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What I did for love
of the croquet lawn

by by Bob Alman
Posted December 10, 2012

Related Links
The Politics of Regulation
Left Coast croquet at the 14th SF Open, by Bert Myer, 1998
Retiring the SF Open after 16 editions, by Bob Alman, 2000

The lawns of the San Francisco Croquet Club--now in sad decline--were famous in the mid-eighties and the nineties as the first two-lawn municipal facility for croquet in the country. Everyone had told us it wasn't possible--because why would a city, supported by everyone's taxes, subsidize a rich man's sport? But by making and keeping some big promises about cash and public service, we got it done anyway; and then we faced a different and far tougher challenge: Doing what needed to be done to keep the lawns healthy and playable--and at the same time obeying both the letter and the spirit of the official laws and regulations the city was obliged to apply in fulfilling their maintenance agreement. Those two requirements, as it turned out, were incompatible. The only recourse would be either prayer or criminal intervention. Here's what happened: and it's all absolutely true, I swear to god!

The practice of sport and religion have much in common, especially on a Sunday morning at the croquet lawns, in a cathedral of bordering trees and arching sky, carpeted with a perfect mono culture tended with sacramental devotion. Sport comes nearest to religion when the earth is renewing itself, the grass awakes from its winter torpor, and all the turf-loving critters joyfully emerge all at once: croquet players, gophers, moles, teenage vandals, and--in the dead of night, when nobody can prevent it--a particularly vile underground species which comes to deposit little mounds of sticky mud on the grass, spoiling good strokes and soiling white cuffs.

Surely something can be done about a plague of night crawlers, you would immediately say. Yes, something: but when all the other avenues have been explored, that "something" could turn out to be illegal.

After trying to put up with the sticky mounds, and apologizing to our corporate clients who provided so much of the annual revenue pledged to the Park & Rec Department, we asked the gardener about a chemical remedy, a Final Solution that would handle a long-term problem. He said he would check on it, and came back a week later not with a solution but with reasons why nothing could be done.

This night crawler activity was actually good for the grass, according to his supervisor. I checked up on this. Wikipedia said, in part, "Of the more than 200 species of earthworms in North America, the common night crawler (Lumbricus terrestris) the predominant species in temperate regions, plays a big role in the breakdown of organic matter and the development of soil. Night crawlers produce deep vertical underground burrows and feed on organic matter mainly on the soil surface. As they excavate their burrows, these worms consume mineral soil and litter. They excrete their fecal matter, the castings, in mounds on the soil surface. The casts actually benefit your lawn, because they contain readily available nutrients. The burrowing activity of the night crawlers and their soil mixing also improve the soilís drainage, porosity, aeration, and structure. Finally, earthworms decompose thatch and stimulate microbial activity."

Night crawler castings on this regular yard grass are one thing--but imagine how much more troubling they are on a close-cut tiff-dwarf croquet lawn.

To a supervisor, this would constitute compelling justification for letting the earthworms continue to "help" our lawn by depositing mounds fecal matter on the surface. "It might be good for the grass," I told the gardener, "but it's not good for croquet." He shrugged. He was a good guy, but he worked for a big public bureaucracy. He had no choice but to follow the rules.

Finding the facts was easier than creating a solution

We independently checked with managers of private specialty lawns in the area and found that they all routinely treated their lawns to avoid this problem with an inexpensive and easily applied chemical--diazinon.

We took this information back to the gardener. "Please apply diazinon," we asked, "because that's what everyone does, and it works, no problem." The gardener, frowning, said he would check with his supervisor.

Soon the word came back down the hierarchy: Regulations forbid the application of diazinon on park lawns.

This made no sense. Surely, we said, this regulation is not meant to apply to a specialty facility designed to provide a flat and unblemished surface for croquet on lawns encircled by protective fences...? The regulation was clearly intended for large OPEN spaces, not for specialty greens. EVERYONE uses diazinon routinely for this problem! The gardener shrugged again. "We have to follow regulations," he said.

We went directly to the gardener's supervisor. We got the same story at the next level of the bureaucracy, and the next, and the next. The regulation is designed to protect the public, they all said. It's true that the regulation makes no clear distinction between open, bluegrass spaces, dog runs, boulevard medians, children's playgrounds, picnic areas, golf courses and croquet lawns. But regulations are regulations. End of story.

No more reasonable option

As de facto lawn manager, I had run out of options. I had encountered a problem that could not be managed. I hate it when that happens! It violates my private canon of management, my belief that every problem CAN be managed, if only one finds a way.

Maybe the "way" was to address each incidence with specific remedies. So we tried that for a while. We would come out in the morning and confront hundreds of mounds of dirt half an inch high all over the lawn. If there had been rain the night before, the problem would be especially messy. Rain brings them to the surface, apparently, and they leave behind mounds not of dirt, but of sticky mud. We tried to rake the sticky black mounds flat, spreading them out over the surface, which made the lawn more playable, but no fun at all to play on: The mess was still there, and just as unsightly, spread all over the green.

