Some of the Grasses

Forty years ago and more, I read a line in James Beard’s classic American Cookery that was very permission giving. “I loathe divinity,” it said.

What a great line, and think how many directions it could take: you could use it to start a lively theological debate. You could borrow from it the freedom to express your real opinion about something, straight from the heart, no good manners needed. You could see it as a lively way to knock an American institution right off its stupid pedestal. You could even see the irony in making such a statement in a cookbook right before you offer a recipe for divinity itself – Beard was talking about the old-fashioned fudge, of course.

Let’s try it here: I loathe lawns. I felt this way long before I read “Why Mow?” in Michael Pollan’s Second Nature.

To me, lawns represent the worst of western civilization’s urge to “tame” nature, coupled with the insane and ultimately destructive belief that we have been granted dominion over the earth. Even when I am in a good mood, to me a lawn states nothing more interesting than, “We are people who have enough money to waste precious water, introduce harmful chemicals into the environment, and easily afford the labor of people who will never live next door to us in order to cultivate this green, isolating oasis onto which we thoroughly discourage anyone except ourselves from stepping.”

I loathe lawns.

If it were up to me, I would eradicate every blade of lawn grass from every square inch of my property; I have, in fact, uprooted quite a bit in my time. However, I am not the boss of everything in my little piece of the universe. Floyd and Travis like to have a play space. If we didn’t live in suburbia, their play space would be covered in whatever nature happened to have on hand. But in our neighborhood, the conversion to ethical and affordable landscapes is happening slowly, for which I am sorry. (Meanwhile, I manage to withhold water from the St. Augustine that came with the house, and wait.)

Even as they make the conversion, our neighborhood authorities seem more in favor of either lawn grass or all rocks, neatly manicured and geometrically arranged, plants sticking up from the decomposed granite as if laid out on graph paper – certainly not encouraging homeowners to return their surroundings to a natural state.

I must admit that little plots of “native grasses” are finally being encouraged, which is a great thing, as they are quite lovely and balletic. You see them as part of a larger landscape, interspersed with shrubs or boulders.

I love this variegated number, above. Dark, dark green and near-white fronds.

One street where I walk with Travis has a number of homes where native grasses have been introduced into that nameless space between the sidewalk and the road – you know that space where the sprinkler water has to be pointed like a water pistol or you end up sending $$$ running down the gutter? That’s a perfect location for drought-loving plants. When we walk that street on a breezy evening, the whole block seems to shimmer.

Any of the native grasses would make a wonderful addition to my own sidewalk garden, I think. (In the torrid days of summer our thoughts turn to the next stretch of time when planting perennials makes sense – for us, that’s autumn.) Even as I write this I am contemplating a complete re-do of that side of the house – pull out everything except the great huge Nelly Stevens holly and put native grasses all along the foundation. (Now I have to figure out a way to keep Floyd from reading this post, since pulling out shrubs involves a chain and the welding truck.)

But to me, planting clumps of native grasses, no matter how lovely or how drought-tolerant, still falls in the category of people-with-money-embroidering-the-landscape. Why go to the trouble and expense just so you can subscribe to a slightly different middle-class convention? Why can’t we live with what grasses blow into our region on the wind?

All around my neighborhood there are wild places just beyond where the sidewalks end, and even with the tiny bit of rain we had this spring they came up beautifully. Then they went to seed beautifully.

What makes  “weed” a “weed,” and a “lawn” a “lawn?” Merely our perceptions.

The colors turn spectacular as summer bears down.

Look at those layers of color, the wheaty shades against the rough green grass in an undeveloped area where people walk their dogs, and the deer come to graze. To me, these wild grasses are lovely when they come up, turning green overnight whenever we are fortunate enough to have rain; they are lovely with wildflowers strewn all through them; lovely when they go to seed.

And while we lawn-owners have been mowing, edging, and trimming every week since February, the wild grasses are only being mown now – one pass with the giant mowers to reduce the wildfire danger and that’s it. They’ll be gold, crisp, and sharp till the next rain, then make an immediate comeback all on their own.

What more should we ask of a lawn?

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