Greening the Guys at the Golfing Green: Grass, Gender and Ecology

R drives me through the course in the electric golf buggy, and introduces me to the apprentices, cutting out grass plugs affected by black spot fungus, and replacing them with new grass plugs grown in the nursery. They shake my hand, visibly proud of the work they are doing together.

I am a little out of place as a non-sporting female researcher out of my territory. I have never played golf–except for childhood birthday parties at putt putt centres, and only have strayed onto a golf course occasionally in my rare early morning runs–so I don’t have much to say other than to admire their intricate craft. The craft of greens keeping seems to me a bit like bonsai, requiring 3 years of training to learn the intricate practice of growing beautifully stunted plants, except in this case it’s with monocots rather than dicots.

I am not a likely ally. Many times I have dreamed of comparatively mapping out majority male versus majority female sporting grounds, and using such a map to point my righteous finger at the golf fraternity for taking up so much space. Some of the first suffragettes in Britain made similar observations about golf courses, digging up and carving “votes for women” in the greens. I’ve often wondered why so many courses are publicly owned when they serve such a small but powerful social demographic. Oh. Maybe I just answered my own question .

However I’m starting to think that that golf courses could in the future play a far greater role in serving their surrounding ecological and even social communities, and this golf course could be a glimpse of that future. Let me explain why.

Here we have a course that has turned its practices around. Instead of using more chemicals than any agricultural operation to maintain perfect greens, this course is now spraying compost tea on the greens and fairways, and so far, with promising results. They are using 90 per cent less chemicals, with corresponding health benefits for workers. Instead of spraying herbicide throughout the sensitive watercourses to eliminate alligator weed, they are now cooperating with the local water catchment management group to encourage the proliferation of beetles that do the job for them- and now there are so many beetles that the local council has got them on board as a regional supplier for farmers practicing integrated pest management. They use Peter Andrews’ practices of slowing down the overland water flow with spongy obstacles in order to reduce erosion and improve water quality, maintaining a slow water flow. And best of all, they are creating underground microbial ecosystems under the greens and fairways, nourished and inoculated by the regular squirts of compost tea, building strong root systems that collaborate with fungi to store carbon for the long term, and build the water retention of the soil. R says “We’re able to apply a lot less water- I haven’t watered for the last seven weeks… in years before, under the same weather conditions, we would have watered several times by now. Even on the fairways, there’s pure sand under the turf, and it’s starting to hold a lot more water. ”

DSCF0081If you were a greenskeeper using conventional methods, this picture would not look right. R. tells me that he was taught that grass roots can only grow as deep as the leaves are tall. However this picture proves that this was a phenotype premised on a management strategy that discouraged symbiosis with soil microbes. With the new practices, there are a few teething problems of slight discolouration that they are vigilant to keep members informed about, but overall there are huge benefits, with improved grass growth and soil creation.

OK you might say, it’s still a system dominated by men, but practicing things in a more environmentally friendly way. Wouldn’t the feminist side of me still be dissatisfied? Well maybe. But I think that even though the new model is still boys playing with their toys, this represents a model of masculinity that is more attentive to interconnectedness, more willing to accept nurturing responsibilities, able to listen and observe the needs of the smallest of the organisms present there. It’s a model premised on openness to collaboration with other species rather than control, as I will soon explain. As Elizabeth Farrelly notes in one of her recent articles on regenerative farming, this involves ‘working the land with both empathy and science, feeling its nuances, nurturing its strengths.’

I like to call the new responsive and connected model a ‘convivial assemblage’. This is a dynamic whole made up of parts that fit and cooperate together, contingently elements may opt out if conditions are not right, hence putting an onus on the convenors to be especially sensitive to the needs of the component members (see Manuel Delanda). Ivan Illich back in 1973 wrote that “I intend [conviviality] to mean autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment, and this in contrast with the conditioned response of persons to the demands made upon them by others, and by a man-made environment” (11). In a convivial assemblage, we are constantly in renewed responsiveness to a changing situation, and to the evolving relationships that emerge from active engagement with each other, with organisms and with material objects. David Abram (1996) argues that such connections deeply enrich us, writing that “we are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human … we must renew our acquaintance with the sensuous world in which our techniques and our technologies are all rooted” (ix-x).

In these new assemblages convened on this golf course, technologies are selected that help to identify and serve the needs of the beneficial microbes in the compost tea. From microscopes to refractometers, to low pressure hoses for spraying compost tea, mounted on machinery previously used for spraying pesticides, to the brewing equipment, to the carefully de-chlorinated water and specially selected nutrient inputs to the compost tea- all help contribute towards this end.

R. shows me his upstairs office, now at its centrepiece is a microscope with its field of view displayed on a computer screen. When going through some pictures of microscopic slides, he points to a blurry, nondescript thread: “That’s our first nematode there. I carried on like an idiot here when I saw it,” he says proudly. If you are familiar with gardening and agriculture, you’ll know how unusual this statement is. Nematodes are usually understood as bad: they tend to eat and destroy plant roots. R. and I studied together at the Soil Food Web Institute’s course in Lismore, which taught us that the nematode only eat roots when other food webs have broken down, when their preferred food source, bacteria, are limited in number. Nematodes in the right circumstances are very beneficial to soils, and brewers of compost tea often make efforts to create conditions that promote their proliferation. Hence, Nematodes are the classic assemblage creatures–they only consent to collaboration and are only a greenskeeper’s allies in the right circumstances when their needs are taken care of.

In this assemblage, the technological mediation of the microscope serves to open up a new world for interpretation and skilful phronesis by the greenskeeper. In this way, the greenskeeper becomes even more of a skilled craftsman than he already was. The particular ability to recognise and to know the situation revealed by the microscope slides is a particularly human ability: one that cannot be easily made redundant by machines. In his book The Craftsman, Richard Sennett (2008) explores ‘the greatest dilemma faced by the modern artisan-craftsman’ which he sees as the question ‘Is [the machine] a friendly tool or an enemy replacing work of the human hand’? [81]. Rather than these technologies turning the greenskeeper into an automaton, an easily replaceable ‘cog in the wheel’ as so many capitalocentric technologies do, these environmentally/ scientifically attuned technologies instead gives the greenskeeper more responsibility, while delegating some roles in nutrient allocation and energy input to microbes and plants rather than the usual fossil fuel-derived sources.

So is R. becoming more ‘human’ in this more convivial relationship? Certainly he insisted that the changed pattern of working was having a positive impact on his life. I asked him, “How do you feel about the change in your work?” He replied, “It fascinates the hell out of me”. I responded, “Has it become more enjoyable?” To which he answered, “Absolutely.”  While the golf course may still support the development of golfing masters, the greenskeepers are learning to master their mastery. Michel Serres is particularly apt in articulating this imperative.

Why must we now seek to master our mastery? Because, unregulated, exceeding its purpose, counterproductive, pure mastery is turning in on itself. Thus former parasites have to become symbionts; the excesses they committed against their hosts put the parasites in mortal danger, for dead hosts can no longer feed or house them. (34)

Like the nematodes, humans can become less parasitic, treating our hosts (the land and its organisms) more as partners rather than objects of domination.  The greenskeepers in this example are learning to cooperate, to reciprocate, give space, attend to needs, to become symbionts. Rather than a degraded, hungry, input dependent system that takes huge volumes of fertiliser and water each year, the soil and the grass roots are encouraged to become convivial assemblages: more resilient, free and independently-provisioning systems. Sounds a lot like a paradigm of convivial assemblages, of nurturing masculinity, of interspecies earth community is well on its way to formation, in a place that I might have least expected it.


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