- Any introductory biology textbook will likely state “flowers changed the world.” Which may be true, but the heavy lifting had already occurred in DNA and the biosphere. A person transported back to the era of cycads, ferns, and conifers shortly before flowering plants appeared would be able to breathe air, drink water, eat food, contract diseases, and die of organic toxins.
- We first think of flowers as gorgeous blooms of roses and lilies, then perhaps of fruits and vegetables like apples and zucchini. Perhaps more important than all of those for you and I were the grasses. Primates left trees to begin walking upright when climate change expanded the African savannahs _ grasslands. Civilization for the last ten thousand years has largely depended on domesticated grains and animals that can turn grass blades into protein. Without grasses, it is almost inconceivable that I would be writing this now, nor you reading it.
Wild wheats which once waved on wide plains
Our ancestors bred into grains
Civilizations were fed
With production of bread
While we’re worried now of weight gains
- Grass is almost as adaptable as humans. Patches of it exist in deserts or frozen tundra. There are high grassy alpine meadows, waterlogged grassy marshes. In temperate areas with rainfall too slight for trees, vast steppes, plains, savannahs stretch to the horizon in all directions. Even more impressively, it coexists easily with people, who cultivate it for crops or beauty everywhere they can.
- Perhaps that is why I hardly notice it most of the time. Something that is always present tends to fade into the background, so I am only shocked to awareness at its absence. Even the meadows and estate lawns that I favor as open spaces, created by grass, are interesting to me more for the butterflies, grasshoppers, flowers, and birds that they nourish than for the common denominator and most dominant species of all. Like air, I just take it for granted and continue looking for alternate treasure.
“And, so you see, humans and civilization as we know it are largely a result of grass,” I finished grandly, waving an extravagant arm gesture to the fields around us a Caumsett State Park.
“I don’t know,” replied Dave as we paused on the gravel driveway. “I see your point, but people eat a lot more than cows and sheep _ fish, bears, dogs on occasion, shellfish. And they have more staples than grains _ potatoes, breadfruit, coconuts, yams, peanuts. “
“Well, yeah, ok.”
“I mean,” he continued, “South Sea Islanders had a pretty interesting civilization and I’m pretty sure they had no grain at all.”
“Exceptions, I guess. All grand theories have exceptions, you know. Heck, the law of gravity has exceptions.”
“Look,” Dave was trying to be nice, I could tell, “Maybe I’ll give you the thing about primates onto the savannahs, but we don’t really know. Maybe I’ll give you that the whole Guns Germs and Steel primacy of the Eurasian land mass was tied up in cultivated agriculture like rice and wheat and what not, or even in nomadic domestication of grass-eating food supplies. But I think there is a lot more to it than grasses, that’s all.”
“But it’s such a nice theory…” I whined.
“Even if it were true, so what. How does it help calm our current world? What does it do for you or me today or tomorrow? You might as well be writing fairy tales.”
And that was that. He had me. Nice speculations, and lots of fun, but not worth a nickel at the supermarket, and even less in most conversation. Well, at least the grasses spread on the rolling hill before us were still beautiful.
- Grain crops are bred to yield abundant and nutritious harvest, of course. But they are also selected to be hardy and to survive in marginal conditions. Inevitably some, such as these oats, escape into the wild to compete in the rest of the environment. Ornamental grasses such as bamboo are notorious for overwhelming local vegetation.
- The saving grace so far has been that our crops are annual, and must be sown from seed each year. With modern genetic techniques, it is increasingly likely that future wheat and rice will be perennial. Thick overwintering deep roots will not only eliminate erosion and sowing,
but may also be tailored to host nitrogen-fixing bacteria so no fertilizer would be required. If such strains should be developed, native grasses on steppes and plains will stand little chance against them. Like Japanese Knotweed and Kudzu, modified grasses may come to completely dominate entire ecologies.
- Are we just blades of grass in a vast field? We feel like more. Surely no stalk of wheat ever considers itself master of the universe, or abject victim beset by untold cares of the world. There is so little resemblance between us, what should I care about such a lowly organism?
- One of the problems of our civilized, globalized, wealthy, and generally secure and insulated modern lifestyle _ at least around where I live _ is that I become too easily removed from nature. In many ways that is wonderful _ I have no desire to desperately search for my next meal, nor endure clouds of mosquitoes in summer nor heavy snows in winter for lack of shelter. I appreciate electricity and running water and even _ on occasion _ fume-belching automobiles and noisy suburban machinery. But I can end up turning inward to a good book, a television entertainment, or the momentary pleasures of window shopping in large mall and big-box bazaars. I miss sunsets while mindlessly being shown distant disasters.
- Spending time regarding a field _ its multitudinous inhabitants, its imagined past, its possible future, its stage of growth as summer solstice approaches _ is an exercise in humility. No doubt in the grand scheme of things _ if there be a grand scheme of things _ I am exactly as a blade of grass or possibly this field itself. A humble part of a greater biosphere, a bit player in the adventures of Earth.
- But what I most enjoy is my magnificent duality. That I can feel important _ not merely a little important but supremely important _ is a gift of heaven. That I believe I can experience and know and enjoy and reflect on the cosmos and myself and all I can possibly imagine is a treasure beyond price. And that _ in all this self-absorbed hubris and pride _ I can also somehow manage to contemplate being humbled by a field of grain or a blade of grass is possibly the most astonishing ability of all.
- Gazing along parkland lawn, everything back to its accustomed place. Lawn no more than green open stretch to allow framing with trees and spectacular flowers. Like sun, like harbor waters, just another landscape element. Nothing to see here, folks. At least nothing much worth noting.
- I will rarely again think of what composes that emerald carpet. I will scarcely notice stiff brown stalks or dusty green blades as I seek color and unusual patterns. My focus moves on to more exciting and unusual thoughts and visions. I suppose I should feel guilty, but the world is rich and inexhaustible, and I know I am missing everything whenever I pause to concentrate on something. A happy dilemma, indeed.