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John Green reviews a plant species with no relationship to Kentucky and the contemporary practice of searching for the lives of people you don't know.

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 (00:00) to (02:00) Hello and welcome to the Anthropocene reviewed, a podcast where we review facets of the human-centered planet on a five-star scale. Today we’ll be reviewing the plant species turf grass and the practice of googling strangers.


Let’s begin with Kentucky bluegrass, by which I mean the plant species not the four-star music genre. Poa pratensis, its scientific name, is ubiquitous the world over: much of the time you see a soft, green expanse of lawn in Europe or Asia or the Americas, you’re looking at least in part at Kentucky bluegrass. The typical shoot of Poa pratensis has three to four leaves, shaped like little canoes, and if left unmown, it can grow to three feet tall and sprout blue flower heads. Of course, it usually isn’t left unmown, at least not in my neighborhood, where it is, I believe, technically illegal to allow your grass to grow more than six inches long.

 If you’ve ever driven through my home state of Indiana, you’ve seen mile after mile after mile of cornfields; amber waves of grain are enshrined in the song "America the Beautiful." And yet more land and more water are devoted to the cultivation of lawn grass in the United States than to corn and wheat combined. There are around 128,000 square kilometers of lawn in the U.S., greater than the size of Ohio, or the entire nation of Italy. About a third of all residential water use in the U.S.—clean, drinkable water—is used to water lawns. To thrive, Kentucky bluegrass often requires fertilizer and pesticides and extensive watering and it cannot be eaten or used for anything except walking and playing on. In short, the U.S.’s most abundant and labor intensive crop is pure, unadulterated luxury. (02:00) to (04:00) Well, but at least, you say, Kentucky bluegrass is a native crop, a plant that evolved in the rolling hills of America and spread through its own suitability and…no. No. Kentucky bluegrass is not from Kentucky. It is native to Europe, northern Asia, and parts of north Africa. It was brought to Kentucky, and the rest of the Americas, by early European settlers.


The word “lawn,” as it used today, actually didn’t even exist until the 1500s. It probably originally referred to expanses of grass shared by communities to feed grazing livestock, as opposed to “fields,” which denoted land used to grow plants for human consumption. But by the 18th century in England, ornamental lawns similar to the ones we know now had emerged—back then, lawns were maintained by scythes and shears, making them extraordinarily labor intensive—to maintain a lawn without the help of grazing animals was a sign that you were rich enough to hire lots of gardeners, and also to own land that did nothing but look pretty.

The ornamental lawn fad spread throughout Europe, and also to the United States, where Thomas Jefferson’s slaves maintained a closely-mown grass lawn at Monticello, his estate. And then in the 19th and 20th centuries, as mechanical lawn mowers became available and the cost of lawn maintenance dropped, it seemed that everyone wanted a lawn. The quality of lawns in neighborhoods became a proxy for the quality of the neighborhood itself. In The Great Gatsby, for instance, Jay Gatsby pays for his gardeners to mow his neighbor’s lawn before Daisy Buchanan visits.

 It is truly staggering how much money and time and resources we devote to Kentucky bluegrass and its cousins. To minimize weeds and make our lawns as thickly monocultured as possible, we use ten times more fertilizer and pesticide per acre than is used in corn or wheat fields. To keep all the lawns in the U.S. green year-round requires, according to a NASA study, around 200 gallons of water per person per day, and almost all of the water shooting from sprinklers is treated drinking water.  (04:00) to (06:00) Every year, 12% of the materials that ends up in U.S. landfills are grass clippings or other yard waste. We spend tens of billions of dollars a year on lawn maintenance.


And in exchange we get… well, Kentucky bluegrass provides a good surface for soccer and games of tag. Lawns also take some carbon out of the atmosphere, although the millions of gallons of gasoline used to mow them make them an extremely inefficient carbon sink. Kentucky bluegrass cools the ground, and offers some protection from erosion, and in some cases can reduce fire risk. But there are better, if less conventionally beautiful, alternatives, from natural grasses to a front yard devoted to growing plants that you can, say, eat. It’s inaccurate to say that lawns are worthless, but they require an awful lot of care considering what we get from them. I mean, some weeks I've only touched my lawn while mowing it.

Or actually not even then, since I’m wearing shoes. It strikes me as odd that in contrast to proper gardening, lawn maintenance doesn’t involve much physical contact with nature. You’re mostly touching the machines that mow or edge the grass, not the plant matter itself. And if you’ve got the kind of Gatsby Lawn we’re all told to reach for, you can’t even see the dirt beneath the thick mat of grass. Mowing Kentucky bluegrass is an encounter with nature, but the kind where you don’t get your hands dirty. I give Poa pratensis two stars.

[music]

After the break we'll discuss the practice of googling strangers, but first I want to thank the sponsors of today's episode.

