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Steven Millhauser

One morning toward the middle of April, John D. Ewing, a retired investment banker who lived in one of the better neighborhoods of our town, decided to solve his backyard problem of patches of dead grass by hiring a local firm, Backyard Answers, to pull up his lawn and replace it with flat-topped cobblestones in brown and red, arranged in a pattern of intersecting arcs. To celebrate his new yard, Ewing invited some dozen friends and neighbors to a grilling party, where guests praised his handsome cobblestones, inquired about cost and upkeep, and turned their attention to local politics. Two days later, one of the invited couples, the Hathaways, hired Backyard Answers to replace their weed-grown back lawn with porcelain tiles on a base of mortar. When another couple, Alan and Rose Perlstein, converted their backyard to alternating squares of dark and light granite, people in the neighborhood began to take notice. Was there something to be said for the new style? In a different part of town, on a street of older houses behind high hedges, two sisters replaced their back lawn with hexagonal tiles and rows of pebbles. After three more backyards—in less prosperous neighborhoods—were transformed into tile and stone, it was clear to us that something had begun to happen in our town, something that appeared to be more than a mere inclination to imitate one’s neighbor.

I observed it all with the mixture of amused interest and vague disapproval that is my habitual response to changes in fashion, but when my fifteen-year-old daughter began pleading for backyard cobblestones, I gave way without protest. No more weeds springing up between the back porch and fence, no yellowing grass requiring my anxious attention, no mowing, no edging, no seeding, no raking, no fiddling with the sprinkler and shifting it from place to place: the benefits readily justified the expense and far outweighed the loss of green in one small part of our quarter-acre property. Up and down our street, neighbors were replacing back lawns with tile and cobblestone and brick. You could feel an excitement in the air.

As the fad for grassless backyards swept across town, many of us were struck by an event that took place toward the middle of May. In the front yard of a Victorian home not far from the town library, a broad lawn shaded by two ancient sycamores was torn up and replaced by three colors of travertine tile on both sides of the flagstone walk. The sycamores remained, surrounded by curved wooden benches. By the end of the week, patterns of brick and tile had sprung up in the front yards of some two dozen homes in different parts of town.

When my daughter and her friends expressed enthusiasm for the new look, I found myself stirred into opposition. Lawns, I pointed out, were refreshing spaces of green, welcome contrasts to sidewalks and streets. Their loss was something to be taken seriously. But more than that, any lawn, however trim and orderly, was an expression of natural growth within the artifice known as a town. A town without lawns was like a city without parks. The teenagers would have none of it. Lawns, they argued, were all alike. The new yards had different kinds of stone, different designs and patterns. And besides, there were still trees, bushes, hedges, flowers. Nature was everywhere, if you wanted nature. And what about water? Lawns needed a lot of water. Wasn’t it eco-friendly to save water? Surprised by their passion, I became thoughtful but held firm. Within two weeks, front yards all over our neighborhood were being transformed. Under protest, sighing mightily and shaking my head, I gave way. We chose brick in three shades of red, reaching to the front sidewalk and around both sides of the house to the cobblestoned back.

By the end of May, more than half the yards in our town had done away with lawns, including those narrow stretches of grass between sidewalk and curb. By mid-June, only a scattering of green yards remained. Homeowners unable to afford the expense were sought out and generously aided by the recently formed Society for the Yards of Tomorrow, which raised funds vigorously for that purpose. One stubborn owner, who ran his own plumbing business and loved taking care of his yard, refused to give up his lawn for any reason. He was paid a visit by twelve concerned neighbors, who after three hours of discussion were able to persuade him to sell his house to all twelve of them for double its market value. The new owners quickly transformed the grass into elaborate patterns of many-colored tile and sold the property at a substantial profit to the assistant manager of a software development firm, who had been searching for the ideal home in the suburbs.

Even as our lawns were disappearing, we became aware of other changes. Many of the new yards still retained borders of soil along the base of the house or the bottom of a fence, where rows of bushes and flowers flourished in sun and shade. Owners now began pulling up their plants and filling in the strips of earth with brick and tile. Hedges vanished; window boxes stood empty. Stalks and leaves once visible in the latticework spaces of porch aprons were cleared away, leaving only darkness. You would have thought our town was ridding itself of some harmful invasive species. Flowerpots on porch steps sat upside down or held nothing but a squeegee or a paintbrush. On the dark-red walls of the public library, green vines no longer climbed along the bricks.

