Privilege Blog

When Weather Got Scary, Or, Saturday Morning at 8:56am


This is my front lawn. I’m letting it die.

Northern California is dry. Actually, so’s the whole state, but that’s a lot of acreage and I can only talk about the part I know.

We began drought-level water restrictions this month. We must cut usage 36% from 2013. A pretty precise requirement. Outdoor irrigation in my water district, Mondays and Fridays only. OK then.

While I want to keep my garden — the California natives under the oak, butterfly habitatdogwoods — I don’t really mind giving up the lawn. This seems like a good way to publicly support the drought restrictions, and blades of grass are the archetypal fungible entity, after all.

But I do mind the sense of foreboding with which we now regard the weather. Do you remember when we talked about it blandly? When politics, sex, and religion were forbidden? No more, in either case.

Of course, our current discomfort is mostly and rightly about climate change. But leaving that aside for the moment, I miss weather naivetë overall. The days when you didn’t know what was coming, or just how much rain had fallen in Delaware.

When I was young, I thought the California summer coursed through my veins. The blue sky, yellow hills, gray brown baked clay dirt. The stuff of myth. My first year at Princeton, I didn’t mind the cold. You just put on more clothes – not too different from winter rains at home. But the heat and humidity? How to feel free in the world when moving makes you sweat?

Nowadays we’ve weather stations, and numbers, and radar, at our fingertips. Ah well. Something lost and something, we hope, gained. Maybe I surrender my lawn, someone else survives a hurricane.

My son and I have talked about weather innocence. Even he, at 25, feels the loss. Optimistically, I hope technology comes to our rescue soon. And beyond technology, I suppose I’ll carve out, somewhere inside, a space where the land and its ways are still a mystery.

Have a wonderful weekend. Let’s never lose hope.

43 Responses

  1. Good for you for letting your front lawn die, you could turn it into a wonderful, drought resistant garden, which would look excellent with your home. I feel the same, worry about the weather constantly, for many reasons. As a California native, I’d taken our great weather for granted as well, and have such splendid childhood memories of sunny, hot, dry summers, and rainy winters. Everything feels “upside down” as well as scary – does that explain it?

    1. Yes, the upside down is part of it. The first summer day I felt humidity in California, 2-3 years ago, my heart sank.

  2. Wanted to add that we’re considering it with our front lawn as well. We have a hedge which makes it not visible from the street, and I’d like to turn it into a vegetable and fruit garden. Have to convince D.

    1. My front yard lawn is small as it is, the rest of the space is mostly summer-dry plantings, with two raised beds for roses and sometimes vegetables. The neighbors are used to it;). I think it’s a great plan.

  3. Drought-tolerant plants & vegetable gardens instead of front lawns are becoming popular here in the greater Seattle area too. Definitely warmer & drier here than it used to be. Our lawn has always died this time of year for lack of water as we’re on a well, so it would be easy for me to say hey it’s always been this way, but clearly it’s worse in recent years.

    1. I will have to think about what else might serve. I need something walkable, as my lawn fronts a sidewalk, and I need to access it for trash, recyclables, etc.

  4. I share your sense of foreboding…I have lived in California most of my life…we used to have dry years, and wet years…now I can’t count on what I’ve experienced for so many years…we stopped filling our pond a year ago and our lawns are up next.

    1. Yes, if only we knew it was just a drought like 1977, right? I fear the humidity more than the dry summers, in truth. Seems like more of a real change.

  5. Very pleased and grateful that your lawn is in its proper place on your priority list. Good for you. Soon there will be many good ideas for front yard plantings that don’t require a ton of water.

  6. I grew up in Kansas and now live in the same part of California you do. (Although our water restriction is 16% rather than 36%.) Even though my family was part of the local university community in my hometown, we and everybody else were just as aware of the weather and its consequences as if we were farmers. I have the impression from friends that that is still the case.

    The feeling that has thrown me off-balance in California the last couple of years is waiting for winter to come. Too much sun, too warm. I need a cool, rainy season, and my body knows it.

    1. @Cathy, We need both! The rainy seasons to soak us and the hot to dry our bones out;). Maybe we should all try to think more like farmers.

  7. We haven’t watered a lawn for at least ten years now, and even before that it was desultory. Of course, we get rainfall through much of the year to keep it green into May, but we’ve always had a tendency to drought in August and September, and then we just let it brown out. I do water some of the garden beds when they really need it, but I tend to do it by hand, on an as-needed basis, rather than just leaving a sprinkler on. We don’t get as hot a sun as you do in California, of course, but my seaside garden gets stressed by wind and salt — and yet, it can manage on much less water than I once would have thought. Even my roses can do fairly well without much water, having had to grow their roots deep to seek it out. I’m sure the pressure to be a certain kind of neighbourly makes it tougher in some suburbs to go xeric than here on a slightly eccentric island, but I guess we’re all discovering a different meaning of neighbourly. . . .

