the ethics of sprinklers

6 a.m., I was out walking my dog. The sky was still mostly dark, and up ahead I spotted sheets of mist rising up out of the ground. Even though we’ve had three or four days straight of rain, the sprinklers were on.

I live in one of those condo neighborhoods that looks like a golf course — lots of green space. I’d been attracted to the area by the meandering walking trails, many tall trees, nearby lakes and more. But it hadn’t really registered just how much landscaping work goes on here, and the longer I live here, the more I feel that most of this is simply unnecessary.

Sure, this is an automatic sprinkler system, and probably a rather old one. But aren’t there humans involved in the planning process? How difficult would it be to install some kind of moisture sensor? There have been way too many days when the sprinkler systems activate in the middle of a rain storm.

Unfortunately, there are a good number of “old school” (think: trust in chemical fertilizers) gardeners in the community for there to be any real hope of switching to a below-ground, drip-irrigation system in the near future — or to replant our common areas with native species of ground cover that don’t need so much intervention and care.

What struck me this morning is this: plant life evolved — successfully — over millions of years without any human “assistance.” Even as early peoples developed agriculture, we were learning to work with natural cycles and resources, rather than foisting our aesthetics onto the natural order and expecting it to behave.

Our efforts to control nature have resulted in pesticides, fertilizers and other nasties that are showing up in our soil, water systems and air, not to mention the waste of natural resources like burning coal to make electricity to power the sprinkler computers that just waste water on grasses that aren’t well adapted to our climatic zones to begin with.

There’s more awareness these days about native species, and the resource impact of cultivating non-native plants. More people are turning onto the idea of using their land for harvesting produce, herbs and flowers, rather than manicuring lawns year after year. Others are remembering that most grasses grow tall naturally, and experiment with letting their lawns become meadows.

That’s good progress on both resource conservation and learning to live in concert with the environment. It may take several more generations for more “natural landscaping” to make a dent, and I admit I can get impatient with steep learning curves.

So what’s my point? Sometimes grass is supposed to be brown.