Home and Shop Companion 0111
Home and Shop Companion 0111

Rural Ramblings – Winter 1979
Ralph C. Miller

About grass – that old fashioned kind growing in meadows. (We have to be very careful what with the tendency of special groups to take a perfectly good word and twist the meaning so we are almost afraid to use it in the true sense.) When I think of grass it’s the green stuff I played in as a boy, along roadsides, beside creeks and in the fields. What that has to do with the pot puffer’s poison I’m too square to understand.

Anyway, let’s take a ramble through the grass. Writers do mention the stuff from time to time. Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” and “The Sea of Grass” by Richter jump to mind. I know there are many others but the one I want to recollect was scarcely in the classic vein. It ran as a serial in a magazine 30 or 40 years ago and as literature should have been definitely forgettable. The one basic premise suggested in the title, however, has kept it with me all these years. “No Blade of Grass,” author unknown.

It was science fiction and set in the (then) future as an aftermath of a terrible war. Not only were a good portion of the World’s inhabitants wiped out, but as a direct consequence of some of the methods used, ‘no blade of grass’ survived. The poison (I don’t believe either genocide or herbicide had been coined as words yet) was selective. Trees, shrubs and broad-leafed plants were not affected.

Perhaps because the writing seemed somewhat wooden, I lost little sleep over what had happened to 3/4 of the Earth’s population. It was the idea of a world without grass which disturbed me so much that I still recall it vividly all these years later.

The story line was around the journey of a small group of people from the ruins of London to some remote valley where a relative of the group leader farmed. The reason for the desperate trip was that in that valley Farmer Cousin grew potatoes and pigs. The unaffected tubers and the potato-fed hogs represented their hope for survival in a grassless future.

With most of us living as we do in areas where grass is common it is hard to envision such a world. Yet I am sure that even among readers of SFJ (the Australian Outback, some places in California and the great Southwest to name a few) there are those to whom the threat is always very real.

“As long as the grass grows and the river runs” is the poetic old Indian phrase meaning forever. On nearly a third of the land mass of this planet no rivers run and little or no grass grows. At the moment that total is increasing year by year. Scientists, I guess, differentiate between the true arid desert and the semi-arid regions – a matter of degree. To me no matter how many cactuses (if you grow them in a window box you can call them cacti if you wish) or other occasional native plants grow there, if grass won’t grow it’s a desert.

I yield to those who live in deserts by choice, to hardy souls who seek them out for study or recreation – solitude, yes, grandeur, often a certain stark beauty – that I concede, but like the Ojibwa friends of my youth I still prefer rivers and grass… forever!

It’s an old stale tale but maybe it fits here. About a London tyke who makes his first visit to the country. “Cor,” he says, “it’s just like grass, i’n it?” “It is grass, Timmy.” “No, it ain’t, ’cause yer don’t ’ave ter keep off it.” We’re used to grass in the country; we don’t have to keep off of it. Underfoot, we too often take it for granted. We encourage it in pastures and hayfields, curse it and chop it out in corn and cotton patches, but we seldom give a lot of thought to how much this old globe depends on it.

Grass comes in many forms and sizes, all of them important in their own way. I don’t think it is too unscientific to include most of the grains. Even if they won’t let me list corn, I’m going to hold out for the canes. They’re just grasses with a glandular problem. On the other end of the scale think of all the unemployed golfers if we didn’t have bentgrass.

Try making up your own list of ways we use grasses and their derivative products. The sugar, sorghum and rum, the grain for flour, cereals, pasta and animal feeds are obvious as are hay and pasture – but we do or have used them in so many other ways, not all necessarily facetious.

Grass houses and grass skirts may be cliches for Polynesia – trappings laid on for tourists; but they were real at one time and quite possibly genuinely exist in the more remote places. Grass mats for floors, for seats, screens and dividers are still in wide use in some countries. There are baskets, ropes, fans, straw hats and sunshades. From England comes word that the thatched roof is back in vogue. On a lake high in the Andes native fishermen still cast their nets from boats made of tightly woven bundles of grass.

No one has ever found anything as satisfactory for stuffing horse collars as certain long stemmed Rye straws. Not far from where the Journal is published stands a factory engaged in turning waste straw into beautiful fiberboard paneling. An energy conscious world is just turning to grain alcohol as motor fuel to extend our dwindling petroleum. Once it was considered too expensive; now it’s essential and with the present rate of research, who knows what breakthroughs may come in the future. Ages older but still viable, dried peat and turf go on heating cottages.

In the Orient they use tightly woven grass stems (rice straw?) for such varied things as soles for thongs and sandals, waterproof hats and rain capes, even wall tapestries. There and in the Mideast they make paper from it, too.

Going back through history the American West was settled by people who often started in (grass) sod houses under sod roofs. When they couldn’t find buffalo chips they twisted dry grass stems tightly and burned them to cook and heat water. As far back as Exodus we are told the Israelites complained they had to glean their own straw for making bricks. Heyerdahl’s “Ra” and “Tigris” crossing the Atlantic by drift and navigating in the waters of Mesopotamia provide proof that ancient legends of the Sumerian voyagers in those same “barda” boats is very likely true. (Don’t try to tell me that barda is only a reed and not a true grass; it looks like grass to me.)

