25 Years of History: Paying Homage to Hudson
History is vague about the origins of the uniform social doctrine known as the American lawn. Many will point to the year 1841 when a 25-year-old New York nurseryman named Andrew Jackson Downing published his Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, which was the first book on landscaping aimed at a United States audience. Essential to any perfect home, he wrote, was “an expanse of grass mown into a softness like velvet.”
Others will fast forward to1916. When a hardware store owner from Ohio named O.M. Scott sold 5,000 pounds of weed-free grass seed to a golf course on Long Island, he launched what would become the world’s first billion-dollar lawn-care empire. Still other historians will point to 1947 when Abe Levitt began mandating weekly mowing at the nation’s largest suburban housing development known as Levittown, N.Y., or to 1967 when the venerable Masters golf tournament was televised in full vivid color for the first time. It was as if Dorothy Gale had landed in Technicolor Oz all over again, only this time the lead character was wielding a 5-iron and the yellow brick road was planted in fairway bluegrass.
History is clear on this: virtually all wars are instigated by a first shot. However and whenever the $40 billion United States chemical lawn care industry actually commenced, the onset of its eventual demise may one day be traced to a precise moment in an entirely different nation. It was the spring of 1985, on this very day of May the 6th. When the Mayor of Hudson, Quebec, called the monthly town meeting to order at about 6 that evening, lawn care wasn’t even on his agenda, but he was about to get an earful anyway. Reading a long letter that drew little more than snickers from six councilors and a handful of audience members, a local dermatologist suggested lawn chemicals were not only bad, they were dangerous.
She rode a Harley, wore layers of jewelry and applied more eye makeup in a day than most women put on in a month, so it could have been easy to cast the eccentric physician as a quack. Whatever Dr. June Irwin might have lacked in standard professional appearance, however, she more than made up for it with tenacity and intellect. She would steadfastly attend every single town meeting in Hudson for six consecutive years — each time reading aloud a different letter with new observations and facts about the toxicity of products used to kill dandelions and clover.
While many in Hudson, a small town west of Montreal with fewer than 6,000 residents, continued to roll their eyes whenever the doctor spoke, a local contractor named Michael Elliott had heard enough by the time he was elected mayor in 1989. “I’m a simple man,” he said. “But it just didn’t make sense to me when the guys who showed up to spray your lawn needed to wear acid-proof rubber gloves and boots, but our kids were supposed to be able to walk on it afterward.”
The lawn care companies serving Hudson, ranging from locals in pickup trucks to multi-national corporations with public shareholders, laughed out loud when Elliott and his town clerk took their first pass at a bylaw that made most weed and insect killers illegal to apply. Nineteen years ago — exactly six years from the first day June Irwin first expressed her concerns about lawn chemicals — that laughter soon turned to rage when the historic Hudson bylaw was adopted on May 6, 1991. Fist pounding and threats among councilors broke out behind closed doors when the Mayor first tried to build consensus for his roguish new law. No one — the Mayor, the town clerk or their lawyers included — thought Hudson had a prayer of winning when the lawn care companies took their case to the provincial Superior Court two years later.
As this battle unfolded, many around the world watched intently; others were caught off guard by its implications. Dozens of Canadian towns near and far readied their own anti-pesticide bylaws, just in case Hudson somehow won. European activists grew more steadfast in their own environmental stewardship. In the United States, the Senate held public hearings and the chemical lawn care industry reacted by mobilizing its own new lobbying group known as Responsible Industry for Sound Environment. Its name might have had a warm ring, yet the group’s intentions were coolly calculated: to make sure nothing like the Hudson bylaw ever crept south of the Canadian border. Ultimately, though, no amount of political arm-twisting could overcome the groundswell.
It was as if “the shot heard ’round the world” — that was fired, ironically, on the town green in Lexington, Massachusetts — was emanating anew from Hudson. Weed-free green lawns were the battleground, but ultimately they became both a metaphor and catalyst for something much more: a modern revolution that would change our landscapes, legal system and social attitudes forever.
“We had no idea this would be the landmark case it obviously was,” said Claire L’Heureux-Dubé, the Canadian Supreme Court justice who wrote the historic opinion in Hudson v. Spraytech and ChemLawn in 2001. “The lawyers were terribly angry at our decision, but it was the right one to have made. The basis of this case — that a town has the right to protect its citizens — impacts every aspect of life.”
“Among environmentalists, Hudson is ground-zero,” said Ross Irvine, a noted public relations specialist from Canada. “It’s their Hiroshima. It will help ensure future victories. Most significantly, it will bolster the morale, confidence and courage of environmentalists around the world to find new and creative ways to achieve their goals.”
Today, more than three-quarters of Canadian citizens live under the protection of some form of pesticide ban. Each day, more and more people in the United States are becoming more aware of the complex issues that were first addressed a quarter century ago in a small Canadian village.
As you look at your pesticide-free lawn, this morning, afternoon or evening, pay homage to Dr. June Irwin, Mayor Michael Elliott and the citizens of Hudson, Quebec. Twenty-five years ago, they began making history.
NOTE: Hudson’s story is depicted in the award-winning documentary film, A Chemical Reaction, directed by Brett Plymale