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Life Here: Grass Is Persistent, Ubiquitous, Essential and Oddly Comforting

I wish I knew all the names of the types of grass that grow here. Certainly I recognize them, and could describe them, (there’s one that has spiky roots and one that has long, long roots) but other than witch grass, my father never taught me the names.I guess he felt like most people; why bother? There’s so much grass and it’s so ubiquitous that it doesn’t really matter. All you have to do is recognize it.

My gardens are ready for planting, and today I decided to plant zinnias, which I’m going to use for my daughter’s September wedding. As I sowed the seed I pulled up the bits of grass that were already taking hold in the tilled earth. As any gardener knows, grass is relentless and if you leave even a bit of root it will come back with renewed vigor.

Once the flowers were planted I moved over to my potato patch, and dug up some encroaching sod around the edge. I got on my knees and grabbed each clump of lawn with both hands so I could pound it against the ground and loosen the dirt around the roots. Then I gathered up the clumps and placed them on the bank by the river, to help forestall erosion.

I spend a lot of time fighting grass, and like most people, I take it for granted. But today, for some reason, I am thinking about how vital it is to us. Other than water and sun, grass is probably the most important thing on Earth. If some calamity overtakes our planet and every plant but grass dies we might still make a go of it. After all, barley, corn, millet, oats, rice, sorghum, bamboo and wheat are all grasses. Thatch, fuel, baskets, alcohol, paper and clothing can be made out of grass. The grass family, technically called graminoids, is the most versatile of all plants. It has adapted to every environment, and is the dominant vegetation in grassland, marsh, swamp and steppe. For many animals, including some omnivores, it is their main source of food.

Walt Whitman is not my favorite American poet, and I sometimes think he could have used some editing, but he made a brilliant choice when he called his first book Leaves Of Grass. Although it was apparently a pun, because publishers called minor works of literature “grass” and leaves is another name for pages, to me it has another, deeper meaning. The poems are as dense, ornamental, varied, ordinary and vital as grass. There is a section in Song of Myself that I always return to when someone I love dies.

After my mother died, when I was sixteen, my father kept her ashes on a bureau in the living room. They sat there radiating sorrow, and I used to make a wide arc around them as I walked through the room. One day I gathered up my courage, and my sister and I opened the box. I had expected something like stove ashes, but instead found pebbles of clean, porous bone. Perhaps my father knew how hard it was for us to have the ashes there, becuase eventually he spread them on the garden and lawn.

Through some bit of serendipity, I was studying Whitman in high school. I found a section in Song of Myself, which spoke to my very heart, and copied it out and pinned it on the wall in my bedroom. Here’s an excerpt:

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;

How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it

is any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful

green stuff woven...

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,

And it means,

Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,

Growing among black folks as among white,

...I give them the same, I receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves...

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old

mothers,

Darker than the colorless beards of old men,

Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!...

The smallest sprouts show there is really no death,

And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait

at the end to arrest it,

And ceased the moment life appeared.

All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses,

And to die is different from what any one supposed, and

luckier.

Sybil Smith lives in Norwich.