How to define beauty in small town and suburban America
My hometown of Norris is a good place to walk a dog. Hilly and green, with plenty of shrubs for a canine friend to sniff, our East Tennessee hamlet feels a lot like a classic American small town. With a population hovering around 1,400, it’s nowhere you’ve ever heard of outside of Tennessee, unless you’ve visited our one claim to fame, Norris Lake. You can learn more about that landmark in the Norris Museum, which you can find in a small back room at the Norris Library.
Before it got too cold, I was walking through Norris with a chocolate lab named Partner while his owners were out of town. Partner likes to take the long way around the Norris Commons to sniff all of his favorite places and pee on all the appropriate lamp posts. As I followed him to his usual haunts, I passed a small patch of greenery I hadn’t noticed before.
Partner being a good boy, patiently waiting to go on a walk. Photo: Graham Marema
The plants were ragged, green in some places, brown in others. The plot burst with unkempt grass, brilliant orange blossoms, rogue weeds, delicate purple flowers and tall stalks that ended in yellow tufts of blooms like a messy hairdo. A small sign sticking out of the ground said “Wildflower Garden: Feeding the bees.”
The Norris wildflower garden. Photo: Graham Marema
The sight of this small garden, hidden in the fold between two hills near the commons, brightened my day. I liked the idea that this little corner of my town was quietly working to feed our pollinators, even if it went almost entirely unnoticed.
So I did a little digging.
It turns out this wildflower project was created by a group called “Keep Norris Beautiful.” Their Facebook page has 380 likes. Not bad for a town of 1,400. This is exactly the type of work they do, planting flowers outside the community building; keeping up the basket of blossoms outside the local grocery store; and setting up a booth each Norris Day (our annual all-things-Norris summer celebration) to raise a small amount of funds to keep going.
When we think of a “beautiful” American small town like Norris, this sort of wild outdoor space probably isn’t what immediately comes to mind. We’re used to seeing neatly manicured lawns in fictional examples of the quintessential small town, like Mayberry and Pleasantville, where we might expect a nosy homeowners association rep knocking on your door to let you know your grass is an inch over regulation. Over the years, these neat lawns have become as American as apple pie and Chevrolet.
Our enchantment with freshly mowed green grass goes back to the 17th century, when nonnative grass types such as Kentucky bluegrass (originally from Europe and the Middle East) and Guinea grass (originally from Africa) spread across the country. In the early 20th century, the neat lawn boomed in popularity, in part because automobiles and trains were on the rise. To give commuters some scenery that was easy on the eyes, homeowners intentionally faced their homes and their aesthetically pleasing, neatly kept front lawns toward passersby.
Today, we think of a well-kept lawn as neighborly. It’s part of that old image of the American Dream -- a nice house, a nice fence and a nice lawn.
But tidy lawns aren’t so neighborly to local wildlife. Nature intended grass areas to be wild and overgrown. But we work hard to keep them maintained. That often means using additional tools like pesticides and herbicides, which wreak havoc on local wildlife populations and have especially nasty effects for our hardworking pollinators. Plus, short grass isn’t nearly as conducive as long grass for providing shelter and food for insects and small animals. A nontraditional lawn also has more biodiversity. Rather than one type of grass, it can sprout native wildflowers, clover and a healthy mix of annuals and perennials, which encourages a diverse family of critters to flourish in your neighborhood.
The “Keep Norris Beautiful” group has the right idea. To these beautifiers, a town truly sparkles when it embraces wildlife and the unkempt, unruly, diverse quality of nature. By encouraging pollinators, our spring seasons are more vibrant. Baskets outside the post office and tiny green medians in our streets blush with the blues, reds and yellows of native plants. Our green spaces remind us that our goal is to live in harmony with nature, not flatten it into the proper aesthetic.
For the record, Partner agrees. There are a lot of great smells for him to explore in the wildflower garden. When I moved on from this little pocket of wilderness in Norris, it made me appreciate all those people working in their own corners of the world quietly encouraging nature to do its thing, making our world more vibrant, more biologically diverse and more beautiful.
Cover photo: The vibrant downtown of Norris, TN.