a computer desktop with a picture of a lawn and lawnmower in a window

Searching For Mr. Grass

At first, I was puzzled by the thousands of people watching a Colorado man’s grass grow. Then I joined their ranks.

Mr. Grass and I have just spent a few hours on his porch talking about the factual accuracy of the movie Sully and eating backyard peaches and watching rabbits thump thump across the lawn and taking in the warming Colorado morning, so I figure it’s probably time to get out of his hair.

We walk through his suburban Denver home and out onto the driveway, where he stops about 10 feet past the front of the garage, a place he’s stopped hundreds if not thousands of times before.

“The sun’s gonna be a little bright in our eyes,” Mr. Grass says, wheeling around in his bare feet. We squint and look up at the small balcony off his master bedroom, fixing our eyes on the apple-sized camera tacked to the eave overhead. “You gotta freeze because it needs to go for about two seconds.”

We both reflexively give the camera a thumbs-up, hold the pose, and smile.

This love story begins as most do, with a man searching the internet for a choppy video of a garbage truck: The truck lifts a trash can, and then unceremoniously thrashes that can up and down, spewing trash across a quiet street. I can’t remember exactly why I was searching for that video—it was technically the GIF version I was looking for—but it was likely for use in a witty email, something I admittedly spend way too much time on and am way too proud of.

When the Google Images page loaded, the GIF appeared: top left, option one. I patted myself on the back for my superior Googling skills—“garbage+truck+GIF”—and was ready to X out the window when I spotted another image of interest: blue and white garbage truck, lush lawn, suburban. Expecting to add a new arrow to my quiver of trash-chucking GIFs, I was instead met with a garbage truck lifting two trash cans one by one, and then gently returning them to the ground. Surely this must be a mistake, I thought. I watched the GIF over and over, waiting for something else to happen. It did not.

What I did see, though, was a flicking time stamp in the corner—this trash was picked up and not thrown at 10:46 a.m. on June 20, 2007—and the website’s URL, Watching-Grass-Grow.com. Curious enough to spend a few more minutes down this rabbit hole, I pulled up the site.

The Rocky theme song blared.

A weather report sat atop an all-green, rudimentary web page.

My cursor became a scrolling red lawnmower.

And I, for the first time, stole a look at Mr. Grass’ front lawn.

A poured concrete driveway runs down the right side of the frame, with a few coniferous trees poking into the screen. A Volkswagen-sized bush occupies the southwest quadrant, sitting at the top of a yard that slopes down to the street. The top edge is populated with the beginnings of neighbors’ yards. As I moved my cursor over the image, the words “grass webcam” appeared. According to a counter in the upper right, 37 other souls were staring at the lawn with me.

Just as I began to come to terms with what I was watching, a tan Chevy Avalanche blipped onto the screen. I jumped, and maybe yelped. (I yelped.)

I started winding my way through the tip of the site’s 11,000-plus comments. Highlight of my day: Mr. Grass getting the newspaper, wrote Sr. Grass, from North Platte, Nebraska. The UPS van just drove by!!! a Branson, Missouri, viewer announced. This is my favourite website, said Lucy, from Serbia. Occasionally, the man behind the curtain, Mr. Grass, would respond, like when a viewer complained about the yellowing of the lawn. It will perk back up when the weather gets cooler and we get some rain, Mr. Grass said.

I scanned the dozens of screengrabbed highlights from over the years: mundane shots of him fertilizing the grass, elaborate Christmas and Halloween displays, sun-soaked carwashes. The years flitted by. Grass crinkles and reemerges; his neighbor gets a new mailbox. In one, from Father’s Day 2004, Mr. Grass is trimming the lawn, with his two early elementary-school age sons pushing toy mowers behind him. After the webcam, it’s the first image any viewer sees. It’s sweet.

I pulled the tab into its own window and left it running while I went back to work trying to write pithy emails. But I couldn’t stop looking at the feed. It updated every two seconds or so; sometimes whole minutes would pass where nothing would happen. I’d refresh the page, assuming it was stuck. Again: nothing. It was like a real time Magic Eye poster, only one where you stare at it for 10 minutes before you realize it’s not, in fact, even a Magic Eye poster.

At the end of the day I went home, but something stopped me from closing out the window. The next day I reloaded the screen. Same thing the third day. Eventually, I just kept it open all the time. I’d pull it up when I wanted to zone out for a few minutes and watch this shamrock-green lawn. I started evangelizing to friends and family; no one found it nearly as interesting. So I’d sit at work with 33 or 27 or 52 strangers, and we’d watch in silence as the mail was delivered, or a bird landed on a signpost, or the residual morning dew evaporated as the sun rose and filled the driveway.

A few months earlier, I’d learned that my wife was pregnant with our first child. We dubbed the mystery baby “TBD,” and I immediately set out upon an investigation into how much takeout I’d need to stop eating to afford day care. (The answer: all of it, plus I would probably need to stop buying groceries. We’ll live off the land, I thought.) We’d always wanted children. Chronologically, I was ready. Emotionally, I was swallowing anxiety in gulps.