Maybe I have gone a bit overboard on these extraneous uses so I’ll not mention Great-grandma’s straw filled bustle, but without any of the above list the importance of grass would scarcely be diminished. To date the beginnings of agriculture back some 8000 years with the herding of animals and the cultivation of food grains seems a long time but grasses have to antedate that by millions of years.

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Whether grasses (vegetation) first created topsoil or vice versa is like the chicken and the egg and may be academic since they are largely interdependent. My money would probably go on grass since it often starts in weird places and exists under near impossible conditions. In the cracks of a sidewalk in Brooklyn, on the slagheaps outside a welsh mine, against the most forbidding odds grasses seem to come back.

High on the rim of this basin amid fir trees water seeps from a spring to begin the creek which flows through my pond. There are other springs to feed it but all among woods as is the creek itself through about all of its length. In the last issue of SFJ writing of my pond and the dam springing several leaks and what we did about it I said, “… and all that muck below the dam will take a long time before it will grow anything.” – I was wrong.

It was muck, just silt and the settlings of 50 years or more gathered in front of the dam. Scooped out by the dragline and then dumped unceremoniously on the downstream side it made several hundred square feet of unlovely ooze piled there simply because I had no other place for it. Within 2 or 3 weeks more than half of it began to show a faint green shadow. Now, three months later, it is a respectable stand of grass three inches high and growing. Where those seeds came from and how long they had lain under silt and water I can only wonder. That the exposure to light and air brought them back is an age old miracle but nonetheless remarkable.

And there is more to come I am sure: grass roots will catch moisture this Winter which will hold the silt and prevent erosion. Micro-organisms will return around the roots converting detritus into humus; earthworms will work on decaying vegetable matter. When the soil becomes more friable other plant seeds will lodge and grow. One day soon – much sooner than my pessimistic prediction – that heap of mud will be a vital growing part of my earthen dam.

Grass will return given any chance at all, and it can be a tremendous factor in healing Earth’s wounds. What we ought to be more aware of is its power to prevent many natural problems. All by itself it often stops erosion by wind and water but even if we do not give grass any specific help we ought not stack the cards against it.

Overgrazing, ruts caused by off-road vehicles, cattle trails or skids from logging should be avoided or repaired. In areas where wind is a definite problem windbreaks and drift fences can make the difference for grasses to start and hold. Dryland farming, the plowing and planting of grains year after year will so far tear down root structures that even one or two dry years in a row will start the topsoil blowing.

That condition is like a forest fire. Once it starts the dust draws out the remaining moisture, chokes out any vegetation left and like the dust bowl of the thirties it can build to darken half a continent. I remember that too well; more than a thousand miles from the center the sun was a feeble lamp through a brown curtain. A lot of that land eventually came back – but not all of it.

I suppose I couldn’t really be called a grasslands denizen; born in Wisconsin’s North woods, I now live here among the tall firs, but I am well aware of and I hope I appreciate the great natural grasslands of the world. The Pampas in South America, the Serengeti in Africa, the Russian and Asian Steppes – and one we don’t think of so often but it is important and probably the most fragile – the Arctic Tundra. Along with the wild grasses of the Sahel on the southern rim of the Sahara, those grasses of the Tundra prove the versatility and adaptability of such plants. Bitter cold or blinding heat, with any mercy at all from nature and man, the destroyer, grass will survive.

Here in the United States, the grasslands are (or were) the heartland. The midwestern prairies, the plains from Dakota down through Texas and high plains flanking the Cordillera. I am not sure how we define those divisions but from where I have walked, that last, the High Plains, is most aptly represented by one area.

Although I have crossed there many times I clearly recollect the first time I saw that part of Wyoming. Forty odd years ago on my first trip West I travelled through the sandhill country along the North Platte on the old Lincoln Highway. I had never been very far out of Wisconsin and had never encountered a real mountain so I anticipated the climb up from Nebraska to Cheyenne.

The road crossed at nearly 8000 feet in those days before dropping into Cheyenne if I remember but I confess I was a little disappointed. After all we were in the Rockies and I expected real peaks. (Conversely on the other side the Wasatch around Salt Lake seemed eminently satisfactory although not generally as high.)

It took quite a while and several crossings to get that area of Wyoming into proper perspective. At Cheyenne we had indeed been at mountaintop height at over 6000 feet. Trouble was we didn’t come down for some 350 miles. All the way to the other side of the State you never drop below 6000 to 7000 feet above sea level.

It’s a gently rolling landscape so big and so high that the mind has trouble trying to grasp it. It isn’t desert; it’s a true grassland with some of the biggest, widest vistas in the world. I’ve crossed it twice in blinding snowstorms, once by night and once by day; I’ve crossed under brightest sun when there was so much sky it hurt the eyes. (At that altitude the air is thinner and clearer.) I would say the best impression I had of the immensity of the land was once when the weather was mixed.

