Land’s End: Brown Is the New Green

Savoring verdant memories in the drought-struck Golden State
Illustration by Brett Affrunti

Not long ago, we drove around North County on a more-sepia-toned-than-expected tour of our old stamping grounds. Here was the house where the mom was a rocket scientist, really. Here was the bridle trail where we hiked the time we saw someone’s pet ostrich unburden its bladder. Here was the high school where, according to my husband, The Doors played in the ’60s and Jim Morrison dropped his pants and freaked everyone out. The memories made us all laugh, but something was vaguely depressing. Finally, one of the kids looked out the window and said it: “What I remember is that it all used to be so much greener. Look what the drought has done to everyone’s lawns.” And indeed, there it was—the Indian-summer suburbia of the climate-changed present. Not only crispy, but wistful. Back in the day, if someone had told me I would feel sentimental about Bermuda grass and mow-and-blow gardeners, I’d have laughed as if they’d just shown me a urinating ostrich. No longer. These days, even morning sprinklers make a nostalgic sound. Remember when people worried that their Rain Birds would soak the morning paper in the driveway? Now people who follow the news plant succulents and sage by the quarter acre; they don’t worry about wet newsprint because they have apps—both for their news and their drip irrigation. Now lawns are for suckers. Keep them green and you’re hogging water; let them brown and you’re a one-stop destroyer of property values. Our own yard is so drought-tolerant these days, it’s not even funny. And yet, as we drove along the Memory Lanes of our years as a young family, all I could think of was how comforted I once had felt by all that lushness, how the lawn of our first home, just across the Orange County line, had made me feel wealthy. How opening day—at Dodger Stadium with our first child, and then Angel Stadium with our second and third—would dizzy us with all that green. How my middle child would play under the trees in our little park with her best friend from preschool, the one with the rocket scientist mother. That woman was smart; she would remind us that Southern California wasn’t meant to support those pastoral expanses. But saying farewell to one of the most iconic features of the local landscape doesn’t feel natural either. Gazing out over wilting flower beds and parched squares of dichondra, heading toward my brother-in-law’s house where we were expected for dinner, I found myself asking our California-born kids what they remembered most vividly from their early years here. “Walking barefoot,” our middle child said wistfully. “The cold feel of wet grass on my feet.”

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