Sunday, August 3, 2014

Foray into US Culture: Manicured Faux

[Introducing a new writing series: "Forays into US Culture".]

Through the window of my temporary home office, a flash of bright orange on a slim branch of a well-trimmed oleander. I peer into the shrub manicured to present the de rigueur Potemkin profile for gated communities in suburban Houston, Texas; its skinny, bare branches prop up a palapa-like toupee of green leaves trimmed and tweaked so that no errant petal- or dry leaf-like shape mars the streetscape. (I suspect the residents who drive by in de rigueur V8, double-cab trucks notice the environment only when something is out of place…then anonymous complaints made to the anonymous HOA result in anonymous emails of disapproval to the resident associated with the eyesore). 
Suddenly, another flash of bright orange, this time close enough that I make out a vertical ‘ruff’ that, Japanese fan-like, flicks out from throat to breast then folds back into the neck of a delicate lizard, six inches from tip to tail; spectacular! 

Further revelations of beauty when this lizard traverses the window sill inches from my face. If it is fear that makes this creature’s chest thump as we, two disparate but living creatures, size one another up through the glass, the lizard does not scitter back into its camouflage. I marvel: its gossamer toes and knuckles jut at impossible angles yet cling effortlessly to the metal window frame; its skin, rather than the uniform brown I’d seen from afar, shows flecks in shades of yellow, orange, and gold sprinkled on a background of browns. 
Intrigued, I wonder: how has this delicate critter survived ecocide and urban development?

For, out here, south of Houston and a long way from “home”, San Francisco Bay Area, I am a cranky visitor, out of sorts, disoriented. That lizard, tough little critter, helps me understand I am heartbroken. 

Certainly not unique, this gated community - the norm for upper-income suburban development across the south western US - displays that the subduing of the “natural” environment (this one was bayou wetlands) into manageable monoculture and manicured faux is an art form, albeit banal, executed to the exact price point to ensure, for developers, enviable return on investment and, for residents, the exact signals of willingness to conform yet some leeway to brag, appropriately, that is without the effort of actually bragging, of far-above-average net worth

Squares of Bermuda sod grass, manufactured elsewhere, is carpeted into luminescent lawn sprinkled at 3:00am each day throughout the neighborhood. I witnessed the laying of a sod lawn: at 11:00am, in 95-plus degree heat, three Mexican men with shovels and pick axes excavated resident grass and weeds while one white man leaned against a stack of palleted sod and watched. At 4:30pm that same day, in 90 degree heat, the same three Mexican men, now drenched in sweat and dirt, wiggled the last squares of sod into the new lawn (now resembling a once-bald man’s head with newly implanted hair plugs). The same white man leaned against a stack of empty pallets and watched.

Purchased adult palm trees (homeowners have the option of purchasing decades-old oak trees from other parts of Texas – at $100k per oak though, palms proliferate) inserted into accommodating holes are carefully arranged around stucco houses with the architectural flourishes of princess-in-fairytale castles, painted in shades of beige (“ecru”?) and brown (“desert”?) and off-white. Inside, the square footage is so vast that resident’s leg muscles ache from hiking the stairs to upper bedroom number one to media room then down the stairs to kitchen to one of three dining areas then back up the stairs to a Jack ‘n Jill bathroom dividing two junior bedrooms to master bedroom to number two and three bedrooms then downstairs to half bathroom to walk-in closet that stores shoes and accessories and walk-in closet that stores clothing to four-car garage that stores consumables post consumption, and oversize, bulging garbage bins awaiting the garbage truck due in the early hours two days a week. (Then, out of sight, out of mind, garbage goes wherever garbage goes. Why care where it goes as long as it goes?) 

How did this glorious lizard survive the ecocide? I imagine it the lone survivor of the lizard equivalent of the Hunger Games, a once proud member of a lizard community since euthanized to make way for 2.2 members of nuclear families fully dependent upon houses with air conditioning systems that utter airplane-taking-off-like moans throughout the day and night. Despite 4-car garages, Lexus SUVs (white or silver) and monster trucks (uniformly new and shiny, white or black, Ram, Ranger, Super Duty, Silverado, or Escalade) and golf carts (to putter rather than walk around the neighborhood) park, four-deep, in expansive drive ways. 

How will this lizard survive this over-engineered future? How will any of us? 

Those of us with imagination, or from the experience of having known this land before it was 'mani- and pedi'ed' into submission, conjure up images of when this bayou wetland and all its denizens, including lizards and oak trees thrived. At least we still have our imagination - for now.

(Photos: Susan Galleymore, 2014)
Upper income stucco but cookie-cutter-nevertheless houses with
fairytale princess-in-the-castle architectural flourishes.

Palm trees...and sidewalks that end right at individual property lines;
once the 60-foot lot is purchased, the HOA ensures the new home builder is furnished with a completed sidewalk - not that residents actually walk on it.
2.2 members of nuclear families fully dependent
upon air conditioning systems that utter
airplane-taking-off-like moans throughout the day and night.
The effrontery of it!
This expression of wild plant life resisting
manicured faux lasted 3 days. Then the offense
was spotted and eradicated by landscape crews.

Views for sale! Three multimillion dollar homes, with all the accoutrement, will be fitted into this spot. Here, work begins on the first home.
The first bulldozer. The two oaks, center right, will be demolished and
replaced with a leg-achingly large house, air conditioning system, Bermuda grass lawn, asymmetrical flower beds with black bark mulch, and the inevitable palm tree or two.
The environment is dead! Long live the environment.
Garbage day in the 'hood.
"Garbage is picked up by men in a truck
and where garbage goes, I don't give a f...!
Common area for a gated community?
Besides the public swimming pool, this patch represents
the only area for residents to meet, shoot the breeze,
be, y'know, neighborly. Just as well there are no tendencies
in that direction...the only activity I've seen here are trucks
parked on the faux tile.
[All photos: Susan Galleymore]

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