Tag Archives: grass

The most powerful family on earth

Prairie grass in the Konza Prairie Preserve in the Flint Hills of Kansas by Betsey CrawfordUntil man duplicates a blade of grass, nature can laugh at his so-called scientific knowledge. 
~Thomas Edison~ 

Such a tiny word — poa, Greek for grass — to encompass one of the great life forces on earth. The Poaceae are the fifth most species-rich plant family with over 11,000 plants. They populate a quarter of the planet’s land and half the United States. Along with forests, they are among the most important stabilizers of both soil and climate. One of the most adaptive plant families, they live on every continent. They’re the top source of nutrition worldwide.  They’re the basis of human civilization. Every one of us is alive thanks to grass. 

We may even have evolved into humans because of grass. There are grass pollen fossils dating from 70 million years ago, but it wasn’t until 5 to 8 million years ago that the vast grasslands we inherit formed. It was a period of cooler, drier climate and water-thirsty forests began to diminish, opening space for the adaptable grasses. The open landscape helped foster bipedalism among primates, which ultimately helped stimulate the development of our large brains.

Anatomy of grass artwork by Kristin Jakob for the California Native Plant Society

Artwork by Kristin Jakob for the California Native Plant Society. Thanks to both for permission to use this lovely piece.

Our hunter-gatherer forebears would have eaten the seeds of grasses along with other seeds, fruits, and tubers. Twelve thousand years ago, they began to plant them. Though we can’t know what seeds the first farmers started with, we do know that all the early civilizations grew with grass. Wheat, barley, and rye in the Mideast. Rice, millet, sorghum  in China. Corn in Mesoamerica. Rice and sugarcane in India and Southeast Asia. Sorghum, millet, and tef in Africa. Over the millennia grasses have fed humans and the animals we depend on. They have built, roofed, fenced, heated, and furnished our houses. Cleaned our air and waters. Formed our soil. Made baskets, boats, and paper. They have cured diseases and powered our cars. 

All this inspires the anthropocentric idea that humans have harnessed grasses to meet their needs and desires. But I like the counter take of some botanists: it’s grass that has bent the human. What better way to ensure your survival than to hook this clever species with the handy thumb and ability to plan for the future? Provide enough nutrients to maneuver them into planting you everywhere they can, every single year for 12 thousand years. Induce their browsing animals to open up more land for you to grow, all the while fertilizing your roots. Convince them to plant 40 million acres of you around their houses. And then spend hours every week lovingly feeding and watering you while fending off pests. That’s power! I toyed with calling this essay ‘Our overlords.’

Worldwide distribution of grasslands. Image courtesy of Missouri Botanical Garden.

Worldwide distribution of grasslands. Image courtesy of Missouri Botanical Garden.

But that has negative connotations, and grass is a miracle. You don’t cover a quarter of a very varied planet without being a highly adaptable genius. In the US we are most familiar with the prairie ecosystem that extends through the midwest from the Gulf of Mexico north into Saskatchewan and Manitoba. South America has similar systems in the pampas and llanos. Trees and grass combine to form the savannas of Africa, India, Southeast Asia, and the Cerrado in South America. The vast expanse of the Eurasian steppes extends from Eastern Europe well into China. 

In the eons before they formed these priceless expanses, grasses evolved several traits that would secure their eventual success. They are wind-pollinated, tossing their pollen to the air. The wind spreads it far and wide, creating a lot of opportunity for pollination over a large area. They form deep roots, up to five times the height of the plant. This vast ecosystem supplies their needs for water, nutrients, and stabilization. And not just for themselves, but for the soil they, and the rest of us, depend on. 

The roots of prairie plants, grasses as well as flowers. Artwork from the Conservation Research Institute.

The roots of prairie plants, grasses as well as flowers. Note the meager extent of lawn grass roots on the far left. Artwork from the Conservation Research Institute

Crucially, they developed a key variant in the photosynthetic pathway. C4 photosynthesis allows for more efficient use of sunlight and water in the creation of carbohydrates. This process allows grasses to use less water, grow in nutrient-poor soils, and allocate more of their biomass to roots. C4 plants are very efficient at pulling in carbon dioxide and sequestering it in their miles of roots. This gives grassland preservation a pivotal role in climate stabilization.

They are also imperative for preserving biodiversity. Grasslands are not only grass. They form a matrix for many other plants that grow with them. The Missouri Prairie Foundation reported that in one of its restored prairies a record of 46 separate native plant species was found in a 20 by 20 inch plot. They provide food and habitat for countless birds, bees, butterflies, mammals, reptiles, microbes, fungi, and other beings that are part of the web of life on earth. They have co-evolved with some of the most majestic life forms on the planet: buffalo, gazelle, zebra, giraffe, elephant. 

