oCToBER, CHATHAM uNiVERsiTY soCCER FiELD, and remembering my maternal grandfather, CiNCiNNATi, oHio
Hazel's first year of kindergarten also marked my initiation as a soccer coach. My husband, well qualified for the job after playing for his high school and college soccer teams, had been coaching Emily's soccer team since she was first eligible to play, at age four, with the city soccer leagues in Chicago. During those three years of watching small children play, I realized two things: coaching young children's soccer does not require an intimate knowledge of the sport, and not many moms coach kids' teams. October is a busy season in the world of suburban soccer, and I find myself on the fields many a Saturday, officially as coach, but naturally drawn to my own area of expertise: weeds.
Turf quality is an important consideration in many outdoor sports. Golf and croquet may have the strictest requirements for turf, as I discussed earlier. In fall sports, such as football and soccer, though, turf takes a different kind of abuse. The balls are larger and less likely to be diverted from a straight course by an errant weed, but the players are moving fast and falling hard, and a soft surface is important. Plastic grass is one solution to all kinds of athletic field problems: weeds, watering, fertilizing, pesticides. Few plants have the amazing durability of AstroTurf! And yet, perhaps AstroTurf is really a different kind of weed, one which spreads through human activities, and which covers landscapes, choking out native plants and other living organisms. With golf course turf, at least the spreading scourge is alive, photosynthesizing to help soak up the carbon created by all the machines which tend it. Yet AstroTurf is a weed of yet another sort, a horse of immutable green, but different in every other way imaginable from my little friends in the lawn.
As a child, I knew artificial turf first in an outdoor setting. The floor of my grandfather's back porch, which overlooked the Ohio River from Cincinnati, was covered with plastic grass. Granddaddy Charlie was a golfer, but lawn treatments were not in his budget; a darkened porch where no grass would grow must have seemed the ideal place for a bit of plastic green. He was devoted to a neatly trimmed yard, perhaps because of its beloved view of Coney Island Park, the Ohio River, and the matching hillsides at eye level on the Kentucky side of the river. One of his wife's favorite stories about him involved his lawn mower. Apparently, Violet always worried about him mowing too close to the edge of the overlook, and one day she was watching while the riding mower just tipped right off the edge. She thought he was certainly dead, so when he crawled back up into view, she ran out to him and scolded, "Charlie, I'm going to kill you!"
My grandfather's back porch was one of the very few interactions I've had with any sort of artificial grass aside from the odd round of miniature golf here and there. It certainly was not on my mind, years later, when, as a new professor, I was invited to a meeting to discuss the landscaping of a new soccer field. The old soccer field had potholes and weeds, so improvements were required to eliminate both. Our campus had been herbicide-free for more than three years, and according to senior administrative officials the current state of weedi-ness on campus was upsetting some alumnae and perhaps some trustees. It seemed our herbicide-free status was threatened.
The problem, according to players, was not actually weeds. The problem was that the field had potholes and exposed rocks, both obvious tripping hazards. Unquestionably, however, a field with poor soil would be prone to dandelions and other wide-leaved species that, theoretically, might be easier to slip on. I have never seen a study of the relative safety of different weeds for running on wet turf; it seems possible that a wide leaf would be more slippery than a thin grass leaf, though as far as I can tell no one has proved it. Still, soccer players have to turn and stop and run without looking where they step, and minimizing the variation in the field by limiting the mix of weeds would seem advantageous.
In any case, the decision was made. This fall, while I was coaching five-year-olds on a grassy soccer field in the suburbs, our college players began their new season on artificial turf. When I heard about the new turf, I felt both disappointment and relief: disappointment because artificial turf, especially outdoors, seems like cheating somehow; relief because I knew that we had upheld the policy of an herbicide-free campus. This decision was clearly a compromise, and a reasonable one in many respects. Although our famous alumna, Rachel Carson, wrote extensively about the dangers of pesticides, she never once wrote about the dangers of artificial turf. We continue to be consistent with the letter of her law.
Since then, I have struggled with the concept of artificial turf and the spirit of Rachel Carson's writing, and I have struggled with what I'll call the spirit of sport. Does sport really require that the turf be so perfect as to just be a backdrop? Are outdoor sports a way to connect with nature, or is an outdoor sporting field simply a setting of convenience, due to the expense of roofs and walls for such large areas?
Outdoors at least, perfection on sports fields is so widely accepted that even youth soccer fields have been considered inferior unless treated with herbicides. Our township and our closest neighbor township both apply herbicides to most, if not all, area soccer fields. Some of my colleagues from my garden club are working to persuade the townships to stop treating these fields, and they recently succeeded in having one local athletic field designated as pesticide free. Finally, the perceived risks of dandelions and plantain are seen as less dramatic than the probable risks of herbicides. When we were in Chicago, the girls on my older daughter's soccer team, then age four, were known to stop games spontaneously to pick clover or dandelions on the field. However, I have a feeling that players' concentration is not one of the reasons that pesticides are considered necessary for the fields. One Chatham University soccer and softball player, Halley Brus, remembers playing with dandelions and other weeds while playing goalie when she was younger, but she says she notices weeds now only when the field appears to be otherwise untended.