From a cloud shadowed rise we looked across to first a sunny area, then clouds again, more sun and two distinct and separate belts where rain was falling. We could see six or seven different weather patterns between us and the horizon and we travelled on through all of them one after the other. And any time it was clear enough we could see the sun shining on the snow covered peaks far to the South in Colorado. Talk about Small Farmers – that day the old farm boy felt small indeed.

From Cheyenne to Laramie is about 50 miles, from there west to Rawlins to Rock Springs to Evanston, each of those segments is an old railroad division and just about 100 miles apart. There’s an old fable recounted to me by a former resident of Rawlins that the reason all of those towns grew and prospered so well from the start was that many of those early railroad men shuttling back and forth between division points had families at each end. I don’t vouch for that but I have known a lot of railroad men pretty well…!

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“Never is heard a discouraging word” and if the buffalo no longer roam, the deer and the antelope have never stopped playing. A lot of sheep and cattle play there too, not always harmoniously, or at least on the part of their nursemaids. The guns were hung up for the most part before 1900 but during that night blizzard I spoke of (1938) we stopped at two of those establishments prevalent in that country then. Part filling station, part general store, part saloon, they were a latter day equivalent of the early trading post and served wide areas where there were no towns. At the first of them we did not find what we wanted so we stopped at the second not many miles down the road even though we wondered that they should be so close together. We found out – the first was all cattlemen – the second sheepmen – and they didn’t mix.

As far as I can see it hasn’t been overgrazed, not even yet when cattle, sheep and antelope can sometimes be seen in the same area. I guess no one would be brash enough to try intensive cultivation up there. Maybe only grass will grow; trees certainly won’t.

Grass grows pretty well at that altitude; I’m not sure how high it will grow if there is sufficient moisture and any tolerable climate. I know that on Trail Ridge Route in Rocky Mountain Park the road crosses at around 11,000 to 12,000 feet. Although when I drove through there one July snow still came right down to the road in the pass, not far down the western slope there was grass, warm sunshine and fat marmots.

It’s not a new subject but there are those world-wide who aver contumaciously (as Howard says, “I tell it like it is”) that the World can no longer afford to raise meat animals. To feed the vast and increasing population everything must immediately be turned to the raising of cereal grains. Meantime, some of these same people have been busy convincing Asians, Africans and South Americans that they must stop eating what they are used to and start growing their own wheat and corn instead of rice, millet or whatever staple of diet their systems have grown used to over hundreds or thousands of years. Even if it causes health problems, which in many cases it does, since Europe and America get along on milled flour, the rest of the world must adjust.

Now of course in the event that they can’t raise enough wheat and corn in their own countries (somehow few of them ever do) we will go on turning America into ever and ever larger grain factories and feed the world. I often wonder where it will stop. Will it one day be just one enormous farm (with equipment so big it will take a whole day to walk around it)?

I shouldn’t get too deeply in this but I do feel that any study of the troubles we have caused ourselves where we have superseded the permanent grasslands, troubles like erosion, floods, dust storms and the proliferations of deserts, is bound to demonstrate the fallacy of total dependency on cereal grains. What will it profit us in a short term try to feed the world if in the long run we destroy the planet. Grazing animals have provided meat, milk, clothing, hides – yes, and transportation and motive power – for millenia without upsetting the balance. That should tell us something.

Any consideration of grasslands probably should include the wetlands – shorelines, marshes, swamps and land that is under water only part of the year. There are special grasses that only grow in these locales and sometimes we tend to dismiss them as wasteland. Neither the wetlands or the grasses which cover them are waste. They serve useful and important purposes as man has sometimes discovered too late. Destruction of the one and draining or diverting of the other can cause grave problems.

Among other areas, parts of Georgia, Florida and Louisiana are currently learning some painful lessons about excessive tampering with wetlands. Not only do the grasses help stabilize the waterways, they also provide food, shelter and cover for a wide variety of waterfowl and animal life from the huge moose up to his belly in grass along the lake right down to the most basic micro-organisms. Damage to any link of that food chain can be dangerous.

It is possible from the Small Farm viewpoint to profit from these if suitable care is taken: in the past old silted up beaver ponds often provided the best hay and pasture where the ground was too stony or the trees too big to get started otherwise. Salt marsh hay was a staple in early New England and other sites and may still be useful.

Of my Grandfather’s 80 acres, at least half was in marsh that divided the workable land in two parts. In the Spring the whole thing was almost a river draining away to the creek that coursed through it. A corduroy road of tamarack and spruce poles provided crossing the bulk of the year. His cows and horses pastured on the somewhat sharp marshgrass and seemed to thrive on it. What hay he could make by hand with scythe and wooden rake made welcome supplement to the rest of the crop.

“No Blade of Grass” – the young man laid aside the story at finish with some distaste. Futuristic, certainly, but fanciful, too – irrelevant. Nobody is ever going to make something that would bring a condition like that, surely not – would they? – and if there could be something that could destroy every blade of grass surely nobody would be insane enough to use it – would they? … Well, would they?

Home and Shop Companion 0111

Home and Shop Companion 0111