Pronghorn antelope in the Pawnee National Grasslands, Fort Collins Colorado by Betsey Crawford

Pronghorn antelope in the Pawnee National Grasslands, Fort Collins Colorado

Grasses both depend on these and domestic grazers to keep land open for them and also have ways to protect themselves from overgrazing. Various toxic phenols and alkaloids, including cyanide, increase as grazing pressure rises. Phytoliths, minute shards of silica, wear grazer teeth down. On the other hand, grasses need grazers, and so keep their budding crowns just under the soil so that they aren’t damaged by nibbling muzzles. As the grazers clean off the upper stalks, new shoots have ample air and light to grow. In the meantime, grazers deposit fertilizer and move on, allowing grasses time to recover.

Some of the most diverse places on the planet are in grasslands. But our tendency has been to treat them as wasted space waiting for us to make them productive. Thus 99% of the American prairie has been plowed, planted, developed. The South American Cerrado is headed in the same direction. Using large, open areas for agriculture certainly makes sense. But the current state of monoculture farming — growing single species annuals with shallow roots, using yearly tilling and high nitrogen fertilizers along with artificial pesticides and herbicides — means that standard agriculture ruins the most important gifts of grasslands. Soil erosion is high, biodiversity and carbon sequestration are low to nonexistent.

This vine mesquite (Hopi obtusa) on a Missouri roadside dangles its vivid anthers, ready to send their pollen to the wind. The feathery stigma at the other end of the filament are ready to receive pollen. Photo by Betsey Crawford.

This vine mesquite (Hopi obtusa) on a Missouri roadside dangles its vivid anthers, ready to send their pollen to the wind. The feathery stigma at the other end of the white filaments are ready to receive pollen.

I love the subtle beauty of grasses with their feathery flowers and am deeply moved by grasslands. I’m not sure where this came from, since I grew up in suburban New York. But one of the most moving experiences of my life was standing in a grassland in South Dakota. I was driving back roads north along the Missouri River, and a stretch took me into the short grass prairie of that dry area. I was up to my knees in sun-filled grasses, flowing like golden water with the wind. It was so hot the air itself was an intense presence. Despite the wind, there was utter quiet. Everything else fell away to nothingness. At that moment, swept into the warm, moving air, I was grass.

As we all are. We share up to half of our genes with grass, a legacy from common ancestors. Sixty percent of human caloric consumption worldwide is grass-based. We are literally grass. We are formed by them and we are inextricably bound into a miraculous matrix of interdependence. To see this clearly is to plant ourselves into the very roots of life. It means we live on earth not as user but as participant, surrounded by equally important partners. We can then hear their message. The skill grass chose us for — our ability to plan for the future — is being called forth to help all of us prosper on our mutual planet.

Pawnee National Grasslands in Fort Collins, Colorado by Betsey Crawford

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Laudate si, repictured

A Rocky Mountain peak south of Lake Louise, Alberta by Betsey Crawford

Laudate si — Praise be! — are the opening words of each of the verses in Saint Francis’s beautiful Canticle to the Sun, and is also the title of Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical defining the Catholic Church’s doctrines on the care of the earth. Last year I discovered that September 1 had been chosen as the annual World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, joining a tradition started by the Orthodox Church in 1989. Since I’m always ready to celebrate the earth, I read the revolutionary encyclical, and chose excerpts which I am presenting again this year, with a new selection of pictures of the great luminous beauty of our world. 

Always reflecting Pope Francis’ deep concern for the plight of the poor, the lengthy letter covers many topics, all relating to the care of ecosystems, and the belief that all livings things have dignity and worth beyond their use to humanity. The encyclical ranges from the devastation of war and the insidious consequences of political corruption, to the dignity and necessity of meaningful work, to the need for orderly and inviting living conditions. Francis issues a call for new models of development, starting with the cooperative efforts of small villages and extending to complex global treaties involving all the countries of the world.

He calls for the easing of consumerism, and even takes the time to urge his readers to return to the small celebration of saying grace before meals. He talks about the importance of appreciating beauty, so that we will want to preserve it. That, naturally, is where I come in, combining Pope Francis’ words and photos of our gorgeous earth.

We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth; our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.

Cricket on whole leaf rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) Konza Prairie Preserve, Manhattan, Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Cricket on whole leaf rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) Konza Prairie Preserve, Manhattan, Kansas

It is not enough…to think of different species merely as potential ‘resources’ to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves. Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost for ever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer…convey their message to us. We have no such right.