    1. @Frances/Materfamilias, Even in wet years, we’ll get no rain at all between early May and late September, even October. So if we are to have lawns, and many types of flowering shrubs at all, we have to irrigate. Drip is much better than overhead, and handwatering is best of all, most likely. You are so right, however, that plants can live on much less water than one expects, and I think that, as you point out, infrequent but deep watering is the key.

    2. @Frances/Materfamilias, I actually got rid of my lawn for a proper garden (not that either is larger than a postage stamp) and I cannot remember the last time I watered either. I know that our climate is totally diff here than yours – and Lisa’s – but I find grass is just asking to brown when the weather gets super hot in July and August. It just kind of burns, no matter the amount of natural (or irrigated) water. I don’t get it. It’s not even pretty, IMO, the way flowers and plants are. But that’s just my take. I think it’s utterly sad that we’ve hit this point with global warming but I guess it may be time to say good bye to grass.

  8. In Cleveland we generally had plenty of water, but in Taiwan the situation is more erratic. Some dry spells call for water rationing, and even water-stoppages, where different neighborhoods only get tap water certain days of the week. I am much more cognizant of and careful about water usage now. The funny thing is that because of Taipei’s micro-climate it can rain every day, but there is still a drought because outside the city, the reservoir is not being refilled.

  9. Where I live in Oz underwent a really severe drought a few years back that lasted for years (before the whole city flooded) and I let the lawn die and went in hard with dry tolerant stalwarts like geraniums, succulents, mondo grass, agaves, a few natives, bromeliads and salvias and a couple of roses. Many plants died. I kept a bucket in my shower and laundry and kitchen sink and I kept the plants that lives alive by using this “grey” water. I hauled the grey water out a few times a day and hoped for the best. Many people rigged up hoses from their washing machines and kept plants alive that way, I got into such a water conservation habit that I never really watered the garden again- plants just adapt. I never had much lawn and I just made the garden beds wider. You’ve got to play the garden cards you’re dealt. Australians obsessively watch the weather every night because we have Old Testament storms, cyclones, raging heat, fires, floods…Just put in a stone path to drag your rubbish bin and plant the lawn out. Love this post x

    1. @Faux Fuchsia, We’ve got a plastic bucket in the shower – that’s how I’m keeping the native ferns I just planted along the house’s northwest side alive. And I’ll just let the lawn die for now, and see what happens come October. It’s so, so small, it may be that only hardscaping would be less water-intensivel

  10. We live in a lawn conscious community, where weekend lawn mowing (ride-on mowers for huge properties, of course) seems to be a major recreation, and eradicating other green things in the lawn that are not grass (i.e. weeds) is of major importance. As for us… we’re just happy when it’s green, weeds, grass, whatever. And Hubby can’t wait for the grass-growing to slow down so he can focus on the vegetable garden and not the lawn. And we do not water the lawn. Ever. Good for you to let the grass die and focus what water you have (or are allowed to use) on the plants you love. I wonder what you think of the “public shaming” campaign I’ve read about…where celebs like Kim Kardashian & Kayne West or Sean Penn are being “outed” for the super green state of their lawns etc.

  11. I’ve always envied the California bloggers who seem to pop out every morning into beautiful sunshine & don’t seem to need winter woollies . Here in the UK it’s usually brollies at the ready , except for the odd dry summer when hosepipes are quickly banned . There have been reports here about the California drought & after seeing the mighty Colorado river on holiday , it seems a shame that it no longer reaches the sea .I hope things improve soon
    Wendy in York

  12. Yes, here in Kansas we do obsess about weather as if we were all farmers just As Cathy said. It may be because the weather is always so predictably unpredictable. The joke around here is if you don’t like the current weather, wait 5 minutes–it’s bound to change. That said, something seems amiss weather-wise, even where irregularity is the norm.

    The flash flooding here has been quite scary. Not on the scale of Texas and other places, but enough to make you paranoid about every rain shower. Soil is so saturated that creeks overflow their banks and sewers gush water onto major roadways when people are driving even during brief storms. We had water come through the back door of our finished basement for the 1st time in 21 years. Sump pump was installed and now dirt has to be hauled in to redirect the water away from the house.

    About humidity. I am not a fan—no pun intended. I have lived in its sweaty grip my entire life and never acclimated to it and apparently never will. It makes everything you do feel twice as hard and makes you feel like you are melting, which is why I run AC 24/7. My idea of paradise is a warm dry place, which I guess used to be California.

    1. @M, We’re still pretty warm and dry. But we’ve had the most perfect, glorious, heart-lifting weather, all my life. Now we see that start to degrade. The fear of what might come next is worse, right now, than the actual changes. I’ve seen all the reports on flash flooding, and while I know it’s happened before, all the serious weather of these days just makes me worry about the future. I try to stay optimistic, to believe that just as it gets really bad, the fires will have been lit under people who invest, and the capital will have gone to technologies that can save us.

