‘Letter of Recommendation: Astroturf,’’
The New York Times Magazine, April 2016.

Edited by Willy Staley

An Excerpt

On a lawn drawn long by sunset, who is not intoxicated? That cut-grass scent, cis-3-hexanol, is called leaf alcohol. You don’t need to name it to know it, the wooziness of air strewn by a mower. Still, I love a lawn overgrown and skimmed by the wind. Liminal hours are the best to enjoy it: dawn, dusk. A great green floor, pinned by dandelion clocks.

At the stadium, I watch the field—forget the game—enthralled by the whole fragmented vegetable, that creeping “carpet all alive” as Wordsworth had it. But here’s the rub any greenskeeper knows: The work of a living lawn is to self-destruct. In Australia, where I live, especially. Through summer, drought or no, the government enforces water-use restrictions in many cities. The unirrigated grass contracts, crackles underfoot and dots with bindii prickle. Then lawns turn to curated dust pits, pocked with loose, yellow tussocks. Resolute fertilizers drift underground. You can hire guys, and people do, to spray-paint the yard green. Such labor, such expense, toward a meager Eden. No, what I long for is a lawn that can give you an electric shock, a ground that’s knitted.

Once I lived in a house surrounded by AstroTurf. The landlord had scotched the real-grass garden—a blessing for renters. When I walked barefoot in the morning, the artificial grass emitted a static charge that set your hair on end and made your fillings tingle against your gums. The AstroTurf was soft and fibrillar and worn in. It held the heat of yesterday, luxe as a towel pulled down from the radiator. You could rumple it with your toes. We did. Dewy, the fake lawn shimmered an arsenic green. A term in our lease warned against spilling “mustard, butter, blood and glue” outside. (Inside, apparently, such spills presented no problem.)

Beyond the home’s awnings, the sun had bleached our synthetic turf, which graded through to a deeper viridian under the trees at the end of the lot—a Rothko flung outdoors. We caressed it one way and then the other, palming crop circles and cowlicks. I was 25 and romantic. This was a kind of yardwork I could get into; not gardening but “manicuring” the lawn, upkeep by fingertip. In the hot months, though, we vacuumed the yard—extension cords daisy-chained back indoors.

Read the full essay online here and in the magazine April 21, 2016.