Sometimes I’d sit at my desk, mute the Rocky theme, and stare at Mr. Grass’ lawn, unsure if I wanted something to happen or not. By nature I am not an anxious person, but this somehow felt like self-medication. I’d glance down at the Father’s Day photo, all three of them suspended in a perfect line, three pairs of Velcro shoes sinking into the high grass. I wondered who they were and what they were doing now, 12 years later. They seem happy, I’d think to myself. I’d put my computer to sleep, and head for home.

It’s mid-September when I pull up to the yard I’ve been monitoring for months. Late spring green has given way to a summer mustard, but the chlorophyll is fighting the good fight once again. (I brushed up on my grass lingo before the trip, unsure of Mr. Grass’ botanical knowledge.) The first thing I notice: The yard I’ve been staring at is much bigger than I anticipated. On-screen, it’s 6 inches by 4 inches. In reality, if you took out the slope you could host a pretty decent touch football game on it.

Mr. Grass is leaning on his balcony, wiping the remnants of the previous day’s hailstorm off the webcam. Alek Komarnitsky is Suburban Dad defined: early 50s, brown hair, a decade-old, unbuttoned, royal-blue polo, khaki shorts. He is shoeless. I walk up the driveway and past the lawn, resisting the urge to lean down and pluck a blade. Being here feels at once familiar and disorienting.

Mr. Grass invites me in, and we head to the back porch. He tells me he’s told no one that I’m coming—not Mrs. Grass, neither of the two teenage Grasses. I ponder this for a second before Mr. Grass says scratch that, he told the garbage man, Connor. Yesterday, Connor stopped by the house and rang the doorbell to ask if Alek was indeed Mr. Grass. Connor’s 8-year-old daughter had learned about Watching Grass Grow from a YouTube show, and he realized he’d been picking up Mr. Grass’ trash for the past two years. I’m skeptical of the story—it sounds like a bad movie plotline about people’s lives intersecting at serendipitous times—but when I check the site later, there Connor is, screengrabbed by Mr. Grass, giving a thumbs-up to the camera from the front seat of the truck.

The web cam is an opportunity to slink away from reality, to recess into whatever corner of our brain we want to relax in.

Mr. Grass is a former systems administrator for a variety of tech companies and, back in 1987, was a founding member of the Rocky Mountain Internet User Group. His 1992 MBA thesis was titled “The Internet: The Information Superhighway of the 21st Century.” He was in the Air Force, and then got a job in New Mexico at Sandia National Laboratories. He first put up his webcam in 2002 so that he could monitor his drought-scourged turf while on vacation. He began leaving it up for Halloween and Christmas, which led to increasingly fantastical holiday displays. Eventually he rigged his whole 25,000-light system onto modules that let viewers around the world control them (along with his ginormous inflatable Santa). One day in 2005 he stopped taking the camera down between Halloween and Christmas, and Watching Grass Grow was born.

Since then he’s also attempted a slew of spinoffs: the Concrete Cam, which was dedicated to the pouring of his new deck; Watching Paint Dry, a self-explanatory, two-part series documenting the living room and exterior of the house; and the Bird Cam, which lasted two seasons, 2010 and 2011, when house finches built a nest inside the wreath on the front door. This last one was Mr. Grass’ favorite—the excitement is clear as his voice climbs. “It was freaking right … I mean I couldn’t believe it.”

He once loaned an extra camera to a friend, and the Custom Home Construction Cam launched soon after. A decade-plus out, Watching Grass Grow is the only one to survive.

Mr. Grass talks for hours about everything from the cooking techniques of the Denver-based hamburger chain Smashburger to the Atlantic island of South Georgia, before eventually doling out some solid advice on lawn maintenance: “Basically the solution is you have to water the crap out of it.”

I try to get philosophical with him. For the viewer, I theorize, the web cam is an opportunity to slink away from reality, to recess into whatever corner of our brain we want to relax in. For you, I say, it’s a real-time archive of your life. Mr. Grass pauses. He’s saved every image from almost the entire run of the lawn cam. They’re dumped on an external hard drive in his messy home office. “Being an old systems admin type, you ideally never throw away data,” he says. “Being an engineer, you want data to look at after the fact. And so that’s just … I guess that’s a pattern of mine.”

Then he launches into a story about a neighborhood kid who ripped out his driveway lights.

A little baffled and no closer to understanding my obsession, I head back to my hotel. A few hours later, I’m picking our conversation over in my brain when I remember a toss-away line from a tangent about the movie Sully. We were talking about how it compares to the real-life Miracle on the Hudson, when Sully Sullenberger landed a plane on the Hudson River in New York. The movie needed an arc, so it crafted a storyline out of the hearings that followed the landing.

“Don’t manufacture the drama,” Mr. Grass said.

When I get back home to Dallas, I call up Javid Sadr. A psychology professor at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, Javid teaches a class in celluloid psychology—the study of psychology in both filmmaking and film-viewing. He’s made a career out of watching things for long periods of time.

