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16 april 2019

"Until recently a familiar botanical mantra was 'dinosaurs did not eat grass'," says Stephen A. Harris in his Reaktion Botanical volume Grasses (21). Like so many things I learn, I only came across this truism after it had been proved untrue. Recent fossil finds indicate that some grasses were present in the Cretaceous Period, as far back as 100 million years ago. I guess I'd figured that some of the stocky dinosaurs of popular culture, the triceratops and stegosaurs of museum fame, were grazers; I guess I'd never much thought about it. I may have been correct all along.

But despite the antiquity of some kinds of grasses, the great grasslands that cover so much of the world – or did before human intervention – evolved in comparatively recent times, within the last 10 or 12 million years. They evolved along with the beasts that graze them: the beasts getting better at eating and digesting grasses, the grasses trying to avoid that fate.

Some kinds of fruiting and flowering plants have evolved as food: pollination or dispersal of their seeds depends on animals eating them, or from them. Grasses, despite their importance as human food today, went in the other direction. They evolved deterrence: harsh chemicals, spiky elements and armor, and especially a high silica content in the form of phytoliths, minute bits of embedded sand that give grass its raspy texture. Harris says that when massive haystacks burn, the residue sometimes yields significant amounts of glass (22).

Humans exerted artificial selection on some grass species to produce the basic food plants of the world. The process resulted in bigger grains, easier to get at – and in many cases "non-shattering" seed heads which do not break apart and scatter the grains when they are ripe. This last innovation, counterproductive for wild plants, has given us corn on the cob and the wheat ears that used to grace pennies.

Harris notes with wonder the Green-Revolution advances in grain production that have fed the rapid growth of world population in that last few decades. Malthus, apparently, was wrong. But he can't stay wrong forever. As that population rises exponentially, we will need an ever-multiplying revolution to keep feeding ourselves. To this end, Harris is more GMO-friendly than most writers on the environment. He argues for engineered breeds of grain that will resist disease and flourish without quite so much of the water and fertilizer we current douse our food crops with.

But Harris is also green in the conventional sense, decrying the Western fascination with grasses of leisure. "Bright green golf courses in desert landscapes … are an abomination" (161). Sports fields cover entirely too much of the planet. But at least we get some fun out of them. The lawns of corporate campuses and suburban tracts, the ones whose mantra is "KEEP OFF," are too often entirely for show, the heirs to aristocratic display of grass as a conspicuous waste of space.

Harris is learned and informative, and clearly loves the plucky adaptations grasses have made to climates, competitors, and exploiters. Grasses can be frustrating to read at times. It's not always the most coherent text at the paragraph level, with many non-sequiturs, breaks in logic, and explanations that assume too much (leaving many a key term unglossed). But Grasses is beautifully produced and I certainly learned from it.

Unlike many Reaktion authors, Harris does not venture much into cultural appropriations of his subject. (Though he does include quite a few artistic representations of grass in color plates.) One would expect at least a passing reference to Walt Whitman, but if there is one here, both I and the indexer missed it. Harris notes the proverbial greener grass that the other man grows, but he does not mention Petula Clark. And pop music has appreciated the grass on our own side of the fence, the "green, green grass of home" that Tom Jones found good to touch.

Grain seems obligatory in songs that celebrate America; our prairies and the grainfields we've replaced them with are iconic. "Amber waves of grain" are centrally Beautiful in Katharine Lee Bates' America, and Woody Guthrie traveled through your land and my land, a "golden valley" with "wheat fields waving." Although it seems that these long-ago tunesmiths thought of America as planted to wheat, and nowadays they'd find it monotonously green with corn. Few American fields anymore experience the "change assigned" that Edwin Arlington Robinson described in wheatfields, with the world "turning slowly into gold."

"Corn" in British English means "wheat," though, and has been a staple of English-language poetry. John Keats' Ruth "stood in tears amid the alien corn." Corn, for Shakespeare, is so taken for granted that he rarely refers to it except to note disruptions that prevent it from being grown and reaped in an orderly way. When the world is out of order, as in Titania and Oberon's fairyland, "the green corn / Hath rotted ere his youth attain'd a beard."

But more humble grass, the green stuff that springs up generically everywhere, is far more poetic than grain. Emily Dickinson was, pace Whitman, perhaps the poet most obsessed with grass. (Her "Father's Ground" at the Amherst "Homestead" still today features one of the lushest and least-ruly lawns imaginable.) Dickinson imagined a snake in the grass, admirable but still a snake in the grass for all that, as her "Narrow Fellow" dividing the blades "as with a Comb." Crickets sang to her, "pathetic from the Grass." Dickinson liked grass because it seemed so otiose:

The Grass so little has to do —
A Sphere of simple Green —
With only Butterflies to brood
And Bees to entertain —
Her grass has a welcoming, laid-back personality. Presented with a mushroom, she feels "as if the Grass were pleased / To have it intermit." Though perhaps that is because of the mushroom's strangeness, as in another poem, Dickinson sees the clover as "contending with the Grass / Near Kinsman to herself."

And even for Dickinson, grass means death, change, and oblivion. War dead "perished in the seamless grass," an unsettling image that seems to imagine men passing under the sward without leaving a trace. For all its humble cheerfulness, grass for Emily Dickinson is ultimately ominous:

Presentiment — is that long Shadow — on the Lawn —
Indicative that Suns go down —

The Notice to the startled Grass
That Darkness — is about to pass —
"The beautiful uncut hair of graves," Whitman called it, and Carl Sandburg, in the voice of the grass, added "Shovel them under and let me work."

But for all that ominousness, I think one of the most profound poems about grass has its origin in suburban annoyance. "When grassblades flop," said A. R. Ammons in "Cut the Grass,"

to the little red-ant
queens burring around trying to get aloft, I blame
my not keeping the grass short, stubble

We too have co-evolved with grass and its grazers, and that leaves us with awesome responsibilities.

Harris, Stephen A. Grasses. London: Reaktion, 2014.