Cricket on whole leaf rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) Konza Prairie Preserve, Manhattan, Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Mushroom after a rainy winter in Blithedale Canyon, Larkspur, California

It may well disturb us to learn of the extinction of mammals or birds, since they are more visible. But the good functioning of ecosystems also requires fungi, algae, worms, insects, reptiles and an innumerable variety of microorganisms. Some less numerous species, although generally unseen, nonetheless play a critical role in maintaining the equilibrium of a particular place.

Hummingbird in a native plant garden in Mill Valley, California by Betsey Crawford

Hummingbird in a native plant garden in Mill Valley, California

Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another. Each area is responsible for the care of this family.

Columbia lily (Lilium columbanium) at a roadside stop in southern British Columbia by Betsey Crawford

Columbia lily (Lilium columbanium) at a roadside stop in southern British Columbia

We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature.

Jacob's ladder (Polemonium acutiflorum) Seward, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium acutiflorum) Seward, Alaska

In some countries, there are positive examples of environmental improvement: rivers, polluted for decades, have been cleaned up; native woodlands have been restored; landscapes have been beautified thanks to environmental renewal projects; beautiful buildings have been erected; advances have been made in the production of non-polluting energy and in the improvement of public transportation. These achievements do not solve global problems, but they do show that men and women are still capable of intervening positively. For all our limitations, gestures of generosity, solidarity and care cannot but well up within us, since we were made for love.

Common milkweed seedpod (Asclepias syriacus) Genesis Farm, Blairstown, New Jersey by Betsey Crawford

Common milkweed seedpod (Asclepias syriacus) Genesis Farm, Blairstown, New Jersey

Nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that…dominion over the earth (Genesis 1:28) justifies absolute domination over other creatures. The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to “till and keep” the garden of the world (Genesis 2:15). “Tilling” refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while “keeping” means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature. Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.

Blanket flower (Gaillardia pulchella) and friend, Smoky Valley Ranch, Oakley, Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Blanket flower (Gaillardia pulchella) and friend, Smoky Valley Ranch, Oakley, Kansas

All of us are linked by unseen bonds and together form a kind of universal family, a sublime communion which fills us with a sacred, affectionate and humble respect.

Checker lily (Fritillaria affinis) King Mountain, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Checker lily (Fritillaria affinis) King Mountain, Larkspur, California

It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected. Time and space are not independent of one another, and not even atoms or subatomic particles can be considered in isolation. Just as the different aspects of the planet – physical, chemical and biological – are interrelated, so too living species are part of a network which we will never fully explore and understand. A good part of our genetic code is shared by many living beings. It follows that the fragmentation of knowledge and the isolation of bits of information can actually become a form of ignorance, unless they are integrated into a broader vision of reality.

A wetland at the southern tip of the Tongass National Forest near Hyder, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

A wetland at the southern tip of the Tongass National Forest near Hyder, Alaska

We take these ecosystems into account not only to determine how best to use them, but also because they have an intrinsic value independent of their usefulness. Each organism, as a creature of God, is good and admirable in itself; the same is true of the harmonious ensemble of organisms existing in a defined space and functioning as a system. Although we are often not aware of it, we depend on these larger systems for our own existence. We need only recall how ecosystems interact in dispersing carbon dioxide, purifying water, controlling illnesses and epidemics, forming soil, breaking down waste, and in many other ways which we overlook or simply do not know about. Once they become conscious of this, many people realize that we live and act on the basis of a reality which has previously been given to us, which precedes our existence and our abilities. So, when we speak of ‘sustainable use’, consideration must always be given to each ecosystem’s regenerative ability in its different areas and aspects.

Canadian rye (Elymus canadensis) Konza Prairie Preserve, Manhattan, Kansas

Canadian rye (Elymus canadensis) Konza Prairie Preserve, Manhattan, Kansas

But if these issues are courageously faced, we are led inexorably to ask other pointed questions: What is the purpose of our life in this world? Why are we here? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the earth have of us? It is no longer enough, then, simply to state that we should be concerned for future generations. We need to see that what is at stake is our own dignity. Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us. The issue is one which dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn.

Staghorn cholla (Cholla cylindropuntia versicolor) Saguara National Park West, Tucson, Arizona by Betsey Crawford

Staghorn cholla (Cholla cylindropuntia versicolor) Saguara National Park West, Tucson, Arizona

May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope.

Eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilon glaucus) in East Hampton, New York by Betsey Crawford

Eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilon glaucus) in East Hampton, New York

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