2-Plants: GE alwn is about to undermine the suburban male psyche
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TITLE: Self-cutting grass is about to undermine the suburban male
SOURCE: The Sunday Times, UK, by Roland White
DATE: August 20, 2000
-------------------- archive: http://www.gene.ch/ --------------------
Self-cutting grass is about to undermine the suburban male psyche.
In spring a young man's fancy turns to thoughts of love. A middle-
aged man is far too busy wondering when he should start mowing the
lawn. When a chap reaches a certain age, the sight of a summer frock
no longer puts a spring in his step. What sets pulses racing are
thoughts of top-dressing, mowing, spiking, raking leaves, and the
application of a balanced fertiliser in autumn.
The lawn is where the middle-aged bloke finds a bit of peace and
quiet. But now that haven from the stresses of life is under threat:
scientists in America say they are close to developing the self-
trimming, indestructible, choose-your-own-colour lawn.
Self-trimming grass - which grows slowly rather than cutting itself -
is one of several genetically modified grasses developed at Rutgers
University in New Jersey. Companies such as Monsanto, the GM giant,
and Scotts, the world's largest manufacturer of garden products, hope
to sell the seed for use on sports pitches, golf courses and,
eventually, in suburban gardens.
Environmental groups in the US are less enthusiastic. They say that
grasses cross-breed and hybridise at a rapid rate so genes inserted
into one species could quickly spread to others with unpredictable
results for the food chain. About 40 test sites have already been
But this has not stopped the research. In fact, scientists are
already talking about creating novelty grasses in a range of colours -
mostly greens, browns and reds. There could even be a luminous
grass, containing a gene extracted from luminescent sea creatures,
which would emit a gentle glow, becoming much brighter whenever
someone stepped on it.
Experiments involving the slow-growth gene have produced stunning
results in the tobacco plant. Plants that would normally be expected
to reach 6ft grew to only 6in. But the research goes further than
"We have experimented with genes from bacteria, fungi and other
plants," says Bruce Clarke, a plant scientist at Rutgers. "We want to
produce grasses that can withstand whatever nature throws at them."
It is an awesome prospect. Thousands of British men will have nothing
to do on a Sunday morning. They will be condemned to a lifetime's
lurking in the potting shed and fiddling with their sprinklers.
Centuries of tradition will be rolled flat.
The British interest in lawns stretches back at least 800 years, to
the time when the palace of Henry II, at Clarendon in Wiltshire, was
renowned for its lawns. In 1733, Miller's Gardening Dictionary
advised that the lawn - "a spacious plain adjoining to a noble seat" -
was best placed at the front, where it could be admired from the
open countryside for miles around. By the early 20th century the
British, and the English in particular, had become notorious for the
attention that they lavished on their lawns.
There is a good example of this in the Asterix series, produced by
two Frenchmen. One of the cartoon books, Asterix in Britain,
ridicules the British not only for their love of warm beer but also
their obsession with lawns. At one point a Roman centurion attempts
to lead his men across a Briton's front garden but is repelled at
spear-point. The Briton then returns to tend his grass. "Another two
thousand years of loving care," he says, "and I think it'll make
quite a decent bit of turf."
So what is it about men and their lawns? Tom Fort, a man so
stereotypically English that he is not only a cricket lover but
fishing correspondent, has written a book on the subject. Our Love
Affair With The Lawn, published next month, was inspired by a heated
conversation Fort had with his father-in-law about moss on the father-
in-law's lawn. "His outrage at the notion set me thinking about
Englishmen and their grass," says Fort.
He telephoned psychologists to ask what all this mowing and top-
dressing said about the modern male. The psychologists thought it was
all about sex. According to Professor Halla Beloff, the lawnmower is
a symbol of potency because of all its "throbbing and thrusting in
front of the male at approximately groin level". Where does that
leave men who like to jump astride a red, throbbing sit-on mower?
Another expert, Professor Michael Argyle, thought it might all be to
do with the male love of machines. Fort reported: "He readily agreed
that men - himself included - much preferred the destructive side of
garden care to the creative. He said his instinctive response on
encountering a man with a keen enthusiasm for flowers would be to
assume he was a homosexual."
The prospect of machinery with which to tinker certainly must be part
of the appeal. Give men some grass-clogged rotor blades, a can of WD-
40 and a stiff brush and they'll keep quiet for hours. And for this
we can thank Edwin Budding.
It was almost by accident that in 1830, Budding, an engineer from
Gloucestershire, invented the lawnmower. He had been trying to design
a machine to trim the excess material from wool cloth but noticed
that this technique might also be used to cut grass, which until then
had been kept down by scythe, sheep or, in the early days, trampling
with heavy boots.
Budding's idea was not an instant success, but after two years it was
taken up by Ransome's, an engineering firm in Ipswich. Lawn-mowing
really caught on, however, in the 1920s, with the growth of the
suburbs and the necessity to keep up with the Joneses.
There is now a shrine devoted to the lawnmower, the British Lawnmower
Museum in Southport, where you can see about 300 machines and also
the mowers of the stars (Vanessa Feltz's mower, the Prince of Wales's
Atco, the secateurs of Nicholas Parsons).
But perhaps the lawn's greatest contribution to our culture has been
to the country's sporting life. After the hard grind of laying turf,
tending and mowing, it was the work of a moment to invent lawn
tennis, croquet, and even the occasional game of lawn billiards.
And now genetically modified grass could revolutionise these and
other games. Could luminous grass, which glows on impact, be used to
settle difficult line calls at Wimbledon or controversial lbw
decisions in cricket? It could be useful for marking distances at
shot putt or hammer-throwing.
But it can't be long until the people at Rutgers University develop
grass that makes a real difference to our lives - that is one that
not only trims itself but also tips the cuttings on the compost heap.
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