  13. Reporting in from the East Coast:the volatility in weather here is what frightens me (after all I am inured to the humidity.) The ferocious thunder storms in the summer are now ofter accompanied by hail. The winter storms seem more frequent and icier. Let us not discuss the hurricanes, OK? I realize there is an argument to made that this is all part of a very long cycle–which argument I do not adopt–but even if that is true, I reserve my right to be scared by the idea of living in a world that seems out to get me and prevent me from traveling, working and growing beautiful hydrangeas.

    1. @nyreader, I had expected a discussion of violent weather. It’s hard for me to characterize drought as scary. Drought in my way of thinking is no weather – nothing happens. To me scary weather is trees crashing into your house, lighting, downpours that flood out roads, snow that leaves you stuck for a week.

      I’m more concerned about rising sea levels than drought myself.

    2., Ah, for those of you have grown up in weather, of course scary means more violent. But we in California, we develop very thin skins. We feel every small shift very strongly. And believe me, when you see trees die and plants wither, when you realize that you’ve begun to forget rain happens, it’s scary.

      California feeds the country.

      But I suppose it’s good you don’t share my worries – I don’t care what exactly we worry about with weather, only that the worry levels rise before the sea levels, and someone starts to spend the money that’s going to be required to fix it. (edited to make clear to whom I was responding.)

    3. @nyreader, I’m in NY as well, near LI Sound, and the hurricanes have been terrifying. I go regularly to Boston and last winter made life there almost unlivable. I agree that the weather has become more violent, and it is truly frightening.

      There have been changes in the building code here; new buildings have to be raised a story from the ground. This has meant that when small (or not so small) houses are razed and replaced by McMansions, the chimney and a small part of the facade are left standing and the new house built around it, presumably to avoid the requirement to raise the house. In Old Greenwich, CT, houses can’t be sold now unless they are raised off their foundations at a cost in the six figures. There’s change everywhere.

  14. If your front lawn is small, have you considered the new fake grass? We’re seeing more and more of it, and sometimes on walks we’ll have to stop and touch it to see if it’s really fake. The product has come a long way since astro turf. It’s hideously expensive, but it is maintenance free.

    1. @Allison, Ah, I think I’d rather just add more decomposed granite walkways, and another raised bed with plants that can live unirrigated. I am glad, however, that artificial grass is available for people who really need a play area.

  15. Interesting Lisa, especially considering I just finished reading the article in the Sunday NYT about the farmers in Central Valley drilling for their water, and the subsidence that this can cause. It’s a really bad situation to be certain. I’m not sure California laws have kept up with the reality of the weather? And water has a mind of its own underground, those spongey layers sucked dry will allow the ground to fall at alarming rates and will also dry up residential wells. Imagine having a home with no water! Very scary indeed.

    1. @DaniBP, The reality of the drought has taken a while to sink in, in large part because we are used to drought. They happen, they are normal. The severity of this one, and the possibility that it will not end in November, is the problem.

  16. We have a token patch of lawn in our front garden and water it sparingly. Many neighbours have replaced their lawns with drought tolerant plants and some have even put in rock gardens…with different types of rocks and driftwood. I think globally we should all be conserving water…it is something we cannot live without.
    Grey watering is very popular with the local gardeners and some have redirected their dish water as well as the washing machines to feed into cisterns which in turn are used on the garden beds.
    It would be wonderful not to have to concern ourselves with climate change but we all need to be mindful and do our bit.

    1. @Bungalow Hostess, If the drought continues, I will investigate a gray water system. For now, I’m just dumping buckets of shower water into the butterfly garden and hoping.

  17. Oh, I DO share your worries about the big issue. The problem just manifests differently here, so I have a different fact pattern off of which to work. Chacun a son terror?

    1. @nyreader, Very well put. And if everyone notices and understands the import of their particular fact pattern, we’ll all be better off.

  18. My husband is a giant weather nerd. Like he quotes the meteorologists by name, nerd. “Well, Matt said…” or “Pete thinks….” He’s in the marine industry, so weather can kill them, literally.

    If you paved my whole yard, I would leave this world a happy woman. But, I feel for you with the choice taken away from you.

  19. I re-landscaped my sister’s Minneapolis urban lot in 2009. Got rid of the lawn, planted mostly species that can survive without intervention, and then mulched. Native prairie grasses are very drought tolerant once established.

    I am slowly reducing the lawn here in Massachusetts. Although I must confess I have a weakness for showy annuals (a modest amount) tucked in here and there that require regular watering. We don’t water the lawn. By mid-July it looks ragged. I am past caring.

    The weather here in MA has definitely changed since we moved 25 years ago. Midwest-type booming thunder and lightening storms with high winds, flying branches and goes on for hours are now common. The summers are far more hot and humid. July and August are unbearable. Central air is a given in any house built after 1990. Winter is a little colder. Most years we have a thaw between snow storms which cuts down on the accumulation. This past winter was crazy. No thaws. Broke the record for snow fall and still had snow on the ground in April. This Spring is oddly cool. The garden is about two weeks behind. Same time last year I had the first full flush of blossomed roses. Today only 1 or 2 buds starting to open.

    So yes, the weather has changed. A lot.

    Happy xeriscaping!

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