The Devil in Miss Bass

Julie Bass is facing a sentence of 93 days in an Oakland, Michigan jail for the crime of planting a vegetable garden on her front lawn. She was told she is in violation of the local city screening and landscaping ordinance that states,”All unpaved portions of the [screening and landscaping] site shall be planted with grass ground cover, shrubbery or other suitable live plant material.”

This same ordinance states that there is an exception made for “flower gardens, plots of shrubbery, vegetable gardens and small grain plots.”

Nevertheless, Miss Bass has been ticketed with a misdemeanor. She is refusing to pay the fine and going to trial. A trail, I would assume, that will cost the city several thousands of dollars ( a conservative estimate).

At the core of the charge are two complaints about the garden that a city councilman received. Both complaints stated that the garden resembled a “New Orleans’ cemetery.” (ABC News, Reshma Kirplalani reporting).
Julie Bass, by the way, is a mother of six who paid over $500 to have raised garden beds professionally built and the garden designed so as to make it appropriately appealing for the front yard to avoid offending anyone. She decided this after having her entire lawn dug up for a sewer repair and deciding the cost of re-sodding the lawn was beyond her means.

Why would a vegetable garden cause such a stir? Especially in a time when people are seeking ways to save money, eat healthy and there is even a national effort to encourage people to grow their own fresh food? Not to mention the orgasmic joy expressed by many city councils over the development and presence of community gardens – why would one woman’s garden be considered so criminal?

A case could be made for rats. But more rats will come linger in the shade of the gorgeous and wild flower beds people seem so found of and a vegetable gardener who is serious about eating their harvest takes steps to keep them away.

A case is being made that the garden violates community standards, enshrined in city ordinances, about what is “suitable” in a residential neighborhood.

It is this idea of suitability that lays bare the nature of the criminal offence of Julie Bass. Like the very facetious reference to an infamous movie about the results of conformity (and excess) that gave this blog its title, Julie Bass has inadvertently crossed not just social boundaries, but several defining aspects of the American myth. Now she is stuck, like Miss Jones, in a room with a man completely uninterested in her life and more interested in catching flies.

The American concept of a Lawn was adopted as a means of establishing not just an image of wealth and well-being, but it also was seen as evidence that the occupants of the home were reliable and trustworthy. After all, they took care of a lawn which meant not only did they nurture something, but tried to appear neat and orderly for their neighbors. The original lawns were copies of English lawns found on the estates of wealthy landowners. With the rise of the suburban movement, lawns gained a kind of social value – the better your lawn, the obviously more in control of your life you were. When Levittown, NY was founded, the population was encouraged to fertilize their lawns 3 or 4 times a year because super-green lawns “stamp inhabitants as good neighbors, desirable citizens.”

An entire industry grew up on the selling of the perfectly green and weedless lawn. Generations grew up associating lawns with the kind of life that comes with a family, career and stability.

Today, the reality of lawns is only beginning to sink into popular thinking. They are, perhaps, the single most visible means of giving the middle finger to the economy, ecology and ideas of social responsibility that exists unchallenged in America.

Melissa Breyer, Senior Editor for Healthy and Green Living, lists just a few of the realities of the costs of the American lawn:
*    Acre for acre, the American lawn receives four times as much chemical pesticide as any U.S. farmland
*    An estimated seven million birds are killed yearly in the U.S. by lawn-care pesticides
*    Phosphorus runoff from lawn fertilizer causes algae blooms that suck oxygen out of our waterways, killing all aquatic life
*    In the summer, over half of municipal water usage goes to lawns

When I lived in Albuquerque, there was great concern over the rapidly changing weather patterns over the city. Year after year, there were increased floods and heavy snowfall. When they finally did a thermal study of the city, they discovered that all the lawns created to support the many golf courses had begun to change the atmosphere directly over Albuquerque. Lawns have a profound effect on their surrounding, one amplified by the ill effects of our concrete jungles.

Julie Bass also brought forth some other nasty hidden traits in our middle class society. One, she has six kids (and this is not socially acceptable in most of the country). Two – she is struggling in these hard economic times and visible evidence of the struggle was placed on the front lawn for all to see (including those who would like to ignore how others are struggling). And three, her garden raised the specter of “New Orleans” in local’s minds. Now, I am not going to say anything about that, I just want you to sit and think about the nature of the complaints “it looks like a New Orleans’ cemetery” and ponder the meaning of that statement. What has New Orleans come to represent?

Sit and think about how we have come to value the appearance of prosperity over the reality of providing and being prosperous.

The population at large lives in deep fear of poverty, this is something that is not acknowledged directly. Most of our racism, classism, fattism, age-ism and hate stems from our fear of being impoverished – so we create groups of people we can point to and say “they are not as good as us because they do not have enough as us.” This enough could be money, property, education, will power, self control, intelligence, spirituality, love or humanity. It is the essence of materialism – this definition of life as something that one has.

And poor Julie Bass, in trying to be responsible and make a decision that would allow her to not only provide better for her family but to engage in a life-giving activity –  has run afoul of a society of necrophiliacs.

I hope she goes to court. I hope she wins her case. And I hope they fire the people responsible for this insanity and make them reimburse the city for all associated costs out of their own pocket.

c.2011 Cassandra Tribe. All Rights Reserved.

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About cassandratribe

"There are few artists that can do what Cassandra Tribe does. Whether with her poetry, her videos or her blog, Cassandra examines the truths that most of us can never come close to realizing and shows it for what it is, both beautiful and frightening at the same time. She exposes our inner-most workings like the cross-section of a powerful but flawed machine, our gears and springs, nuts and bolts removed and laid out before us. She is a true artist. Her new video, Requiem for a God, is the latest example of Cassandra's willingness to tear open and examine the very things that make us human. Shooting the film entirely by herself, she also eliminates all the little excuses we come up with to keep us from ourselves and our truth. You see, even when she's not trying to be, Cassandra Tribe is a beacon of truth and humanity in this darkest of worlds." (Michael E. Quigg, The Culture Network, June 2009)
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