The grass is always greener

They’re at it again, folks!

As soon as the last gasps of winter begin to turn to signs of spring, when buds begin to appear and birds begin to sing again, strange and previously hidden human beings emerge from their winter hiding places and begin to go to work. Like elves, they appear almost as if by magic, entirely absent one day and present in full force the next. No sooner have the days begun to lengthen and the temperature begun to rise than they mysteriously materialize.

They are the Harvard landscapers.

Perhaps you’ve seen them yourself, if you’ve been lucky to be on campus during those special days in the spring. If you have, you’ll agree with me that their work is certainly a sight to behold.

Now, Harvard’s campus covers slightly less than four hundred acres in the heart of Cambridge. As you might suspect, that’s a lot of grass. And the task of the Harvard landscapers, for a few days in April and again in June, is to make the grass… greener.

Even before Harvard decided, in an apparent fit of conscience, to preach environmentalism (“Green is the new Crimson”) from the heights of the ivory tower, it was obsessed with the greenness of its grass. Mother Harvard’s academic rigor may be ever so fierce, her athletic prowess ever so dismal, but she is determined that her grass will (and must) always be green.

In truth, I’m reminded of older women who continue to dye their hair beyond the point of all believability—like the grandmother who sits in front of you in church: her hair, a brilliant red; her age, a ripe 72. It seems almost comically futile, and especially in Harvard’s case: the grande dame of Cambridge turns 374 years old this year.

Of course, the landscapers of this fine university don’t actually dye all the grass on the campus. That would be silly.

Instead, they invest countless hours (and, with time, money) in a multi-step process that is intended to make our acres their greenest and our grass its most lush just in time for Commencement, when it will be pummeled into mud by the feet of tens of thousands of family members, friends, tourists, and random Korean spectators.

See, doesn’t that make much more sense?

As far as I can tell, it all starts with the acorn harvesting. This preliminary step actually begins in September or October of the previous year, when acorns from the oak trees in Harvard Yard begin to rain down upon the lawn. You may think I’m fibbing, but Harvard actually has machines specially designed to drive over the lawn and suck up all the acorns, returning the grass to its formerly pristine state before the snow flies. (An acorn harvester actually looks a great deal like a Zamboni, if that helps you form a picture in your mind.)

I’ve always wondered what happens to all those offensive acorns after they’re swept away. Are they simply composted? Are they used in soups served to the undergraduate students? (I wouldn’t put it past the university dining services…) Or are they, perhaps, sent to Spain and used to fatten the pigs destined to become jamón ibérico? We may never know.

In any case, after the de-acorning is complete and the winter snows have come and gone, the landscapers commence—with a vengeance—their first task of the spring: raking and aerating (or, as I like to call it, perforating). At the first possible chance, the Harvard landscapers get out their heavy metal rakes and begin to scratch furiously at the lawn, yanking away any offending material including (gasp!) overlooked acorns from the autumn. Then, they move across the grass with rolling perforating machines pushed by hand. These machines leave small, evenly spaced holes in the terrain all across the Yard; the holes not only serve to aerate the soil (such as it were) but also await the deposit of grass seed, which comes next.

When the raking and aerating is complete, things really begin in earnest. In a matter of two days, all of Harvard’s 400 acres are impregnated with grass seed, sprayed completely with a foam-like fertilizer whose color can only be described as teal, and left to moisturize and (presumably) grow. The edges of every patch of grass are treated with special attention, being turned over by hand before the seeds are sown and fertilizer applied. When all is complete, stakes are driven into the ground around the perimeter of every bit of green space, and twine is strung through the posts to stop student vagans from treading upon the fragile soil.

All is now ready for Yardfest.

Yardfest, which takes place on the college campus every spring, may be described in many ways. Pragmatically speaking, however, it is the Sunday afternoon in April when the administrators of the university, in their wisdom, invite a second- or third-rate performing artist to appease the students before their spring exams. Past artists have included Wyclef Jean (I know, I’ve never heard of him either) and Third Eye Blind (welcome back to the ’90s, folks). By April, the Harvard students have all attended several online lectures instructing them in pop culture and how to “rock out,” and they’re ready to go.

No matter the identity of the invitee, though, Yardfest largely consists of hordes of students milling about, pretending to enjoy themselves, and (naturally) trampling the grass.

And therein lies the rub: hours into Yardfest, all of that hard (some might even say obsessive) landscaping work is for naught.

However, the Harvard landscapers are indefatigable. They pick right up and do it all again—just in time for Commencement, at which (as I alluded to above) tens of thousands of chairs are set up all over the newly recovered lawn and filled with anxious ceremony observers. The big day leaves a sea of mud in its wake, which means that the landscapers have only a few weeks to repeat the process yet again before students arrive for summer school.

Reflecting on this absurdity, two images from Lewis Carroll’s fiction come to mind: 1) the Red Queen’s race and 2) painting the roses red.

After watching it persist for five years now, Harvard’s obsession with its lawn has become increasingly fascinating to me. What is the point? Are we really going to have some sort of identity crisis if the grass isn’t impeccable at every waking moment of the year?

Oh, but forget waking moments—did I mention that Harvard also uses a built-in sprinkler system to water all of its grass between 2:00 and 4:00 AM every day, even if it rained the day before?

I wonder how much we spend on landscapers. For that matter, I wonder how much we spend on watering the grass. When budget cuts were affecting the livelihoods of both employees and departments last year, I wonder if anyone ever said, “Hey! I have an idea! Let’s maybe pay a little bit less attention to our grass complex and a little bit more attention to the well-being of our students and their teachers!”

I wonder if they would have had to stop providing breakfast for all the undergraduates if they had just stopped watering the lawn.

And on top of all of that, does it strike anyone as odd that Harvard can hoist banners and proclaim the virtues of environmentalism on the one hand, and waste untold gallons of water, tanks of fuel, and hours of labor on the other—all to prepare perfect grass for the arrival of many trampling feet?

Maybe instead of “Green is the new Crimson,” they should just say, “Grass is the new indicator of all that we hold dear:

… Appearance.”

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