Saturday, August 28, 2010

Grass Is Always Greener...

by Drew Martin

I have had a reoccurring thought that a future spacecraft will be zipping through the universe looking for life on other planets. The mission is long and hard to endure but finally the crew comes upon a brilliant green planet and concludes it must be covered in vegetation and teaming with other forms of life. When the astronauts touch down and deboard in order to explore, they find a toxic atmosphere and the entire, smooth surface of the planet is covered with AstroTurf.

On the weekdays I run up in the hills of a neighboring town but on the weekends I typically run down by a stream in my own town, which takes me by a series of playing fields. The two that are part of the local high school are being converted from natural grass to AstroTurf. I have seen synthetic turf fields from afar on television but I have never been witness to the installation process.

To create such a field, a deadening and massive layer of crushed stone and concrete aggregate is packed into the ground as the base. The AstroTurf is laid on top of this and then several inches of loose crushed black rubber is worked into the long synthetic blades. It is creepy because it is trying to reference grass but it is the opposite of grass: it is hard, dry, burns the skin when you fall on it and it is dead. In fact, it is very dead. Natural fields are usually covered with rabbits and geese in the morning. Swifter birds and insects court in swirling flight above the green sprigs. There is a grassy dew that is refreshing. AstroTurf, however, is dead-still...nothing living stirs and it is completely silent. The sensation is of a large soggy "Welcome!" mat that has been left out in the rain.

Walking on the unfinished field is like being a little mouse on a giant tailor's messy workshop floor: large scraps of green AstroTurf are tossed about, the white and yellow synthetic strips of the same material for the playing lines look like lengths of extra dress trim that weren't needed for the hem. It has a rather sloppy appearance. Off on the side, are numerous and ominous fat, white bags, over six feet high, stuffed full of the crushed black rubber. Despite the newness of the materials and the connection to youthful athleticism, it is a very depressing venture that brings to mind the strip mining for surface brown coal I have seen in Eastern Europe.

I have never felt any emotions for AstroTurf or had an objection to it, especially when I see it in a city, where there might otherwise be only concrete. A brand new synthetic field is neat looking and inviting to play. But seeing this transformation and considering the loss of natural green space is actually quite shocking and makes me wonder what's next: AstroTurf golf courses? Closed communities with AstroTurf lawns? Synthetic fields of fake corn to keep up the appearances of a former farm?

The total area of the new AstroTurf field in my town is about the size of two full football fields. Considering the surface area of grass blades, this is probably a total of ten football fields of an oxygen-producing photosynthesis machine that is being taken off line and replaced with an impotent mesh of plastic with a rubber infill...yet it looks like grass, so we falsely believe it is better than if that same surface were covered in concrete.

Where did this kind of natural substitution thinking begin? The native Americans said the Europeans were so clumsy with and insensitive to nature because their shoes had thick, hard soles and they could not feel the earth beneath their feet. I cannot not also stop thinking about the landscape painters of Europe and America who emphasized nature as their theme. On one side, it is nice that man was so inspired by the great outdoors. On the other side, it is a false beauty and a poor substitute for the real thing. If the genre inspires someone divorced from nature to take to the woods then there is much value in the work but if it seems to simply satisfy or suppress that urge then the art works well simply as illusion but in the end is nothing more than AstroTurf.

To read an article about using AstroTurf in a Museum of Peripheral Art project, click here >>>