If we know that kids have contact with their home lawns different from that which herbicide companies might intend, we certainly know that young athletes' contact with their athletic fields can be rather intimate. Find me a baseball or football uniform without grass stains on the knees, and I'll show you an unused uniform, a hopelessly lazy ball player, or a uniform tended by a very skilled laun-derer and caretaker. The only reason soccer uniforms don't get as many grass stains is because soccer uniforms don't cover elbows or knees. A good soccer goalie certainly has her share of facial contact with the turf, as does a good outfielder and probably even a football player, though the helmet provides some protection in that case. Regardless, whatever the athletic field, we can expect that the athlete will have a great deal of intimate and incidental contact with the playing surface.
Young athletes perhaps don't spend as many hours per day on the athletic field as they do on their home lawns. My daughters, after a game, generally put their shoes away (okay, they leave them on the floor of the car) and take off the uniform shortly afterward (and leave it in a pile on the floor). Any pesticide exposure from that sprayed field is short term, and I don't, I admit, sit around worrying, because playing a good sport seems more important to me than staying clean or even pesticide free. But the time on that field is intense, and the contact is intense, and I have yet to figure out why any pesticide in that context is worth the risk. What if the herbicide on a soccer field gives them a single percent increase in their chance of breast cancer, or brain cancer?
The real issues in maintaining an athletic field are reducing mud and keeping a level playing field, literally. My husband and
I, before children, passed many an evening tossing Aerobies across empty athletic fields. (Aerobie is a sort of super-charged Frisbee, and it can travel easily a tenth of a mile on a good throw.) We played in many fields throughout Ithaca, and one of our favorites was a low-growing field near a wetland, closely mowed but dense with lawn weeds, which had absolutely no potholes or other tripping hazards. One evening, at dusk, the dragonflies were zipping around us while we played, and I nearly cried when the Aerobie sliced a dragonfly's wings cleanly off his body and we watched his wingless body drop helplessly to earth. Besides the wildlife, most of which we did not kill, we loved that we could run heedlessly across the field at top speed to catch the Aerobie. This was a great athletic field, because we could focus on the game, and the dragonflies, without fear of tripping. Neither of us ever slipped on a weed, though we certainly tripped over our own feet on more than one occasion.
That was a good soccer field. It was also a good baseball field. It was just a good field in general, and I think of that experience when I consider the common weed-free vision of an athletic field. I don't know that my opinion counts in this arena, as my athletic accomplishments mostly involve the kinds of events in which I can use my skill at stubborn slow plodding over many hours to complete them (my five hours to complete the 26.2-mile Lakeshore Marathon looks speedy next to my almost thirteen hours to complete the 34.9-mile Rachel Carson Trail).
Rachel Carson didn't write about sports at all, much less youth soccer. She wrote first about the ocean, and second about the unintended consequences of pesticides; the spirit of her writing suggests a much broader respect for nature, as well as a general concern with humans creating products whose effects—both on nature and human health — we don't fully understand. Artificial turf was not on her radar screen; according to the AstroTurf Web site, this fake turf was invented in 1964, around the time of Carson's death. Also, if Carson was at all interested in sports, this interest was a very quietly expressed one—we don't even know whether she was a fan of the Steelers, for example, the closest thing to a hometown team she would have known. I tend to think she would have viewed artificial turf with some suspicion, but probably not a great deal of alarm, had it become popular during her lifetime.
Today, the whole subject of environmental and human toxins leaching from plastics is a fairly new, but rapidly expanding, subject. The first warnings came around 1999, at the time I was choosing phthalate-free teething rings for my first daughter. When I was a child in the 1970s, plastic was considered potentially wasteful but chemically harmless, and this view of it remained dominant throughout the next two decades. Now, we wonder if breast and prostate cancer might be related to degradation of plastics into our water and foods; we wonder if plastic might be a contributor to any of the wildlife problems we see, such as hermaphroditic fish and frogs, but we can only answer "maybe," perhaps even "probably." I think these questions about plastics originate with Rachel Carson's writing, though the actual research questions predated her by at least forty years.
Sports enthusiasts have debated artificial turf for much longer. The only sport where artificial turf is widely accepted is miniature golf, and I suspect I'm even stretching the point to call it a sport, as much as I enjoy it. Between children running and adults stomping in frustration, even the weediest of live ground covers would have a hard time surviving the traffic of putt-putt golf.
