EXTRACT | 'Civilising Grass' by Jonathan Cane

"Garden maintenance, of one’s own garden, as leisure, is a proper activity for respectable whites."

16 July 2019 - 14:30
This lively, witty text revitalises our view of lawns, gardens and landscapes, challenging a whole range of conventional views of society and nature.
This lively, witty text revitalises our view of lawns, gardens and landscapes, challenging a whole range of conventional views of society and nature.
Image: Wits University Presss

What does the lawn want? To be watered, fertilised, mowed, admired, fretted over, ignored?

This unusual question serves as a starting point for Civilising Grass: The Art of the Lawn on the South African Highveld, an unexpected and often disconcerting critique of one of the most common and familiar landscapes in SA.

The lawn, Jonathan Cane argues, is not quite as innocent as we might think. Besides the fact that lawns suck up scarce water, consume chemicals, displace indigenous plants and reduce biodiversity, they are also part of a colonial lineage of dispossession and violence.

They reduce the political problem of land to the aesthetic question of landscape, thereby obscuring issues of ownership, redress, belonging and labour. The question then becomes: Who takes care of whose lawn, in what clothes, under what conditions and for what reward?

Civilising Grass offers a detailed reading of artistic, literary and architectural lawns between 1886 and 2017.

The eclectic archive includes plans, poems, maps, gardening blogs, adverts, ethnographies and ephemera, as well as literature by Koos Prinsloo, Marlene van Niekerk and Ivan Vladislavić.

In addition, the book includes colour reproductions of lawn artworks by David Goldblatt, Lungiswa Gqunta, Pieter Hugo, Anton Kannemeyer, Sabelo Mlangeni, Moses Tladi and Kemang Wa Lehulere.

This book shows that even if the enchantment of a green, flat and soft lawn is almost universal, there are also unexpected moments when alternatives present themselves, occasions when people reject the politeness of the lawn, and situations in which we might glimpse a possible time after the lawn.

Drawing on theory and conceptual tools from interdisciplinary fields such as ecocriticism, queer theory, art history and postcolonial studies, Civilising Grass offers the first sustained investigation of the lawn in Africa and contributes to the growing conversation about the complex relationships between humans and non-humans on the continent.

The following extract was published in the Mail & Guardian on July 12:

David Goldblatt’s iconic black and white photograph Saturday Afternoon in Sunward Park, 1979, is from the series In Boksburg, published as a book of the same name in 1982. In the photograph, a shirtless white man mows his lawn with an electric lawnmower; the serpentine power cord lies across the lawn that has been mowed in stripes, parallel to the brick driveway and perpendicular to the tar road that edges a veld; there is no boundary wall. Across the road is an apartheid-era suburban house with a low-pitched roof, sheltered eaves and north-facing orientation. 

The photograph was taken in the winter of 1979, so the lawn may have begun to turn golden, burnt by frost and dormant from the lack of rainfall. Mike Nicol wrote about the “brittle lawns” of the winter suburbs in his poem Returning, as did Ivan Vladislavić in Portrait with Keys (2009). Those who have lived on the Rand through the dry winters, which batter the lawns, can testify to the bleakness of the season: an intractable time for lawnkeeping.

In Boksburg includes as many as two dozen other lawns. It is worth noting that the garden and the lawn are important leitmotivs in Goldblatt’s oeuvre. In an earlier work, Some Afrikaners Photographed (1975), the images he captured are landscapes of no-lawn; the Afrikaners he photographed do not seem to garden, or have gardens, but instead dance, work, farm, flirt, sing.

In a later work, The Structure of Things Then (1998), the lawns he depicts seem terribly permanent, enduring topographies of apartheid. Goldblatt has made it clear that his interest in land has nothing to do with being a “nature lover” but rather, as Sean O’Toole has it, with “the way we act with the land, work with the land, move on it, mark it”.

The “land” being worked in this image belongs to the white mower. We cannot be sure that he owns it legally but assume that he does because he is white and because of that hard-to-define quality about the way that he occupies the space, physically owns it, which reflects his (presumed) ability to own it correctly and convincingly.

The predisposition to inhabit space in such a convincing way has something to do with the notion of whiteness. Far from the garden activities examined below being easy expressions of pre-earned whiteness, they exemplify an uneasy attempt to secure an elusive respectable white subjectivity.

The white gardener’s body is styled in the “heroic mould”, which is characterised by the “inflection of work with nobility”, as Carol Wolkowitz puts it in Bodies at Work. He is muscular, frozen like a statue; if not an Olympian nude in marble then perhaps a Grecian plaster garden statue like that captured in Santu Mofokeng’s photograph Diepkloof Ext 2 Soweto (1991), or Goldblatt’s Garden and House, Sixth Street, Orange Grove, May 16 1968.

The mower in Goldblatt’s Saturday Afternoon exudes the sense of being a sportsman, healthy, productive; no doubt heterosexual. It is a Saturday afternoon (as Goldblatt has told us by way of his careful and specific titling style) and instead of employing a black worker to mow his lawn, or spending the day watching sport or drinking, he is keeping his own lawn.

This man is an archetype of a particular white subjectivity that connects viable whiteness to a form of respectable modernity. Though this white man is being productive, it is important to emphasise that he is not “working”; what he is involved in is broadly conceived of as leisure. Garden maintenance, of one’s own garden, as leisure, is a proper activity for respectable whites.

Continue reading here

Civilising Grass is published by Wits University Press