One morning toward the middle of July, as I stepped out of my house to drive to work, I saw at the end of the block a section of beech tree moving slowly through the air, clasped by metal arms at the back of a transport truck. I learned that a neighbor had hired a tree-removal company to cut down his beech tree and extract the roots from their circle of earth in his tiled front yard. It was no exception. All over town, trees were beginning to disappear. It was as if their green-leaved branches were perceived as upper lawns, hovering above our heads. We were scarcely surprised when the Department of Public Works voted in August to send out crews to our curbsides to cut down town-owned trees and extract the roots. This official elimination of our street trees seemed to me the definitive sign of the destructive passion that had overtaken our town, though at the same time I recognized the chain saws as the logical culmination of a desire for change that had begun innocently enough.

By Labor Day, our town had been stripped of green. No leafy branches shaded our sidewalks, our yards, our paved-over park with its picnic tables and duck pond. No blades of grass thrust up between cracks of stone. In what might have been a touch of nostalgia for our absent trees, statues began to appear in front yards. Rodin’s Thinker rose up in various neighborhoods, along with Greek gods and goddesses, an occasional Abraham Lincoln or P. T. Barnum, and twisting abstract sculptures in steel and stone. On a property near the town hall, a massive oak tree of granite was erected in a tiled front yard, with precisely carved leaves and hundreds of elegantly sculpted acorns. After numerous protests and a visit from the town planning commissioner, the owner ordered the oak to be removed and replaced by a twenty-foot granite Statue of Liberty with a winding inner stairway leading into the torch. Window boxes once filled with petunias and snapdragons now contained colored glass pellets, playful elves, or rows of pinwheels. People swept and washed their tiled yards, wiped bird droppings from the faces of statues. Was I the only one who missed the turning of the leaves?

Snow fell, covering our yards in the old way. The question of Christmas trees was addressed at a town meeting, where it was decided that banished conifers would be replaced by locally built structures reminiscent of hatstands, with arms that lengthened as they descended the central post. On New Year’s Eve we clinked our glasses, resolved to lead better lives, and wondered what the coming year would bring.

Spring came, and with it the familiar sense of awakening, of a world of hidden things about to burst into life. The absence of green confused many of us, as if we had expected the melting snow to reveal the old springtime hidden underneath. In the warm air, no green-leaved forsythias thrilled us with their promise of yellow blossoms, no green leaf tips sprouted at the twig ends of sugar maples. The few remaining birds poured out their song from the heads of statues, before returning to old nests crumbling in roof gutters or under eaves. As I walked the streets of my neighborhood, on treeless sidewalks exposed to relentless sunlight, I waved hello to neighbors kneeling beside soapy buckets and scrubbing their tiles with stiff-bristled brushes or repairing cracks that had formed under ice and snow. At home, my daughter and I took turns hosing off our cobblestones and bricks, while I dreamed of showers of grass thrown up by the lawn mower. Behind the garbage cans at the side of the house, I discovered an empty flowerpot, which had once overflowed with fern fronds, deep green.

The turn came quietly, a few days later. Mark and Carol Ackerman were next-door neighbors of Alan and Rose Perlstein’s, up on the hill. He was a cardiologist, she a dental surgeon. A year ago, they had made a point of displaying originality by selecting brightly colored tiles and overseeing their arrangement in artful designs, such as mosaic images of heraldic lions, intertwined serpents, and spread-winged falcons enclosed in borders of white and red stone. They now employed Yard Makeovers Inc. to extract two square feet of tiling and mortar on each side of the front porch steps. In each empty space they planted an evergreen shrub, purchased at a garden shop in a nearby town.

Was it nothing more than an aesthetic whim? An act of showy self-assertion on the part of a couple who liked to draw attention to themselves? Was it perhaps a medical decision reached by thoughtful doctors concerned about the quality of our air? Whatever it was, neighbors gathered on the sidewalk in front of the Ackerman house to stare. People from other parts of town drove over to see what the fuss was all about. By the end of the week, you could see green bushes rising here and there in the stone yards of our town.