Perhaps artificial turf should be the least of our worries, however—if the turf endures so well, what else might live on it? At least one study has shown that artificial turf can harbor MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), that terrifying skin infection that doesn't respond to antibiotics. In other words, none of us need to picnic on artificial turf. Athlete Halley Brus reports that the only cases of staph infections she's known during college were from players in her first year, when the field still had rocks, sticks, and holes. Players were certainly getting more injuries then, and likely more injuries in general translates into more opportunities for infections. Still, I suspect that with more players on the field, and more time, the population of bacteria there will only rise.
Another trait we enjoy about natural turf and the soil beneath it is its ability to cushion the shock to the joints of young, fast-moving, and densely muscular athletes. One critique from its nay-sayers is that artificial turf promotes certain kinds of stress injuries in the knees. Our new field has been designed to alleviate this problem (some sort of softer subsurface was used). Halley tells me, "It feels bouncy when you jump on it." I'm glad the field feels good. But I still think it is ironic that we spend a lot of money and resources trying to mimic the natural surface that humans have run on for millennia.
Natural soil, natural turf: Do we need them? I believe that part of what makes an athletic field wonderful is that it is an oasis in a city. Some of my students who didn't have a wild place of their own growing up will tell me instead that their retreat was an athletic field: the softball diamond, the nearby basketball court, even a hockey arena. Part of what makes an athletic field an oasis is that it is a patch of green public land made specifically for free movement and easy running. At its best, though, an athletic field also offers the city a number of natural services.
Pittsburgh, like many other cities, has problems with storm water contamination of local water sources. The average rainfall event in Pittsburgh is a quarter-inch, yet a mere tenth of an inch of rainfall can cause overflow of the combined sewerage-storm water system. One of the major reasons why so little rain is necessary is that so much of the city is covered with streets or rooftops, both of which are designed to shed the water quickly to the nearest drain. These drains lead directly to streams in modern systems, but systems built at the time of horse transportation (including those of Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Boston) have the added feature of carrying street water to the sewer system, horse apples and all. A concrete basketball court, a hockey arena roof, and an artificial turf field are part and parcel of that urban landscape.
Lawns, as bad as they can be at their perfectly mowed-and-sprayed worst, at least soak up some of the rainwater, slowing the onslaught of water into the storm drainage system. Soccer fields, too, can help. In addition, patches of living green anywhere in an urban environment—whether what's living is weeds or the most carefully tended rosebush—help reduce the amount and intensity of storm water surges and help reduce the tendency toward higher temperatures, called the urban heat island effect.
A heat island is not the concept that athletic field managers are imagining when they install a new field, yet artificial turf can be just that. At Chatham, Halley notes, the turf is "hot in summer. It can burn your feet." This is a phenomenon I associate strongly with concrete parking lots and poolsides, not with grass. It's a trivial problem for players who are always in shoes. But living athletic fields remain one piece of a larger puzzle: how do we make our cities more livable, more sustainable? Weedy spaces may even help mitigate global warming, by their vigorous use of carbon dioxide during photosynthesis. A plastic grass soccer field will instead retain heat in the neighborhood, and will do nothing to offset all the gas emissions from minivans and SUVs parked nearby. I've never heard an athlete argue for more weeds on the field. Weeds are certainly a problem that disappears with the installation of artificial turf, and it seems on my campus that neither injuries nor, so far, infections have plagued our athletic teams since our installation of artificial turf. Perhaps this was the best solution for our university's field. I've come to an uneasy peace with it. I don't, after all, play soccer there myself.
That's why I interviewed Halley: the field, after all, is for her and her teammates. After we'd finished talking about the artificial turf, I asked Halley if she remembered, from childhood, playing with weeds at all, either between soccer games or on the schoolyard. She thought for a while and suddenly grinned. "I remember putting dandelion markings on my face. I wanted to be a Native American and make my own face paint." In a rush, she described, without any need for Latin names, making chains of clover, "those fluffy white flowers on a skinny stem." Then, a moment later, she made a gesture with her thumb over her bent index finger, popping the head off a plantain. She described everything I want my daughters to remember, because I remember doing these things myself. As much as I believe in my daughters' extraordinary athletic skills, I think they and their teammates should have some weeds to play with whenever they have to sit on the bench.
We can make varsity or professional soccer fields, or football fields, out of Astroturf, if that's what the sports require. Perhaps the saved energy of mowing and maintenance makes it worth the loss of a cool, living playing surface. But for the amateurs and children, for the fields where people come to play, rather than to work, even for the air quality in our cities, I want to see some weeds. I want to see evidence of wildness, so perhaps the athletes, the parents, and the children can all have pollen-yellow cheeks, clover crowns, and the odd smudges of dirt on their uniforms.
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