 So these days the average human interacts with more artifacts than the richest royalty did only five hundred years ago. From lawnmowers to light bulbs, from paper towels to plastic wrap, we are supersaturated with stuff, and one of the reason I love Audible is because it offers us the opportunity to be entertained and enlightened without increasing the number of physical items in our lives.  (06:00) to (08:00) Audible has a huge collection of audiobooks, including my novels Turtles All the Way Down and The Fault in Our Stars, both narrated brilliantly by Kate Rudd—and you can get a free audiobook when you sign up right now at audible.com/anthro or by texting anthro to 500500. Again, that’s audible.com/anthro, or text anthro, a-n-t-h-r-o to 500-500. 


And speaking of excessive artifacts, the French king Louis XIV supposedly owned 413 beds. Which I think about a lot because it lays bare just how stupidly rich he was. But also because in the 17th century even royal beds were not particularly comfortable by royal standards. It says something both great and terrible about the Anthropocene that the quality of mattress has improved so much, even if the quality of sleep has not. That said, I sleep better on my Casper mattress than I ever have before. Casper’s products are designed with the human frame in mind, and the sink and support of the multilayered memory foam is—for me at least—just ideal. And you can be sure of your purchase with Casper’s 100 night risk-free, sleep-on-it trial. I really, really love my Casper mattress and I think you'll love it too. To get $50 toward select mattresses, visit casper.com/anthro, and use ‘anthro’ at checkout. Terms and conditions apply. Once again, that’s casper.com/anthro and use ‘a-n-t-h-r-o’ at checkout. Thanks again to Casper and Audible—now back to the show.

 Okay let’s move on to the practice of googling strangers. When I was a kid, my mother often told me that everyone had one kind of gift or another inside them. Maybe you would be an extraordinarily astute listener of smooth jazz, or a defensive midfielder with an uncommon understanding of how to open up space with a perfect pass. (08:00) to (10:00) But as a child, I always felt like I had no inborn gift. I wasn’t a particularly good student, and I had no athletic ability. I couldn’t read social cues. I sucked at piano, and karate, and ballet dancing, and everything else my parents tried to sign me up for. And so I thought myself a person without a specialty, extraordinary only in the field of being mundane.


But as it turned out, my specialty just hadn’t been invented yet, because—and I hope you’ll forgive the lack of modesty here—I am really, really good at googling strangers. Sure, I’ve put in the work—Malcolm Gladwell famously said it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in a field and I’ve clocked my 10,000 hours, and then some—but also, I just have a knack for it.

I google strangers all the time. Like, if my wife and I have to attend a party—and I say have to because that is my relationship with parties—I usually research all the known attendees in advance, even though, of course, I know it's weird when a stranger tells you that they are in the carpet installation business and then you answer, “Oh yeah, I am aware. Also, before you tell me the cute story of how you met your wife, it was 1981, and you were both working at the same savings and loan institution in Dallas, Texas. She was living at home with her parents, Joseph and Marilyn, at least according to census records, while you had recently graduated from Oklahoma Baptist University. How is the carpet business these days? Do you guys have, like, a rivalry with hardwood floor people?”

 It’s horrifying, how much information can be accessed via Google about almost all of us. Of course, the loss of privacy has come with tremendous benefits—free storage of photos and video, a chance to participate in large-scale discourse via social media, and the opportunity to easily keep in touch with friends from long ago. But also, making so much of our selves available for public consumption makes other people feel comfortable sharing their selves, which in turn makes their selves discoverable by us.  (10:00) to (12:00) This feedback loop—we all want to be on Facebook because everyone else is on Facebook—has led to me making so much of my life publicly available that when creating accounts on new social media platforms, I often struggle to find security questions that can’t be answered by studying my old social media accounts. Where did I go to elementary school? That’s easy enough to find out. What was the name of my first dog? I’ve vlogged about our miniature dachshund Red Green. Who was your childhood best friend? You’ll find baby pictures of us tagged together on Facebook. What was your mother’s maiden name? You can’t be serious.


But even though it means that less of our lives belong to us and more of our lives belong to the companies that host and gather our browsing habits and hobbies and keystrokes, even though I am kind of revolted by how easy it has become to scroll through the lives of the living and the dead, even though it all feels a bit too much like an Orwell novel… I can’t outright condemn the googling of strangers.

When I was 22, I worked for about six months as a student chaplain at a children’s hospital. I thought at the time I wanted to become an Episcopal priest, although chaplaincy helped me realized that I was not cut out for the clergy. For starters, I didn't have the strength of faith one needs to survive such work. Also, I fainted a lot.

Anyway, once or twice a week, I would spend 24 hours on call, which meant that I’d stay in the hospital with these two beepers—one would go off whenever someone asked for a chaplain—sometimes parents or kids wanted counseling or prayer, but usually that beeper went off when parents wanted kids to be baptized immediately, often because the child was about to die.

