We had an unforgivably hot summer so I started walking the dog in the evenings. Up and down the suburban streets at sundown- I started noticing- something’s up with the neighbors.
It is neighborly conduct, if not code, to meet eyes or exchange a word or two while passing by. I keep to the sidewalk. They keep to their side of the fence. But rather than acknowledging me, increasingly, the neighbors are avoiding me. If my dog lingers at their property- they will retreat. If we meet eyes- they’re the first to avert theirs. The neighbors are uneasy, uncomfortable.
But it’s not me, specifically. It’s the fact that I’m a witness to what they’re doing in their yards at night.
People are proud as hell about their plot of land in life. They’ll boast about it at work or post photos of it online. It’s possible to brag all day about their lush lots of emerald green grass.
But in the dark, it’s impossible not to be guilty about it.
Brown yards aren’t so constant a reminder that California’s entering a sixth year of drought. It seems that they’re once again a reminder to unwind the hose and water the lawn.
Last year, the local news prompted viewers to send in pictures of their ugly yards. The “ugliest” would stand a chance to win the contest, created to inspire the latest efforts to conserve water. Brown lawns were a badge of honor. Considering the severity of the issue, the campaign caused a good stir. (At the time of this writing, I remember it wistfully. An upbeat story that wove an important cause with real community engagement. It is so unlike the news we get in an election year.)
In addition to “letting it all go” and abandoning the care of lawns and gardens, many resorted to interesting alternatives. Homeowners tore up their lawns, encouraged by cash-for-grass programs. Some landscaped with native, drought-tolerant plants, quenched with recycled water. Companies swooped in, soliciting expertise in painting grass. Others promised the best in fake grass installments.
Then the headlines disappeared. Talk of the drought dried up.
The “ugly yard” contest came and went. Water prices didn’t go up. And if it’s true that California’s actual water shortage has been overstated- this leaves individuals in a particular kind of aftermath. They still want to “do the right thing” but if it’s not aligned with a collective interest determining what that right thing is- the incentive is diminished.
The aftermath is like waking to find a still-burning candle at your bedside. You’re relieved it didn’t burn the house down you’re reminded of that which caused you to light it in the first place. I see neighbors smoldering in this aftermath. They wanted to sacrifice for the societal good but now that the contest is over and the crusade is quieter, they’re unsure what was in it for them all along. It’s in their eyes, a flicker of doubt- a flame of guilt- as they’ve taken to watering their grass again.
This is alarming on a greater scale. In his book Tribe, Sebastian Junger references Rachel Yehuda, to point out that littering is a (similarly) disturbing example of social disconnect. The tendency for individuals to do something as trivial, selfish and relatively unseen as littering “encapsulates this idea that you’re in it alone, that there isn’t a shared ethos of trying to protect something shared.”
If we can’t do our part as individuals, what hope is there in alleviating collective concerns as pertinent as the drought? If we “forget” what our part is, or we are unsure if we are making a difference, we should not err on the side of quiet retreat. This works in reverse too. We are headline-hungry and deserve continued coverage of our local concerns. The conversation must continue at all levels- among the media, our leaders and, especially, among neighbors.