Just to see if the chemical were available, I checked out my local garden supply store, asking what kind of environmental restrictions were placed on its use. I confirmed that the chemical is an "over-the-counter" remedy, cheap, easily applied, with safety regulations involving little more than following simple directions and common sense.

Theoretically, I could buy the chemical and applicator, put it down and handle the problem in a couple of hours at most. In the middle of the night, so no one would see. That's what I told my board. But that would be wrong. That would make us criminals, thwarting the public will. After everything we had done to create playable lawns, after all the obstacles we had hurdled--vandalizing golfers, summer burnout, fungus, gophers, teenagers on motorbikes--we had at last met our masters: the lowly, mud-sucking night crawlers.

"As someone who is supposed to be a manager, " I confessed, "and not particularly religious, I don't like telling you this. But it looks like there's nothing we can do about the night crawlers except to hope and pray the problem goes away. That's about it."

A terrible choice: crime or religion?

It was a sobering moment. We had worked so hard and so well. Despite all the odds, we had persuaded the City to build two lawns for croquet, unprecedented in the entire country. They weren't very good, at first, but we were on a steady course of incremental improvement. We were actually famous throughout America for our facility and for our annual San Francisco Open, always maxed out for 64 players on seven courts. We were a perfect club, we were even a rich club. Everybody admired our facility and the way we ran it on public turf. And now this. A long silence engulfed the meeting.

Finally, one board member asked, "Exactly what are we supposed to hope for?"

Another said, "We could pray that the night crawlers catch some terrible disease that decimates their population..."

"Oh, that's terrific," another said sarcastically. "All we have to do is wait for a spontaneously mutated virus to come along and attack the little mud suckers..."

"Or that some predator of night crawlers miraculously saves us...You know, like the seagulls in Salt Lake City saved the Mormons...?"

We brainstormed in this vein for some time, going down the list of possibilities, all of them unlikely, some of them silly. Someone even suggested that a criminal might conceivably come along in the dead of night, applicator in hand, and put diazinon on the lawns. Some kind of anarchist. Lots of nut cases wander around the public parks, it could happen! It was a slim hope--that a psycho with the precise mental loose screw that could coincidentally solve our problem in our time of need. Like the serial murderer who murders ONLY the serial murderers who get off on a technicality. It was unlikely, but it

Another board member opined that it wouldn't have to be a crazy person or a truly bad person, either. It could be someone who had been oppressed by the government, a kind of Robin Hood who heard of our plight and knew, as we knew, that the bureaucracy's regulation was not appropriate in our case. A person like that might conceivably go and buy the diazinon and in a righteous rage spread it around on the croquet lawn WITHOUT AUTHORIZATION in the dead of night--as a blow for justice and liberty!

After all our work, investigation, research, brainstorming, we were exactly nowhere. We were left, as far as our ability to manage the problem was concerned, with this wimpish prescription: "We will just hope and pray. Because there is nothing else that we can do."

I hate to be the one to debunk the conventional wisdom that has driven the American Dream for generations. But let's face it: we're not talking about something as simple as the Industrial Revolution, or beating the British, or settling the West. The problem here is not even night crawlers on the lawns. The problem here is the public bureaucracy--the very bureaucracy to whom the club owed our existence.

Miracles can actually happen

But not to despair! What happened next cannot be placed in time or logic. It is beyond understanding. It cannot be explained. A miracle happened.

Within a month of our group determination that nothing could be done except to hope and pray for a miracle, those little mud suckers began to disappear. Finally there were none at all left. POOF! No more night crawlers, no more disgusting mounds of sticky black earthworm castings on our croquet lawn!

Of course, we have no idea what happened or how it happened. That is the nature of miracles. We never discussed it with the gardener, or with any of the Park & Rec staff. What would be the point? What could anyone say about such a miracle?

What, indeed, is the point of this story? Only to acknowledge that, as a manager, sometimes there is absolutely nothing you can do. This is contrary to the folk wisdom that says, "Everything can be managed; where there's a will, there's a way; if at first you don't succeed, try, try again..." Sometimes, you manage a specific problem like this with sheer intention: the intention of a true manager.

But what about the pine-straw killing the grass...?

Before the lawn miracles happened, club members regularly raked not just the worm castings, but also the pine needles shown here between the shading of limbs of the huge tree that produced them.
After the miraculous demise of the mud suckers, morning would break over a green lawn lightly garnished with pine straw--with no sign of the nigh crawlers or their sticky leavings. Which brings me to the next issue: We had been advised that the pine straw was not good for the lawn, at all, and the huge tree that produced it overhung the lawn on the west side, putting much of the north lawn in shade throughout the day--a double curse.

Once again, I asked our Park & Rec maintenance guy--the one who was so happy that he no longer had to mow through the mess of the night crawlers--whether we could get the pine tree pruned back so it wouldn't drop so much pinestraw on the court and over-shade it.