 The other pager buzzed when a serious trauma case was arriving at the hospital. I’ll get back to googling, but first I have to tell you this story: One of my last times on call, the trauma pager sent me down to the Emergency Department around five in the morning. A three-year-old child was being wheeled in.  (12:00) to (14:00) He’d suffered severe burns—to protect his privacy and also because I find it unbearable to look directly at this memory, I’m not going to describe what happened in detail—but the important thing is that despite the severity of his injury, he was conscious, and in terrible pain.


Although I’d been around the Emergency Department for months now, and seen all manner of suffering and death, I'd never seen the trauma team so visibly upset. The anguish was just overwhelming—the smell of the burns, the piercing screams that accompanied this little boy’s every exhalation. Someone shouted, “CHAPLAIN! THE SCISSORS BEHIND YOU!” and in a daze I brought them the scissors. Someone shouted, “CHAPLAIN! THE PARENTS!” And I realized that next to me the little boy’s parents were screaming, trying to get at their kid, but the doctors and paramedics and nurses needed enough space to work, so I had to ask them to step back.

Next thing I know I’m in the windowless family room in the Emergency Department, the room they put you in on the worst night of your life, and it’s quiet now except for the sobbing of the couple across from me. They aren’t holding hands or anything. They’re sitting on opposite sides of the couch, elbows on knees. During my training they told me that half of marriages end within a couple years of losing a child. Impotently, I ask them if they want to pray. The woman shakes her head no. The doctor comes in and says that the kid is in critical condition. The parents only have one question, and it’s one the doctor can’t answer: we’ll do everything we can, she says, but your son may not survive. Both the parents collapse, not against each other, but into themselves.

 Of course, we are able to navigate the world knowing these things happen. We are able to go on, despite the unbearable horror. My chaplaincy supervisor once told me, “Children have always died. It is natural.” That may be true, but I can't accept it. I can’t accept it sitting in the windowless family room, and I can’t accept it now, as a father myself. (14:00) to (16:00) When the kid finally goes upstairs to the ICU and his parents follow, I go to the break room to get a cup of coffee, and the doctor is in there, her face hovering over a trash can that she’s been vomiting into. “I’m sorry,” I say. “You did good with them. Thanks for being kind to them. I think it helped.” She responds by dry heaving for a while and then says, “That kid’s gonna die and I know his last word. I know the last thing he’ll ever say.” I don’t ask her to tell me what it was, and she doesn’t volunteer.


A week later, I finish the chaplaincy program, and immediately drop out of divinity school. I tell everyone it’s because I don’t want to learn Greek, which is true, but the truth is that I can’t cope with the memory of this kid. I still can’t cope with it. I think about him every day. I pray for him every day, even after I stop praying about anything else. Every night, still, I say his name and ask God for mercy. Whether I believe in God isn’t really relevant. I do believe, however tenuously, in mercy.

As an inveterate googler, it of course occurs to me that I could just look up his name, but I was always too scared. To google would be to know, one way or another. I’m reminded of that great line from All the King’s Men: The end of man is knowledge, but there’s one thing he can’t know. He can’t know whether knowledge will save him or kill him.

The months of not knowing become years and then more than a decade.

 And then one morning not long ago, I typed the kid’s name into the search bar—it’s an unusual name, easy pickings for google—I hit enter, and …. The first link was to a Facebook. I clicked over, and there he was—eighteen years old, a decade and a half removed from the one day we spent together.  (16:00) to (18:00) He looked healthy. All of his pictures involved silly filters from Snapchat with his girlfriend. He is alive. He is alive. He is growing up, finding his way in the world, documenting a life that is more public than he probably realizes, but how can I not be grateful for knowing, even if the only way to know is to lose our autonomy over our so-called selves? He is alive. He likes John Deere tractors, and is a member of the Future Farmers of America, and he is alive. Scrolling through his friends, I find his parents’ profiles, and discover that they are still married. He is alive. He likes terrible, overly-manufactured country music. He is alive. He calls his girlfriend his bae. Alive. Alive. Alive.


I don’t message him. I don’t friend him. I let him be. It could’ve gone the other way, of course. But it didn’t. I give the practice of googling strangers two and a half stars.

[music]

Thanks for listening to this episode of The Anthropocene Reviewed, which was written by me, produced by Rosianna Halse Rojas, and edited by Stan Muller. And thanks to listener Lauren, who suggested a review of grass. If you’d like to suggest a topic for review, or just say hi, you can email us at anthropocenereviewed@gmail.com, or find us on Twitter or Facebook. One last thing: If you’d like to help our podcast, tell your friends about it, or write a review on iTunes or wherever you write podcast reviews. We appreciate your feedback so much, and will be back on the last Thursday of next month with two new reviews.

 My favorite fact that didn’t make it in to today’s reviews: The first known use of “google” as a transitive verb occurred in a 2002 episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which Willow asks Buffy, “Have you googled her yet?” (18:00) to (18:44) We leave you today with the sound of perfectly drinkable water being spread across entirely inedible Kentucky bluegrass. [Sprinkler sound.]