Food for thought from the fields

Posted May 30, 2010, at 11:01 p.m.

“What kind of grass is that?” my wife said, waving her hand toward the bog off the west shore of Unity Pond.

I couldn’t answer because I didn’t know any more than she did. Though maybe I should have, because for several summers now I’ve set out to learn how to identify the grasses in these parts, breaking out books, searching online and foraying in fields.

But it might as well be hieroglyphics. There are just too many kinds of grass, with too many similarities of stem, flower and structure — 1,400 species north of Mexico and 11,000 or more worldwide (scientific family Poaceae, aka Gramineae) — to learn in your spare time and do anything else with your life.

I can pick out timothy and redtop from a distance, the way I can pick out the Chinese characters for “man” and “learn.” But most of the rest is a wild babel. Around here there’s calamus (aka sweetflag), foxtail, orchard grass, purpletop, plantains, ryes, witch grass, switchgrass, crabgrass, bluegrass, Ammophila breviligulata (aka beach grass), and hundreds of others I can’t identify for certain or pronounce.

And that’s just grasses, as distinguished from sedges, rushes and cattails — though telling a grass from a sedge is not much more difficult than telling one foreign language from another. Even if you don’t speak them, German and Russian can be distinguished by sound, and grasses and sedges can be distinguished by sight. Grasses have hollow, jointed stems that are usually round. Sedges have solid stems and no joints. Rushes have solid stems and flowers resembling lilies. Grasses have flowers, too, but just not colorful. The sprays on a grass plant are the blossoms. Unlike other plants’ flowers, the inflorescences on grasses remain long after the plant has seeded and gone by.

After family resemblances, though, grass vocabulary passes my understanding. During a couple of summers I grew grouchy about my inability to find my specimens in the books, but my disposition got better after I realized this is not something you learn easily. You need instruction. Someday someone will tell me what kind of grass grows in the bog by the Kanokolus boat launch, and I’ll memorize it, like an ideogram.

This ignorance about grasses is startling, given the fact that we live on them. Corn, wheat and rice are grasses — and practically everyone who ever lived ate at least one of them in quantity. So is sugar cane. So are the oats in your breakfast gruel. The barley in your beer. The bamboo shoots in your curry.

Luckily for us, grass grows practically everywhere on and into earth — as much as 90 percent of a grass plant is underground. One study showed that a 4-month-old greenhouse-grown rye plant had 387 miles of roots.

There really is no word for these kinds of depth and complexity. Grass has been growing for at least 58 million years, according to agrostologists who have studied grass fossils. This is roughly 57 million years longer than human beings have had speech, if the ability to make a campfire implies that language existed to preserve technological knowledge.

I wonder who first turned a campfire into an oven and wheat into bread. Generations upon generations of people have come and gone just in the 10,000 years since farming started. Man does not live by grass alone, but how many grains of corn, wheat and rice have been transformed into flesh, blood, brains and thoughts by how many human bodies?

Whether grass turns into words by luck or by design, I don’t know. At some point I hope some great universal naturalist will teach me the name of the grass that clothes the bog in summer green so I can tell it to Bonnie, who could tell it to our son, Jack, who could tell it to his as-yet unsprouted kids, who no doubt also will be bread eaters. On and on. This whole process is different from what anyone ever supposed, and luckier.

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