Within two weeks it was difficult to find a yard without some touch of green: a bush beneath a living-room window, a bed of ferns enclosed in a rim of stone, a breast-high sapling casting its thin shadow over tiles. It might have ended there, a minor variation introduced to bring out the subtle qualities of arranged stone, but one day a waist-high hedge appeared along the border of a front yard near the high school. In another part of town, a flowering dogwood stood suddenly in a small circle of grass. Three days later Alan and Rose Perlstein, with an eye on the Ackermans, hired Yard Makeovers Inc. to remove all of their granite tiles and to cover their entire property with fresh sod.

There was no stopping it now. Yard after yard was turned into new grass or richly seeded soil. Hedges and bushes took root again. Young maples and hemlocks appeared on sunny lawns. One afternoon my daughter sat me down for a serious talk and offered to contribute her weekly babysitting income to the uprooting of our cobblestones and bricks. In another part of town, the twenty-foot Statue of Liberty was carried off on a flatbed truck and replaced by a massive oak tree rumored to have come from a forest in Maine. The town board, responding to public pressure, ordered the Department of Public Works to begin planting young trees along curbsides: red maples, sugar maples, lindens, sycamores, beech.

By the end of June our town had returned to the old world of tree-lined streets and green lawns. Under new branches, strips of fresh grass rose up between sidewalk and curb. I hummed as I gripped the rubber handles of my power mower and guided the blades across the yard. My daughter and I planted a vegetable garden in back, with rows of sticks for tomato vines and corn. Together we tended the flower boxes on the front porch. When all is said and done, I’m the kind of man who embraces the normal without apology. I woke each morning happy to greet the smell of cut grass. After a brief diversion, a playful experiment, things had returned to normal in our quiet town.

Or had they? As the days passed, I became aware of a slight difference. People were working away in their yards, a familiar enough sight in the middle of summer, but what drew my attention was the uninterrupted planting of new bushes and young trees, even in yards well supplied with both. A crowding seemed to be taking place. It was as if households had made up their minds to prevent any future assault on their little worlds of green.

Large hedges, higher than my head, were replacing smaller ones. Tall shrubs overshadowed low bushes. In the neighborhood of John D. Ewing and friends, it was common enough for houses to be set back from the road behind lofty hedges and thick-branched trees, which prevented passersby from peering in. But now, in more modest neighborhoods, such as my own, porches were disappearing behind high rows of honeysuckle and azalea. Ivy vines wrapped themselves around porch posts. Wisteria and lavender-flowered hydrangea climbed past living-room windows and made their way up toward bedroom windows on second floors. From the sills of the same windows, lush vines spilled down. Chimneys vanished within swirls of green.

I could feel it myself, this restlessness, this desire to push beyond carefully defined limits toward unknown lands. I had longed deeply for the restoration of our green yards, but the return no longer seemed enough. Our neat lawns and clipped hedges now struck me as tame and meek, mere imitations of manufactured items for the home, like wool rugs and mahogany sideboards. At best they were decorative touches in a world aggressively dedicated to the eradication of natural things. I applauded the desire to fill yards with growing forms, with life. One July day, in a burst of energy, I lined both sides of my narrow front walk with ten-foot shrubs purchased at a recently opened garden center. My daughter and I laughed as we pushed our way through thick leaves and springy branches to the hidden front porch.

In the same spirit, people in many parts of town had become impatient with the slow growth of saplings. They began buying trees that were nearly full-grown. On street after street you could see transport trucks carrying great horizontal oaks and beeches and firs, the roots wrapped in burlap. In every neighborhood you could watch as metal arms tightened around trunks and lowered great trees into prepared holes.

Small forests, extending to the property line, were becoming popular. Homeowners refinanced to cover the cost. On my block alone, one backyard was filled with freshly planted Norway pine, which pressed against every window and rose above the roof, while a nearby front yard was given over to a dense growth of birch and beech. Driveways became woodland paths. Caught up in the fever, I took out a loan and hired workers to turn our vegetable garden into a copse of hemlock.