Probably you can guess what's coming next: Citing of the regulations. This was a pretty interesting Catch-22, actually. It turns out that this species and this particular tree were nowhere in the original plan for the park, reclaimed from the sand dunes circa 1901. So you would think, GREAT, the pine tree is not in the plan, so we can get rid of it.

Nope. Because there's another regulation that says NO TREE CAN BE REMOVED without a special hearing of the Park & Rec Commission, which regulates everything that happens in the park. Does that sound workable to you? If so, you'd be wrong, because a bunch of bitter old men who predated the croquet club and perhaps even the pine trees, had made our lives difficult from the start. They falsely called us "nazis in white" who took over public park space for our own arcane and selfish uses, and sought to keep the public out.

These bitter old men sat together on the benches we had donated to the park overlooking the croquet courts as part of our pledge to anchor the redevelopment of this neglected park space, and plotted against us in countless ways. They were NEIGHBORHOOD PEOPLE, so they had to be taken account of, even though their primary spokesman always wore a beret to Park & Rec hearings. We had learned that we could no nothing about them except outlive them. We finally did, but that was years later. (It takes a while for really bitter and useless old guys to die...)

So again, there was no solution, and the board was no help. But it happened that one of the board members was a professor of chemistry at UC Berkeley, right across the Bay, who knew exactly how to kill a pine tree, and described it to us in detail. Listening to him describe the process, we lamented our inability to actually do anything to get rid of the pine tree ourselves--except, of course, to hope, and to pray.

And by god, although it took a while--as we watched the big pine sicken and die--our prayers were answered, just as our prayers about the night crawlers had been answered.

Sermonizing the parable

The ultimate test of a manager is the ability to be responsible for outcomes beyond the manager's control. The more successful you are as a manager, the sooner you will be faced with the challenge of managing the unmanageable. And you actually can do that.

It's almost a contradiction...but not quite. And here's the best part about prayer as a management technique: Whenever you fail in a management challenge, you are going to be asked to explain your failure, in exhaustive detail. But if you succeed by a miracle, no one is going to put you on the spot. No one is going to demand an explanation. Your result is going to be accepted, without question, and

After the pine needles and mud suckers were gone, four people observe the esoterica of American Rules croquet from just beyond the fense.

If you're a manager, you know that ultimately only job of a manager is to handle whatever comes up that needs to be managed. Your results, your reputation, your self-image all depend on seeing the thing done. So if nothing will work except a miracle...go for it!

A postscript on the club

The San Francisco Croquet later encountered an even more devastating hazard than acidic pine needles and virulent mud-sucking night crawlers: complacency. At some time in the last dozen years, the club decided to cut in half their annual subsidy to the City, at the same time a new era of austerity was affecting governmental budgets at all levels. So by 2013, this club had shrunk from 100 members to about 10; while the club treasury had grown to almost $50,000. There are now rumors of a club renaissance fueled by a big portion of this war-chest to finance lawn restoration and repair of the fence, the benches, and other amenities. It makes sense. Organizations tend to either expand or contract. An expansion cycle is long overdue.

A note on diazinon and the politics of regulation

Some years ago, diazinon was linked with the mass death of a flock of Canadian geese on a golf course in the Northeastern United States. Some environmental groups politicized the issue, public outrage was aroused, and the application of diazinon in any form, granular or liquid, over large areas--such as golf courses --was banned, before any significant studies were done.

According to Dr. Carl Mabee, former Chairman of the USCA Courts and Greens Committee, who lived in the region where the extermination occurred, waterfowl such as Canadian geese are particularly sensitive to diazinon. They are turf eaters, strongly attracted to large greens expanses like golf links. Canadian geese make an incredible mess on golf links, and may sometimes hang around on them all winter. They hiss and sometimes attack golfers, and they steal golf balls. The rumor that the bird kill resulted from an intentionally large dose is therefore understandable.

After the manufacturer, Ciba-Geigy Corporation, adjusted the recommended dosage and changed the form of the chemical, the company appealed to the EPA for a judicial review and won their case. However, a new EPA director, perhaps succumbing to political pressures, overturned the judge's ruling and again outlawed the use of the chemical in any form over large areas. The ruling implanted itself within public bureaucracies across America.

The law does not apply to home applications of over-the-counter portions of diazinon. And oddly enough, other insecticides known to be more powerful and deadly than diazinon are still legal for use in your yard where children might play and put anything into their little mouths.

The history of the diazinon ban suggests that many of the regulations and laws on environmental matters are based, not on facts or scientific studies, but on emotional responses to publicity.

This story is adapted from an earlier article in CROQUET WORLD ONLINE called "The Mud sucker Miracle" which itself was adapted from an article by the same author in the Croquet Foundation of America's MONOGRAPH SERIES ON CLUB-BUILDING, ORGANIZATION, AND MANAGEMENT, Volume Two, "Organizing for Success", published in 1994.

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