwind, Northwind, Eastwind, Westwind. Whistling Wind Ice Wind,
Storm, and Sandstorm With this divine aid, Gilgamesh is able to slay
Humbaba by cutting off his head. Having slain the forests protector, the two
men cut down many cedar trees which they bind together to form a river raft.
They then cut down the giant Cedar Tree whose top scrapes the sky and make
from it a door 72 cubits high, 24 cubits wide, one cubit thick [They] carry it to
Nippur Nippur will rejoice. The door is for the entrance to the temple of the
most mighty god, Enlil. Gilgamesh and Enkidu arrive back in Nippur with the
raft, the enormous cedar door and the trophy head of Humbaba, and are
celebrated as heroes (Foster 2001).
Thus, we are confronted with fact that humans earliest written narrative
tells a tale of environmental intrusion to obtain the materials required to
construct civilization. And notably, the monster-guardian of the forest is
defeated, in part, by deities who are portrayed as favoring human intervention above preservation of the wilderness just as John Winthrop declared
upon arriving in Massachusetts. Put more plainly, humans are portrayed in
cultural narratives dating from the origins of civilized life as having a
divinely-originating right to manipulate nature, to harvest its products and
to use them in constructing the artifacts of civilization. To undo this
fundamental linkage is likely difficult, if not impossible, in that it may be
part-and-parcel of our species orientation toward the natural world.
Although in the US and Western Europe there has been an ongoing ideological struggle over the past four centuries between having respect for nature
qua nature versus purposely disrupting natural processes to gain material
advantages, to date the Machine has always taken precedence over the
Garden (see, e.g., Marx 2000 [1964]; Mithen 2003). This pattern is likely
irreversible, although it may be possible to slow it through political


Elizabeth C. Hirschman

9.2 Searching for a glimmer of hope

There is evidence that some American homeowners are adopting more ecologically friendly consumption practices (see, e.g., Dobscha and Ozanne 2001; Press
and Arnould 2011; Thompson and Coskuner-Balli 2007). This provides grounds
for hope. However, the consumption practices documented by Press and
Arnould (2011), and Thompson and Coskuner-Balli (2007) indicated that only a
small percentage of Americans are actually stepping away from traditional food
production techniques that involve heavy use of chemical supports and extensive transport networks and instead embracing local, organic foodways.
Therefore, it is likely that deep environmentalism, such as that described
by Dobscha and Ozanne (2001), will not be adopted by the majority of
Americans in the absence of powerful governmental support; this does not
seem probable given the current world economy. However, it is possible that
the agrarian middle-ground could be adopted by many Americans. Since
local social norms and community standards seem to play a key role in
how homeowners care for their yards, a sound place to start would seem to
be community associations and perhaps individually influential persons in
given neighborhoods who could both advocate and implement the agrarian
philosophy. Most of us likely are no better or worse than Gilgamesh and
Enkidu who entered the Great Cedar Forest millennia ago, slayed the fearsome beast, and returned home with the spoils of conquest. However, we are
likely capable of learning more eco-compatible ways of living with our yards,
if these are presented as enjoyable, relatively easy to implement and socially
desirable behaviors.

Appendix 1: Yard project protocol

Walk through the yard with the interviewee and look at different areas. Ask him
or her to tell me about your yard
Take notes or tape record what she/he says. Ask permission to take pictures
of areas in the yard.
Specifically ask:
1. How long have you lived at this house?
2. What did the yard look like when you moved here?
3. What changes have you made?
4. Are there things you would still like to do?
5. What is your favorite part of the yard?
6. What part of the yard do you like least?

The machine or the garden



If you could change your yard in any way, what would you do?
How are the seasons different in your yard winter, spring, summer, fall?
What do you do during each season?

Be sure to request the interviewees gender, approximate age, approximate

education/profession, ethnicity, country of origin, and marital status.

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