One Saturday toward the middle of August, a work crew in yellow helmets stood in the middle of the street not far from my house. A group of us gathered to watch as the men drilled into the center of the road, tore out chunks of blacktop, and left a broad hole surrounded by dirt. Soon a long truck arrived, bearing an immense sugar maple tilted on its side. The heavy tree rose slowly before being lowered into the ground. When we asked what was happening, we were informed that crews were at work in every neighborhood, tearing up streets and planting trees. Paved roads had been condemned by the Department of Public Works as undesirable throwbacks to our earlier town, old-fashioned obstructions to natural growth.

By early September, dense groves had sprung up in many of our streets. Despite some expressions of concern, the decision of the DPW was enthusiastically embraced by most of our citizens. Those of us who could no longer drive through the forested roads now rode bicycles or walked to the one remaining bus stop in town.

Though I vigorously supported all efforts to increase the number of trees in our town, I was startled at times by the sheer swiftness of our accomplishment, the daily evidence of lushness and rapid growth. It was as if the energy of our desire had entered the roots and branches themselves, filling them with extravagant life.

As late summer passed into autumn, there were no signs of letting up. In our tree-crowded yards, we stood on branch-pierced ladders and trained leafy tendrils to spread across bare windowpanes. Many of us took to covering our front and back porches with strips of sod. Indoor walls became sites for climbing vines. A few enthusiasts went so far as to carry buckets of loam into their living rooms in order to replace an end table with a cone of soil supporting an evergreen bush. Meanwhile, on block after block, town crews worked tirelessly to tear out any remaining sections of paved street and fill them with thickets of pine and spruce.

Extremists urged the destruction of all public buildings, those masses of brick and stone that did nothing but interrupt the designs of nature, but more reasonable minds prevailed: all school corridors, all town hall offices, and the main room of the post office were lined with bushes and trees in terra-cotta planters concealed beneath slopes of imported soil. In alternate aisles of the town library, rows of tall shrubs pressed against the spines of books. When we stepped into privately owned buildings open to the public, such as churches, banks, downtown stores, and car dealerships, we found ourselves pushing aside branches heavy with leaves.

Sometimes, in the deep hours of the night, a doubt came over some of us, but in the morning we were swept up once again in our desire to carry on with what we had so passionately begun.

Now, as the ground hardens and the air grows colder, we understand one thing: there can be no turning back. Our town is slowly being transformed into a deep forest. Some of our citizens, defeated at last, have abandoned their homes and moved to nearby towns, with the vague hope of returning someday soon. The rest of us remain in our mossy houses, where branches occasionally break in through upper windows. We spend hours each day exploring the surrounding woods, learning to identify and gather edible leaves, fruit, and mushrooms, though we can also purchase meals from food trucks that park behind the deserted mall at the edge of town. Half-hidden among trees, our schools, our library, our post office, and our downtown businesses have sharply reduced their hours. All are in danger of shutting down completely as they fill with foliage and small, scurrying animals.

My daughter and her friends spend most afternoons in the woods, returning with pine cones and sprigs of berries arranged in their hair. Owls sit on the edges of our roofs. Raccoons thump and scratch in our attics. There are rumors of prowling wolves, though that is nothing but ignorant gossip. It’s true enough that some dogs and cats have left their homes to roam in feral packs. Far more worrisome are the notices posted on tree trunks by our diminished police department, warning us to guard our homes against break-ins.

When we try to recall our earlier town, with its neat rows of houses seated in little rectangles of green, the image seems to be that of a colored drawing made by a kindergartener with a box of new crayons. Some say that if we don’t change direction, our town is destined to disappear entirely. They prophesy a time of smashed and decaying houses, with mighty trees thrusting through floors and bursting through roofs. Others feel that just as we once turned from green to stone and back again to green, so another change is imminent, though what that change might be, no one can say. In the meantime, we can only get ready for the long winter, storing supplies in our cellars and reinforcing our windows and doors. Already we find ourselves dreaming, at times uneasily, of the coming spring.


About the author

Steven Millhauser received the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for his novel Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer (Crown). His new and selected stories, We Others (Knopf), won the 2011 Story Prize and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award.

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