“I started calling it ‘watchfulness’: the state of watching something intently,” he says when I ask him why Watching Grass Grow makes people feel the way it does. “You are spreading your attention across a scene. Maybe you don’t know what’s going to happen. Maybe not much is happening, so it allows you to kind of scan through a scene and look for what might be interesting to you. What’s important about that is the attention is on the outside world, on the stream of everything that’s coming into your perceptual system visually.”

Javid brings up the 2011 film Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. In it, Gary Oldman’s character is often shown in wide angle, simply having a drink or smoking a cigarette.

This can go on for seconds or minutes. The viewer, Javid says, is left to watch with intention—you’re forced to fill in the blanks. (Or, if you choose, to leave them empty.) He contrasts this with the music video for Korean pop star Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” the most popular video in YouTube history, with more than 2.7 billion views. In one scene, Psy meets a woman on a subway. The video flashes between the two commuters, faster and faster, until there are more than 10 cuts per second. By the end, the jumps are nearly unperceivable.

These cuts—whether they’re in a Korean music video or the newest Transformers movie—are what we as viewers have grown to expect from our entertainment. Gone are the days when a wide shot of a mesa fills the screen before the beginning of every Western. There are exceptions, of course. And one of the major exceptions is Norwegian slow TV.

If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, it’s fairly simple: Take cameras. Affix them to objects. Hit record. Broadcast. (This is an oversimplification, but not much of one.) The most famous example—the one you might’ve heard about from an NPR podcast—is 2009’s Bergensbanen, a seven-hour train journey from Bergen to Oslo, Norway.

I toggle back to the whiteness of the webcam and think of my own daughter, who saw snowflakes for the first time last week.

This was followed up in 2011 with Hurtigruten, a 134-hour broadcast of the MS Nordnorge’s cruise from Bergen to Kirkenes, 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle. For each one, hundreds of thousands of Norwegians watched the plodding treks in real-time. (During one weekend of the MS Nordnorge route, 2.5 million people—roughly half of Norway’s population—tuned in. By comparison, 52 percent of Americans tuned into the 2016 Super Bowl.) The hours are interspersed with subject matter experts, historians, and interviews with passengers and crewmembers. But for the most part, it’s just the viewer and the camera pointed off the front of the train or ship.

Bergensbanen caught the attention of Tim Prevett, a documentarian based in Manchester, England. While working on his master’s in documentary production, he kept finding himself drawn to non-narrative forms—not just a narrator standing in front of an old house, explaining why said old house is important. Tim shot his documentary thesis about slow TV (yes, a documentary about documentaries) and started The Slow TV Blog, which tracks similar programs in both Norway and around the world. (Last summer, eight of the Norwegian productions appeared on Netflix in the United States.)

Tim compares these experiences to ambient music. We can focus exclusively on them, losing ourselves in the notes and the small details, or we can have them on in the background. “It allows the person to establish their own relationships in it,” Tim says. “Yes, what you watch will be mediated. But typically they’re longer shots and it’s not rapid fire. You can make your own stories.”

Snow comes in spurts in Mr. Grass’ part of Colorado, around 40 or so inches a year. When I tune in one January morning, a fresh layer blankets the yard, while a jut of hard, yellow grass tries to peek through. The sun creeps across the driveway, melting last night’s fall, and a single set of tire tracks is etched into the street.

I scan the comments, landing on a video Mr. Grass recently posted. “December 14, 2016—my son learning to parallel park.” I hit play. Mr. Grass wheels two trash cans down the driveway and sets them up along the curb. His son maneuvers the minivan and backs into the space, bumping the cans once, twice. As the lesson continues, Mr. Grass moves the bins closer and closer. Eventually his son parks without a hitch. Nice job. If he can parallel park the rest of the skills will come easily, writes Paul, from Wamego, Kansas.

As the minivan pulls up the driveway and into the garage, Mr. Grass grabs the trash cans, stops, and gives the camera a thumbs-up. It’s hard to imagine this moment not making its way onto the home page, tucked next to the Father’s Day mowing picture or maybe after a springtime car wash.

I toggle back to the whiteness of the webcam and think of my own daughter, who saw snowflakes for the first time last week. I think of a picture of her from that day, her wide eyes narrowed by the cold, squinting out of her fluffy snowsuit, suspicious. My phone is laden with these kinds of photos—her kicking in the bath, her suck sucking on my nose, her in tiny clothes with tinier arms tucked inside. Since her birth on Halloween, rarely a day has gone by that I haven’t taken one or six or 75 pictures of her. I spin through my album and land on a random snap and wonder how a human being can grow so much in so few weeks.

I think of the possibilities of spring, and of the collective unconscious between me and Lucy from Serbia and Sr. Grass from North Platte, Nebraska, strangers staring silently at someone’s yard. I don’t close the window.

Bradford Pearson is an editor of this magazine. Email him at bradford.pearson@paceco.com.

Originally Published March 2017